Sheila Frierson of Computershare: “Don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder”

Don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder. I see it more often than I would like. Women think “if I work really hard and put up good numbers, someone’s going to tap my shoulder and give me the next job”. That’s not what happens. Men tend to raise their hand and ask for more. Women tend to do the work and wait.

As part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Frierson, President Plan Managers, US, at Computershare, which provides equity plans and other financial services to companies around the world.

With more than sixteen years of progressive experience in the equity plans industry, Sheila leads Computershare’s North America plans business to help clients harness the team’s expertise and simplify the administrative needs of managing an employee equity compensation program.

Prior to this role, Sheila led the U.S. plans client relationship management team that delivered comprehensive solutions for plans recordkeeping, employee mobility tracking, year-end tax reporting and plan participant communications.

Sheila is an active speaker in the industry and serves on the board of directors for the Global Equity Organization. In addition, Sheila chairs the board for Computershare’s North American Women4Women Network. Sheila earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and an MBA degree from Pepperdine University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I never set out to be in share plans — or business for that matter. I studied English Literature at undergraduate level, taught poetry and became a scholar.

I really wanted to make a living and support myself at the outset, starting in Seattle as an admin assistant. Within a year I had moved to California, joined the Plans industry and completed an Equity Professional certificate. I really enjoyed meeting clients and began to see that I was successful in my work. This drove me to undertake a Masters’ degree (in the evenings) in Business, focusing on statistics, economics and law.

I always had a keen interest in learning more, and I’ve read that middle children like me often feel a greater drive to get on in life!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

During the planning for International Women’s Day two years ago, I had an idea to create a more permanent platform celebrating women and their achievements within Computershare. I was fortunate to know some women inside the company who were interested in creating a network, and through the process I got to know a much larger group of inspirational women across Computershare in North America.

As its name suggests, through its board and network, Computershare North American Women4Women creates ongoing opportunities to help lead, influence and interact in areas outside our usual, individual business domains.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was in a new role and was constantly flying across the country. After arriving home from one particularly long trip, I was feeling great about the number of meetings I’d set up with my peers across the offices I’d visited. It took a little while for me to realize I’d put myself in a pickle — I hadn’t taken into account the time zone differences as I traveled and was making appointments for the time zone I was in. The result was a series of early meetings (starting around 4am) after I’d arrived back home off an evening flight.

Rather than call senior managers to reschedule, I went through with them. It taught me a valuable lesson: mistakes happen. Now I would have no problem calling to reschedule.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you get where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I worked as an admin assistant for a woman called Dee Henderson very early in my career. Dee encouraged me and recognized that I had ambition because I showed that I did: I was always asking questions. She pushed me along the path that I am on now and opened my eyes up to things that I may have been too young to understand or perceive were options for me and my career at the time.

Most recently, Kevin Brennan, my predecessor in this role, helped me and really sponsored me in a way by giving me a voice to his boss. In doing so he provided an opportunity for me to showcase my ability to do the job. I am very thankful for his support, and I don’t think we see enough of it in business life.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Breathing exercises are something that I find useful, in particular ‘belly-breaths’. Four or five really deep breaths really help to center and ground you before a big meeting and the best thing is that they can be done anywhere!

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

It has to do with businesses having access to people who can look at a situation or question from a different angle. With teams who have been together for a long time (five, 10 or 15 years), despite how well-intentioned they may be, if they all have the same background, you can end up with groupthink.

People of color have walked a different path and had different life experiences. Companies need those different perspectives to evolve and meet the expectations of the shareholders and employees.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

We need to start with young children and help them to understand there’s no limit on what they can achieve. Organizations which help children build their skills and support communities in need, are the kinds that Computershare encourages staff to get involved in by providing every employee with a volunteer day of leave every year.

Through our global charitable program Change A Life, Computershare also matches all employee payroll contributions to fund projects around the world, working with charities that share our vision of addressing poverty and empowering communities to effect long-term change.

Companies also need a bigger pool to draw from. It’s not necessarily just about hiring more graduates or, particularly, graduates of color (although we as a country need to do the latter as well). Companies need more entrepreneurial people with great ideas.

In practice, this means companies encouraging or hiring people from different backgrounds, and most importantly, doing away with unconscious bias so that we don’t solely hire people who look like ourselves.

