As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Dowd, senior partner and chief operating officer of Dialexa, a digital product engineering firm that was acquired by IBM in 2022.
Ellen has spent the majority of her career building consulting businesses to help Fortune 1000 companies drive results and disrupt their industries through technology. At Dialexa, an IBM Company, she is focused on driving the financial success and ambitious growth of the company, fueling its ability to deliver industry-defining digital products. Ellen is recognized as a passionate business leader within the technology industry. She was named a Top 25 Women in Technology by the Dallas Business Journal, the top female sales leader in the US by the Women in Sales Awards committee, and a Notable Woman in Technology by D CEO Magazine.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?
Ialways laugh when I’m asked how I chose to go into technology. The truth is that I never consciously chose it. I studied English literature and philosophy in college and graduated with absolutely zero idea of what I wanted to do with my life. A specific career wasn’t something I had really contemplated, but I obviously had to do something. I didn’t have a plan, but I had a degree, a decent head on my shoulders, and a passion for learning. So, I followed the predictable path of the liberal arts student by going to grad school.
I decided to get a Master of Library Science, not because I wanted to be a librarian, but because I have always had a passion for libraries and found the subject interesting. Libraries have the potential to be the great equalizer by providing free and equal access to knowledge, the world’s most precious asset. This was less of a career move but a step forward in trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” It ended up unlocking doors for me that I never realized were there.
This was in the late 1990s when information was becoming currency, and the internet was burgeoning into being its trading platform. While I hadn’t considered going into the corporate world, and I had no idea what consulting was, I somehow stumbled into becoming a certified broker of this currency at exactly the right time. I was hired by PricewaterhouseCoopers to do knowledge management for its consultants which was a very novel concept at the time.
My job was to mine through massive amounts of documents and pull-out nuggets of knowledge about a range of topics from industry trends to business strategies, technology innovation, and so much more. It was a crash course in business, technology, and the consulting craft all at once, and I soaked up everything I could. Not long after I started, the company realized there was a market hungry for what I was doing, and a consultant was born (me!). This was my first experience, but definitely not my last, with being fortunate enough to be at the forefront of starting something new and watching it grow into a real business. Once I caught the consulting bug, I was full steam ahead and never looked back. I was hooked.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have the privilege of working with the most incredible leadership team at Dialexa, an IBM Company, and interesting stories happen almost daily. I went from being a global SVP at Hitachi, one of the biggest companies on the planet, to Dialexa which had about 100 employees when I joined. This was a huge culture shock, and a bit of a professional risk, that was driven by a desire to re-energize myself after climbing the corporate ladder for so many years. I wanted a change. I wanted a faster pace. I wanted to work with amazing people. I wanted to do truly innovative work. I wanted to be a part of a company where I could really move the needle. I got all of that and more when I joined Dialexa.
When I met Dialexa’s leadership team, I was blown away. I knew I could be valuable to the company and really help to super charge its growth, but I also wasn’t prepared for how much I would personally learn along the way. In just three short years, I learned how to operate at a dramatically different scale, stay profitable through a pandemic, lead a diverse workforce during unprecedented social justice issues, retain talent through the great resignation, grow 50% year-over-year without breaking the culture, and finally, how to sell a growth company (Dialexa) to one of the most storied brands in the technology world, IBM.
But by far the most important thing I learned since joining Dialexa is how incredibly powerful it is to have a high functioning executive team that respects, supports, and actually likes each other. We recently had the privilege of celebrating our CFO win D CEO magazine’s Financial Executive Awards. Our entire executive team was there for this great honor. When I watched the recording of the ceremony the next day, all I could see was a table full of people filled with pure joy and pride, and was reminded once again how fortunate I am to work on a team that truly believes that if one of us wins, we all win.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?
