Margaret has led teams at companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 firms including Amazon, Microsoft and HP. She grew up in Detroit and began her career in the automotive industry, an experience that helped her feel at home in the similarly male-dominated technology sector.
She has a passion for mentoring women in technology and has made it her mission to share the lessons she has learned with others and to mentor them in their own journeys.
Margaret is an advisor to Cloud Connect, the Cloud Network of Women and multiple early-stage companies and CEOs. She was honored as Mentor of the Year by the Stevie Awards in 2016 for guiding women on her team as they moved into management positions.
Can you provide leadership advice for those looking to advance their careers?
Every leader gets to where they are in a different way, so my advice is to take your own path to leadership. I call my career journey the crooked path to success because along the way I jumped off the ladder, took parallel roles, tried new things and leapt from big companies to early stage startups. But each job somehow built on the previous one, so when I look back, it makes more sense than maybe it did at the time.
I think we too often assume everyone wants to be a “leader.” It’s much more important to feel that we are doing what we were meant to do, that we feel fulfilled in our work and that we make a difference in a way that is important to us. Most importantly, we need to feel that we are being ourselves and finding joy in our work. My biggest advice is to find a way to be happy in your work, as that allows you to the best version of you!
Who have you looked to for inspiration, within the industry or more broadly?
When I was young, I looked to women who were successful in spite of being too tall or too aggressive or just doing things differently. They included Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Aretha Franklin, Diane Sawyer, Jane Fonda, Annie Oakley, Ado Annie (from Oklahoma), Janet Guthrie, Mary Tyler Moore, Audrey Hepburn, Mother Teresa and Judy Blume. I didn’t know them personally but they all showed me that women could be strong and different and successful. My first boss in the auto industry, Carole Tellier, also really inspired me. She taught me the power of being feminine and competent. But so many people over the years have inspired me: old, young, leaders, students, children, homeless people and complete strangers.
Right now in technology, I’m inspired by leaders who give back and work to make the world better, while also showing that they can make money at the same time. I look for people who are true to themselves, do the right thing and are fearless, no matter what the situation.
Below: Sharmey Shah accepts the award for Business Role Model of the Year on behalf of Margaret Dawson at the inaugural Women in IT Awards USA
What was the best piece of advice given to you?
There have been a few, including “make sure you aren’t so focused on winning the battle that you lose the war.” In other words, choose your battles, and know when to let go. Also, my Great Aunt Bot advised me to cherish my friends and loved ones and not forget to stop at 5 pm and have a drink with friends. Another bit of advice is to not be afraid to forgive and love again. Our hearts have so much to give but we often let pride or ego get in the way. Life is short. Forgive yourself and others and always have more love to give. Finally, the advice I give others and I wish I could give my younger self is, “You are good enough, just as you are today.”
Have you had to overcome any career challenges?
My biggest obstacle has been figuring out how to deal with politics in the workplace. While I have learned how to navigate it, it sucks the energy from me, and I struggle to stay with an organisation where politics permeates. I just don’t believe we need to function that way. I have also overcome challenges such as working for a start-up that imploded, hitting a glass ceiling and experiencing sexism both blatantly and passive-aggressively. But every time I’ve hit a wall or an obstacle, I’ve always told myself that I would land on my feet. Even when I had doubt, I stayed true to myself, telling myself I would find the next job and be able to take care of my family and myself. I believed that 100%. I somehow always found the courage to leap to the next thing, even if it seemed counterintuitive or scary.
Overcoming these obstacles required learning to believe in my own abilities, build healthy self-esteem and set boundaries, especially when I was raising my children, so I would not feel guilty about the times I focused on either work or family. This has been really important, as I think some people assume they can’t be both successful professionals and successful parents. But you absolutely can.
How did you get involved in the automotive industry, and what prompted to you to move from cars to software?
My father was in the automotive industry, so I grew up around cars and racetracks and auto dealers. As a result, my “network” after college was all my father’s friends in the automotive industry. It seemed completely natural after college to work in an industry I knew so well and frankly loved. Getting into technology was by accident really.
