Marietta Colston-Davis prides herself on her personal definition of success: when everyone around her succeeds. A strong advocate for the inclusion of all voices, she began her executive journey at Tata Consultancy before moving to Microsoft, where she developed her executive chops in areas of operations, sales, and marketing execution. Today, she serves as IBM’s Worldwide Managing Director & Vice President for Accenture.
Below, we discuss Marietta’s experience as the only woman of color in the boardroom, the importance of boredom, and how women leaders can be unapologetically themselves.
I began my first steps into the executive suite as Vice President of India-based Tata Consultancy. Being the only female and the only non-Pakistani/Indian in the company, I needed to find a common ground to interact with so many different people. Establishing this common denominator was crucial to breaking down walls and allowing people to share their stories.
Upon the birth of my second son, I realized it was time to take a step back and shift to Microsoft. The company gave me the freedom to be authentic and embrace my personal style. Microsoft is where I developed my voice and learned to lead with authenticity. Recently, I’ve been honored with two board assignments on top of my current position of IBM’s WW Managing Director and Vice President.
Throughout my journey, being involved with good leaders and learning lessons from them helped me get stronger—and observe what to avoid. More than anything, being a good leader is rooted in a love of people and helping them succeed.
Pursuing roles where I have a personal passion is a keystone belief that I bring to the boardroom. For advisory board positions, I try to hone in on nonprofit boards that have a specific touchpoint to a personal aspect of my life. My nephews’ connections to the foster care system have made my work with Youth Villages (a nonprofit aiding foster care) that much more meaningful.
Currently, I hold 2 board seats. Besides my reputation and enterprise expertise, I was selected to promote diversity within the boardroom as a woman and a person of color. In both instances, my background spoke to the growth opportunities I could bring to the organization as more organizations are recognizing the importance of POC input. I am grateful that my value is seen and rewarded in the boardroom while simply doing what I love—leading world-class teams.
Something I internalized early on was the “you’ve earned your seat at the table” mindset. I have learned to embrace my difference—I don’t feel like I have ever allowed it to hinder me. Perhaps this is the only experience this person will have with an African American female on the executive level, but I will hold steady with an emphasis on professionalism and adhering to my hallmark of being tough, direct, and fair. My goal is to help coach people through ambiguity while avoiding being ambiguous myself about what direction they should be taking.
I stand by the principle of transparency—it has served me well 80-85% of the time. Most of the time, people genuinely want to know the reasoning behind their work. I think seeking input from others and making a united decision to move forward is always valuable—people want to be heard. In my experience, leaders often talk at you, but effective leaders will consider their team members’ thoughts, ideas, and questions to better position the team for success. As a leader, you need to come prepared with comprehensive game plans; when starting to take action, a board member’s input should be an additive (not a distraction).
Boredom is crucial to women leaders. It gives you a moment to stop and settle and think. By interpreting “boredom” as a form of meditative thought, you allow yourself the space for freedom of thoughts, ideas, and viewpoints about what to do next.
High performers can get caught up in the endless cycle of execution and outcome, but people need to unplug from devices and allow their minds to think outside the scope of what’s next on the to-do list. Sitting quietly with eyes closed, away from constant notifications and the barrage of current events, allows your true leadership to emerge as you free up headspace to think through your next steps.
What attracted me to Athena was primarily my career goal of being on a board. Knowing that this organization was dedicated to the support and success of women in this pursuit was inspiring, and the membership has particularly been rewarding in its access to tools like learning and Virtual Salons. I truly appreciate the vast community of women uplifting each other, and the opportunities to network and learn what others have accomplished.
There is a natural tendency in a male-dominated world to focus on “fixing” what’s wrong with you, but in my experience learning from female leaders, you need to focus and amplify your strengths. Strive to have zero ambiguity around who you are as a leader. Focus on the positive feedback you’ve received about your leadership and utilize that to define your brand. Don’t feel obligated to uphold a sense of demureness—trying to be something you’re not is only a detriment.
Always remember: the biggest room in the house is room for improvement!
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