Ask an Alum: Careers are Marathons, Not Sprints

Kathy Chou:  Careers are Marathons, Not  Sprints – How to Manage Your Career Across Your Lifetime

Cap and Gown Ask An Alum Series – May 28, 2020

by Ellen Merrick Petrill, ’77, ’78

In this first event of three Cap and Gown Ask An Alum virtual events, Cap and Gown member Kathy Ko Chou, ’85, ’86, spoke about the long view of careers and shared her experiences to demonstrate that making a choice today is just one of many decisions you will make about your career, family, and your life.  The Ask an Alum series was organized by Cap and Gown Alumnae Board members Eleanor Walker ‘15, Nancy Wenke Price ‘80, and Carol Benz ‘85.

Kathy Chou graduated Stanford in 1985 (BS Mechanical Engineering) and 1986 (MS Manufacturing Systems Engineering.)  Kathy has been a member of the Cap and Gown Alumnae Board for decades, as past president and currently vice president.  Kathy is Senior Vice President of Sales Strategy and Operations at VMware.  In addition, Kathy has donated time to Stanford University as a Stanford Associate, Stanford Alumni Association and chair of the committee to appoint University trustees, and on the President’s search committee. 

Kathy talked about her story over the 35 years since she graduated from Stanford.  “My 35-year reunion is coming up.  It reminds me, it IS a marathon!”  She talked about the marathon of our careers, the bright side of failure, taking risks, and work-life balance.  She emphasized how important it is to know your strengths and what is important to you so you can have your cake and eat it too.  Kathy talked us through her marathon, telling stories about life and career events that influenced her decisions.

Kathy earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in Manufacturing Systems Engineering.  Early in her career she worked in materials science.  “I liked the work but didn’t like that I worked by myself in a room.  I wanted to work with people.”   She went to Harvard Business School to open up different opportunities. 

Life is an equation?

As an engineer, Kathy thought of life as a simple equation.  Her equation was to marry at 28, have two children, a boy and a girl, one at age 32, the second at 36, and become the CEO of IBM.  However, while in Boston, she met Tom, who asked her to marry him just 9 months into their relationship.  The surprised and chagrined Kathy said yes but negotiated a longer engagement period and was married ahead of the equation.

After Harvard Business School, she joined HP.  Tom became an orthodontist.  Kathy quickly became pregnant, again surprised.  Not fitting the equation!  When a second boy came along, she found she was struggling:  work, kids, an au pair, no friends, and just too busy.  She had an epiphany:  what is important?  Family, of course!  But she would not stop working – that just wasn’t Kathy, who called the hardest job parenting and respects home parents.  What Kathy did do is to change her attitude about work.  She recognized she would not rise like the rest of her Harvard Business School colleagues.  Later we find that’s probably not true.  “That’s OK, Kathy thought, family is more important.”  But she set boundaries.  She made it clear that she would leave work at 5pm so she would not be in meetings after 5.  She made it to the soccer games and even volunteered to do yard duty at noon.  She was transparent about it, but not so much early in her career.  “I wished I had been more transparent earlier.  It showed that I have my priorities.  And people respected that more than I thought they would.”

Taking risks

After 9 years at HP, rising in different positions, Kathy took a risk and leapt to a startup, joining Penguin Computing as the COO of a “crack C-level team” to run the company.  Not very long into the role, the CEO was fired and the entire C-level team walked out in protest.  Kathy was out of a job.  “This was a colossal failure!” she lamented. 

Fortunately, Linux Networks, a startup Penguin had wanted to merge with, hired Kathy.  Then after just 3-1/2 years in the startup world, Kathy realized she was not as happy as in the big-company environment.  So back to HP Kathy went, leaving her VP job for a role as an individual contributor.

Kathy knew what she was doing.  She told us, “Know what makes you tick.  Leverage your strengths, your natural talents.  Don’t spend as much time improving your weaknesses.  By improving your strengths, you could rise from above average to world class in that area.  I knew my strengths are taking something to scale and management transformation.  I knew I could apply these at HP.”

Knowing your strengths and rebounding after failure

Back at HP, she moved from business operations to business strategy and sales.  The risks of the startup world, even the colossal failure, gave her new kinds of experiences and helped increase her confidence.  “This was the bright side of failure.  I could say it like it is.”  Her colleagues noticed; they told her she was different.  

However, another colossal failure occurred.  Presenting an operational change at her Executive VP’s staff, a Senior VP in the meeting pushed back on her proposal.  As a result, the EVP stopped the discussion right then and said, “Go and re-do this proposal and come back in two weeks.”  Kathy felt like a failure.  She allowed herself one day to wallow in her grief, but then began to think about what she could control, halting the wallowing in what she couldn’t control.  The very next day Kathy began to socialize the planning, asked questions, and in two weeks, created a much better proposal which was a resounding success.  Not long after, she was promoted to VP.  The EVP who became her sponsor told her, “It’s how you respond!”  Once again, Kathy turned failure into success.