Mistakes? I have too many to count! One of the most amusing ones was early in my career. I had started a new job right in the middle of the dot-com boom to help a consulting company stand up an e-commerce practice. In the technology space during that era, the job market was utterly insane, and companies couldn’t hire new people fast enough. I was approached by a recruiter, did a few phone interviews, and had a very compelling job offer within two weeks without meeting anyone from the company. I said why not, and I took the plunge. Six months later my boss and I were doing a pitch to a strategic client which was also the biggest pitch I had ever done. We lived in different cities and communicated frequently, but had never met in person. I walked into the meeting for the presentation, made a terrible assumption about who the primary client was, and loudly introduced myself. He looked at me, horrified, and said: “Ellen, I’m your boss.” I was mortified, but the room erupted in laughter, saving me from what could have been a seriously embarrassing moment.
In big consulting companies, project and pursuit teams are often assembled with people who have not previously worked together. They might live in different cities, be new to the company or in other business units. What I learned from this mistake may seem small, but it was hugely valuable to me and something I still preach today. Never ever, ever have the first time your team meets each other happen in front of a client. Grab coffee an hour before the client meeting or meet in the lobby 10 minutes prior — anything except for in front of the client!
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 get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are far too many people I am grateful for to count! Choosing a particular person would not do justice to all of the amazing friends, role models, managers, mentors, and co-workers I have had along the way. I recognize this may sound trite, but I feel genuinely indebted to so many people for being instrumental to my success.
I can say that nearest and dearest to my heart are two specific groups of people. First, I am very grateful to the leaders that took a chance on me at times when I was not the obvious choice. Corporate America often adopts the “next in line” approach to identifying successors, and it takes a true renegade to look past the obvious choices and say, “this is the best person for the job.” There are a handful of brave men and women who took a chance on me.
Second, I would not be where I am today without the rock star teams I have had the pleasure to lead. Specifically, I am forever in awe of the amazingly talented people who have trusted me enough to work with me in multiple roles at different companies. At Dialexa, we have been fortunate to be able to hire a couple dozen people from my prior roles which has been a huge factor in my success in my current role as Chief Operating Officer (COO).
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
I referenced this example earlier, and while it’s not exactly a leadership decision, the decision I made in the late 1990s to jump full force into a consultant role at PricewaterhouseCoopers seemed a bit hard at the time because I was coming from a liberal arts background and stepping into the unknown. I could have easily “played it safe” and gone down a different career path, but to this day it’s one of the best decisions I have made. More than 20 years later, I remain hooked and am at a company I truly admire with a great team of colleagues.
“ Great leaders strive to make themselves irrelevant. The best thing you can do for your career is not to make yourself indispensable. It is to make yourself utterly replaceable over and over again. ”
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?
I don’t think there is one single way to describe a senior executive as the definition can vary dramatically from role to role and company to company. In many ways, the COO role is the most difficult to describe. I was previously Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) of Dialexa, and in my former life, I ran large consulting businesses as an SVP in a Global 1000 company. Those jobs were challenging but they were reasonably easy to describe and measure. As the COO of Dialexa, I am responsible for the entirety of the business but I am not the CEO. I am responsible for our financials but I am not the CFO. I am responsible for our growth and successful client delivery, but I am neither the CRO nor Chief Delivery Officer. To steal a line from the title of a recently acclaimed movie, the COO is “everything, everywhere, all at once.” I have heard people describe being a COO as a game of whack-a-mole, and there are days when that certainly feels true. I would prefer to think of the job as being the ultimate problem solver. In tough times, you are solving today’s burning problems. In good times, you are looking ahead and predicting tomorrow’s challenges and how your company will rise to them.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I had many preconceived notions of what being an executive leader would be like, and most of them were wrong. I often hear people repeat some of them in various ways, so I am happy to do some myth busting. Here are three myths that are entirely untrue:
- Things will be different when I have a “seat at the table.” Nothing magical happens when you reach a certain level or become a senior executive, except that you gain a lot of perspective on the challenges and difficult choices involved with running a company. All of those things you thought would be easy to change are actually quite difficult when you are looking at the entire picture.
- I won’t have to work so hard when I get to the top. The title of COO comes with enormous responsibility, and I have worked harder over the last three years than at any other point in my career. That says something from an admitted lifelong workaholic!