Finally, business leaders also need to continue to encourage employees to talk about diversity and inclusion at all levels of the business. If we don’t, the issue will never change. It’s not easy, but Computershare is having those conversations, and we’re committed to providing high-quality employment opportunities to talented people whatever their background.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

There is a softer approach that true leaders bring to the table. It’s about how to really motivate people and get people to drive the mission. Not just because the person at the top says “do it”, but because employees at all levels want to buy into their vision.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

The main myth is that CEOs have all the answers. You don’t just get to that position, suddenly know everything and not require anyone’s opinion. I’ve seen people stop challenging or asking questions once a person gets to a certain level, but CEOs crave just that. They want to be challenged and asked “have you thought about it this way?” so that they too can get better and better.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One of the things I really notice is that women don’t always experience teambuilding as men might. Some men will go jogging after work or head out for a drink together, and a lot of things can happen in those ‘off-hours’. If a man and a woman were to take a jog or have a drink alone together, their actions can be misinterpreted. It’s a shame, because there sometimes can be so much more judgement leveled at those relationships. This inequality can limit the ability of women to build relationships with peers. Although the pandemic has had so many catastrophic consequences for a lot of people, the changes it has brought to the way business people interact has also led to women and men being able to share experiences over video or phone conferences about their non-work lives and hobbies in a neutral way.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

You’re not in full control, but everyone who works for you thinks you are. There’s always someone else you’re reporting to or working on behalf of, whether it’s another layer, a board of directors, shareholders or your employees.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I’ve seen a lot of people get into management positions because they were really good at creating strategy, delivering to the board, their managing or CFO duties etc, but the number one thing is a leader’s ability to inspire and make people feel connected to them.

It doesn’t matter how well you read a strategy: there must be this additional element. I’m really grateful for my background in relationship management, which has helped me a lot to understand all sorts of people and connect to them.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder. I see it more often than I would like. Women think “if I work really hard and put up good numbers, someone’s going to tap my shoulder and give me the next job”. That’s not what happens. Men tend to raise their hand and ask for more. Women tend to do the work and wait.

We also need to bust through generalities that hold women back such as “she’s a woman, she’s got kids”, or “she won’t travel or relocate because she has a family”. If you’re someone who wants to make it to the next level, be curious. Ask what more you can do, and what more is available.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I was a foster child and was lucky to have that support. Being able to have a job and earn money has put me in a position to give back, which I am passionate about. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been close to home for an extended period, which has provided a chance to look at volunteer programs and opportunities in my local community.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Think twice before booking a red eye and going straight into the office afterwards! In the early stages of my career I was fixated on maximizing my time. I would travel for work during weekends to hit the ground running on Monday. It took me a bit of time to realize that I would burn out if I did this. Traveling on a workday is completely acceptable and WiFi on planes means you can now work as you travel.
  2. Working inside a global, diverse team is challenging, but fun. You can find yourself working at virtually any hour to ensure that you have the chance to speak to team members all over the world and you also see the business from all those perspectives. Being located on the West Coast means I’m typically participating in 5am calls, which in my mind is much better than the alternative (after 9pm), as I’m a morning person. But a word of warning: once you open up your schedule to pre-8am meetings, it stays that way.
  3. You can have some really great experiences on the way to becoming a senior executive at a company, but there are also hard decisions you wish you didn’t have to make, particularly around people management. I wish I could say I have never had to let anyone go, but that wouldn’t be true. What I have found is that if you are transparent and do it with heart you can learn from the interaction.
  4. You don’t need to say yes to everything. Saying no is okay and will gain you respect if it helps your team accomplish its plans. I am reading a great book called “Essentialism — The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown to help me hone this idea and, with the help of a great Executive Assistant, I’m learning to find time in my day to say no to meetings in order to focus on what is important to get things done.
  5. It is ok to show vulnerability, and if you need it, to ask for help. I think this is particularly hard for women who are looking to advance their careers because they think it may be a sign of weakness. It’s actually the complete opposite. To ask for help or clarification shows that you are strong and aren’t afraid of feedback. This past year I recognized that I needed additional coaching and had an opportunity to work with an executive coach. The learnings supported me through another big year of change at work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like people to start each day by taking five deep breaths, then train themselves to breathe this way. I know it sounds strange, but the reality is that most people are very shallow breathers. We deal with so much stress in our lives and we often react quickly and sometimes without enough thought. Taking deep breaths enhances our ability to stay calm and think clearly. Through my yoga and meditation training I have worked on my breathing, and it’s greatly changed my life and perspective. I’ve seen how my outward expression has changed and the positive effect it’s had on my interactions with others. Being a kinder, calmer person rubs off on others and creates a positive domino effect.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love Helen Keller’s quote “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all” because it reminds me that without adventure, life would be pretty boring.

Perhaps it is because we moved around a lot when I was a kid that I seem to come alive and thrive when change occurs. This has truly benefited me in my career, especially when a previous employer went through several acquisitions.

You will thrive by always remaining curious and open as well as considering any time of change to be an opportunity.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I’d say Nelson Mandela but, unfortunately, a lunch with him is impossible. He was truly an example of how one can overcome the largest of all setbacks and come out the other side an inspiring leader.

Alive today I’d say Oprah Winfrey. She overcame her beginnings and made herself into the self-made woman she is today, which inspires me. It’s an example of how we can all create a future for ourselves regardless of where we come from. I love how she inspires young people to become great.

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