In another situation, she told the COO a proposal by the CIO “doesn’t make sense.  I have data and experience and I may have a better plan.”  They listened.  Her plan was accepted.  Colleagues said, “You have courage!”   After this success, she was awarded more responsibility.  

Kathy’s advice:  Speak up when you have experience that tells you there is a better way. Get input from others when you are creating something new.

After a second nine years with HP, a hardware supplier, where she held Vice President roles, Kathy jumped domains and joined an organization that recruited her:  Intuit, a software supplier.  Not long after, she moved again to Informatica.  The move came after 9 relentless months of recruiting by Informatica.  But each change was a calculated move, considering risk, opportunities, and her interests.  At these software companies, she learned about Big Data, which led to VMWare, where Kathy has had several different high-powered roles, each one building on her vast experiences and stretching her to do new things.  She has led sales in the Americas, then globally.  She headed up research, which made the team unhappy at first.  “What do you know about software development?” But when her next role, leading customer service, came up, they didn’t want her to leave, because she complemented their expertise.  Just recently, Kathy accepted her new position of Senior Vice President Sales Strategy and Operations – back to her roots.

Sponsors vs mentors

Kathy’s stories highlighted sponsors who helped her move to her next level positions.  A sponsor, different from a mentor, is an advocate for you who takes actions on your behalf, because your sponsor believes in you and how you will benefit the organization.  A mentor gives you feedback and guidance but does not necessarily take action on your behalf.  A sponsor must be cultivated and the relationship developed.  The onus is on you to develop the relationship.

Work-Life Balance

Kathy took work-life balance seriously, never sacrificing family for her career.  “I didn’t buy into the belief that you always have to be there, that “face time” is always critical.  I left at 5pm.  But I took calls on the soccer field!   I volunteered in my kids’ school for yard duty at noon, so I left meetings to get there on time. I was transparent:  ‘I have to go – I have yard duty!’  The best compliment was when the school thought I was a stay-at-home mom!”

Once on a trip to visit a customer in Europe, the Executive Vice President invited Kathy to extend the trip to another customer because the first customer visit had gone so well.  Kathy declined because she had committed to being a science docent at school back in the US. Kathy worried that her decision may have been career limiting, but the EVP’s first question back in the office was “How was the science docent job?”  Kathy knew she was being taken seriously and recognized for holding true to her priorities. 

Kathy’s advice:  “If your family is as important to you as it is to me, be transparent.  Set your boundaries and make it clear.  You will be respected.”

Beyond family, Kathy said, “Do the things you really love.  I bleed Stanford!  I have been involved with Stanford Cap and Gown – as Past President, Executive Board member as a VP, event chairs  – for decades.  I appreciate the intergenerational relationships.  My strength came from our dear Jean Coblentz, ’47, who told us to “Take your cookies when they are passed!” Don’t miss out on opportunities when they come to you!”     

One cookie Kathy took was to join the Presidential Search Committee.  The president of the Stanford Alumni Association told her it would be 6 months of her life, and it was.  But the experience gave her insights into the most rigorous, thorough process she’d ever experienced, plus she gained new treasured relationships that are invaluable.


Q.  Advice to re-enter after kids?

  1. Think about keeping your skills honed by taking roles in volunteer activities.  Being AYSO President for your area will give you experience you can point to as you interview.  Set up informational interviews, try “ride-alongs” – follow a person in their day.  Describe every role you’ve had in terms of how it has prepared you for the next step in your career.  Parenting is the hardest job.  There are no instructions, no time off, no feedback.  Working with people is key and you’ve been doing that.  

Q.  How do you tie together your strengths?

  1. Tell a story about yourself that ties your strengths together.  Think about what you like doing, e.g., do you like running a business or changing a business, and tell them what you’ve accomplished that exemplifies that.  Keep in mind that diverse backgrounds on a team can be very good.  I like to hire people that have had varied backgrounds.

Q.  Do you seek risks or do they find you?

  1. Change is constant.  Don’t wait – embrace change and take the next step.  You will always learn.

Q. I’m in a job that requires travel.  Men in this job often have wives that follow them, but men don’t typically follow women.  Do I have to choose?

  1. You need to decide what is most important to you.  My life and career wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t had my four children.  My family is the most important to me, but I wanted to have a career too.  I purposely wanted to show that you could have a family and a career with leadership roles.  If you want a family and your career, this could be the time to break the norm!  

In closing, Kathy told us there are no right or wrong ways to live your life.  It’s YOUR life.  

Kathy’s final advice is to

  1. Be true to yourself.  Know what is most important to you and do it.
  2. It takes courage to do what makes sense for you.  
  3. Live in the present.  When you’re working, focus on work and when at home, focus on home.

You CAN have your cake and eat it too. Maybe not the whole cake all at once but you can take bites as you go.  As you can see from Kathy’s story,  it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Every choice, every cookie is an opportunity for growth, relationships, and learning about what is most important to you.