- Everyone will listen to me because of my position and title. Thankfully, this one is flat out wrong. In good organizations, executives aren’t dictators. They still have to earn people’s respect and motivate them. If an executive wants to change the company’s direction, they must articulate the case for change.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Personally, I have always believed that my gender was an advantage in my career. We all have stories about being underestimated or disrespected, and the existence of explicit and implicit bias is undeniable. For me, this often came in the form of well-intentioned feedback that I might want to smooth out my rough edges and sharp elbows. But I also think that being the only woman in so many rooms made me stand out from the crowd and get noticed, in mostly positive ways. Because I had a different set of experiences and perspectives, my ideas were often seen as unique and bold. Because my voice sounded different, I think it was able to be heard above the orchestra of others. As a result, I had opportunities that I might not have otherwise had.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
First and foremost, never in a million years would I have imagined myself as a COO, so I had no preconceived notions of what the job would be. When I shifted into working for a growth company, I came to realize that my biggest strengths are not what I thought they were. It turns out that I am not a rock star at any one thing, but I am incredibly good at connecting dots and filling gaps. Until I was in this role, I would have never described a COO in that way.
Is everyone 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 certainly believe that most people are cut out to be leaders and executives in their chosen fields. However, executive presence and leadership ability are not traits you are born with, but skills that can be developed through experience and drive. So having said that, there are some types of people who I would encourage to follow the executive path, while others I might discourage. Being an executive requires fierce tenacity, unyielding selflessness, endless drive, total accountability, and some seriously thick skin.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be your authentic self, 100% of the time. Early in my career, I believed I needed to model my demeanor after the leaders of my company by striking a certain tone, dressing a specific way, and hiding aspects of my personality. The result of this was that I didn’t enjoy my work all that much, and I wasn’t achieving the results I was hoping for. It was only when I stopped trying to be someone else and started being myself that my career really took off.
- Self-awareness is your most powerful professional asset. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your strengths and tap into them while acknowledging your weaknesses and working through them. It is amazing to me how many people have a difficult time identifying their superpowers and being honest about their kryptonite.
- Fake it ’til you make it is a real strategy. This, of course, has to be applied within reason, but it works! Women in particular tend to question if they have the experience or skills to do certain jobs. Look around you, and you will realize that many of your peers are equally in over their heads. I probably have been truly “qualified” for about a quarter of the roles I have had. Confidence can be your secret weapon if you use it correctly.
- Don’t mistake a strong work ethic for a lack of boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries are incredibly important, and I am certainly not suggesting people shouldn’t have them. My point is we shouldn’t let anyone talk us out of working hard by telling us we need better boundaries. Ambition is not a dirty word. Achieving lofty goals requires drive, commitment, and a get it done mentality.
- Great leaders strive to make themselves irrelevant. The best thing you can do for your career is not to make yourself indispensable. It is to make yourself utterly replaceable over and over again. You do this by building amazing teams, challenging them to be better, lifting them up, and advocating for them relentlessly. My career philosophy has been to constantly try to work myself out of a job by surrounding myself with people brighter and more talented than I am and then watching them shine.
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 would inspire a movement to end the poverty gap. In the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, nearly 38 million people live below the poverty line. Globally, that number is almost two billion. Most maddening is that these numbers are increasing rather than decreasing. Almost every social issue such as inadequate education, lack of healthcare, hunger, immigration, degrading environments, discrimination, domestic violence, crime and addiction, is either driven by or exacerbated by poverty.
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 would absolutely love to meet the author Haruki Murakami. In fact, if you asked me to list twenty names, I suspect most of them would be writers. But Murakami is special to me. I have read every word that he has published. I can utterly lose myself in the worlds that he creates, and then spend weeks thinking about the words he used to construct them. His novels are thought-provoking, understated, mind-bending, and exquisitely written. I have learned so much through his writing. I think that this quote of his is by far more powerful than any career advice I could give: “It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
To read the original interview click here.