I was working in Taiwan and Hong Kong as a foreign correspondent for Businessweek magazine and interviewing a lot of technology leaders in the region. I found myself thinking, “I want to be in their seat.” I found I had a passion for technology and as I got more involved, I found I also had an ability to learn and understand the technologies. I came from a non-traditional path into the tech field, but I was fortunate to get opportunities to move into more technical roles over my career.
The auto and technology industries have a lot in common. They are both male dominated, and often full of very alpha-male personalities. This never intimidated me, and just as I loved looking under the hoods of fast cars, I love digging into the technology and understanding how it works. I think this is why I’ve often found myself working in emerging technology areas.
What does your typical day look like?
I don’t think there is a typical day, but there are some things I try to keep as routine. I get up early and do yoga and meditation on most days. Then with cup of coffee in hand, I will review my schedule for the day and check or create my “hot list” for the day. I always put the top 3 to 4 things on a sticky note and put it on my monitor. These are the things I must address that day on my overall to-do list.
I also make sure I have enough time throughout the day to actually think, do work, eat, etc. I tend to always have too many meetings, so I’m working on setting boundaries for my time and delegating more. In addition to too many meetings and e-mails, my day is usually full of ad hoc coaching, approvals, moving things forward, 1:1’s with team members and socialization of ideas. Every day, I want to feel like I’ve done something to positively impact the business and the people that I work with.
What do you see as the keys to a successful mentoring relationship, both for the mentor and mentee?
The key is setting clear expectations in the beginning. I always ask new mentees why they want mentoring, what they hope to gain and what they would consider a “success” to look like. Every mentoring relationship is different. Some mentees just want career advice. Others really want someone to bounce ideas off of, or to challenge them to think about things in a different way. It’s important than mentees don’t try to be like their mentor, but instead to use the mentor to help them be successful in their unique way with their talents. People will say, “I want to be like you, so will you be my mentor?” My answer is, “No, if that is your goal.”
However, if the goal is helping you become a better YOU in your work and career, then the answer is yes. Another key to success is honesty. As a mentor, you need to be able to give honest feedback, even if that requires a crucial conversation. I find that sometimes I’m the only one giving my mentee honest feedback. For some reason, a lot of people and managers find that to be difficult. Finally, the mentee should come to mentoring sessions prepared. Bring questions, thoughts, issues, ideas, or areas to discuss. A mentor is there for you, but the mentee needs to be prepared for those interactions if they are to gain value from them.
Who were the individuals who served as mentors and role models for you and how did your relationships with them help your own professional development?
My children have influenced me the most and are always my strongest advocates. They have made me a better person, manager and leader. They always believe in me and are always proud of their “working mom.” Now that they are grown, I find them even more amazing as I watch them in their own careers.
Women who have really made a difference in my career include my Aunt Bot who I was very close to. She taught me to love spices and to love people unconditionally. She was born in Paris, Texas and survived the Great Depression. Her humanity, love, humor and insistence on a gin and tonic at 5pm taught me much about life. My first boss, Carole Tellier, who taught me how to be feminine as well as powerful is my biggest fan to this day. Joyce Barnathan, my Businessweek editor, who showed me the power of storytelling, ethics and intelligence was always my advocate.
Also, I’ve been fortunate to have many male mentors and role models. Saar Gillai, my former boss at HP believed in me, listened to me and reminded me to focus on what I do best. Mark Ashida, Mike Schutz and Paul Bryan from Microsoft gave me a chance to do more technical work and move to product management, and encouraged me to leap to a start-up. My current boss, Paul Cormier, who pushes me to be better, is always open to a good debate and reminds me to never lose my intensity even while we both work at swearing less. My other current boss, Tim Yeaton, who hired me at Red Hat, never gives up on me or on our vision for success.
And then so many male and female friends and colleagues who support me, teach me, empower me, challenge me, put up with me and make me SNOL (snort laughing). I have been truly blessed!
Nominations are now open for the Women in IT Awards Ireland and Women in IT Awards Silicon Valley. Nominate yourself, a colleague or someone in your network now! The Women in IT Awards Series – organised by Information Age – aims to tackle this issue and redress the gender imbalance, by showcasing the achievements of women in the sector and identifying new role models