Jackie Yeaney, Executive Vice President, Strategy & Marketing at Red Hat, has for several years been the person I’ve looked to as a role model. It’s been easy to, as Jackie is one of those unique individuals who has successfully navigated nearly every relevant career challenge out there – being the 1% minority, serving in the military, transitioning careers (including a shift from engineering to marketing), finding peace with work-life balance, and making incredibly difficult decisions regarding family and career. I’m excited and honored to share her story with you.

What do you love most about your role with Red Hat?

I love working in marketing because of the wonderful intersection of creativity, analytics, and the customer.  I love being the guardian of a brand, especially Red Hat’s, because I believe brands have souls and Red Hat has a unique one with our open source culture. I love solving problems with the people I get to work with every day. I love that I work with an insanely passionate group of people, who truly believe we are changing the world for the better.

You began your career in a very technical field (electrical engineering). What caused you to transition to the business side? 

After getting my degree in electrical engineering (EE) and serving in the US Air Force, my plan was to get my PhD in EE at MIT and then design integrated circuits. But it was the Colonel I worked for in the Air Force who convinced me that I was gifted at orchestrating complex activities and that I should look at MIT’s business school instead. After my first year at Sloan, I accepted a summer internship at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), primarily to see what all the hype was about with these management consulting firms. I also had a strong desire to stay in Boston for the summer since my son was 1 ½ yrs old and my husband was still in the US Air Force. To my surprise, I fell in love with the company. In a short 12 weeks, I learned about an industry (telecom), felt like I added value for the client, and got to work with incredibly smart, yet humble people. I was hooked.

I could have easily imagined staying at BCG for the rest of my career, but I was consulting for Delta Air Lines when 9-11 occurred. The CFO of Delta asked me to join the airline as they worked through some truly tough times. I felt like it was the right thing to do. But here is where the real twist came—they asked me to work in consumer marketing. Marketing?! I did not really know much about the marketing function at that time. Their argument was that they had marketers, but they wanted a fresh perspective to rethink strategy, vision, and leadership. So I jumped in. As luck would have it, I found my true passion in life—centering companies on their customer. I put all my energy into making the passenger’s flight experience better and unearthing Delta’s wonderful and historic brand. I’ve been in marketing ever since.

Was there a unique event, or series of events, which heavily influenced your career choices?

Yes, most definitely. There was a series for sure…and I believe most show that life is a set of trade-offs.

Having my children early forced me to build a career around my family; not to build a career and then figure out how to fit children in.

1)    Deciding to take an Air Force ROTC scholarship to pay for college – that meant that I owed the military four years after I graduated. However, from this experience, I learned about purpose, what determination really meant and gained invaluable leadership skills – I don’t believe I could have gained these skills better anywhere else

2)    Deciding to have my children while I was young. I had Connor when I was 25.  Carissa when I was 28 and Alec when I was 31. Having my children early forced me to build a career around my family; not to build a career and then figure out how to fit children in.

3)    Taking that internship at the Boston Consulting Group. Prior to that, I thought I was going to go into engineering/project management at a tech company. Instead, I got to learn about several industries, how to quickly analyze business problems, and how to work with different cultures. Also with a 3 year old son, a 3 month old daughter, and a husband who worked for the Air Force full time, I was forced to focus on efficiency and learning how to set my own boundaries.

4)    Deciding that my husband would be a stay-at-home Dad after our third child was born. We realized that we wanted to raise our own children rather than have someone else do it, and we were simply not enjoying the scramble every day with the two kids. I remember getting to work at 8:45am most days and thinking, “I’ve been up since 5am and NOW the work day is starting.” Or trying to get to the daycare by 6pm in a snowstorm. Or deciding who was going to stay home when one of them was sick. I certainly would not have the career I have today without that decision 14 years ago.

5)    9-11. That day impacted all of our lives. It most definitely sent me down an entirely different career path in marketing.

6)    When my kids were 9, 12, and 15, I had several great job opportunities – all would have required us to move away from Atlanta. My husband and I decided it was more important to remain where we were. The kids were doing great in school and the oldest was chasing his soccer dream—one that would be hard to fulfill by moving cities at age 15. So instead, I took a job in Atlanta. I ended up needing to remind myself many a day why I took that job. I stuck it out as long as I could (2 ½ years) before I decided to part ways. It definitely slowed down my career a little bit, but life isn’t a ladder. It’s a roller coaster. And at that time it wasn’t about me. It was about my family.

How do you balance career and family?

Ahh, yes. That’s a difficult one for us all. The first thing that you have to get over is that there is no such thing as BALANCE. For real. It’s not possible, especially in this fast-paced world we find ourselves in today.

One overall piece of advice is to make sure YOU are not always last on the priority list.

I could talk for days on what I’ve learned over the years now that I’ve been a wife for 23 years and a parent for 20; all while chasing a high-powered career. One overall piece of advice is to make sure YOU are not always last on the priority list. Sometimes, you need to make tradeoffs for your own sanity, health, and happiness so there’s no need to feel guilty when you take time to exercise, get your nails done, or take a nap. The truth is we offer the world around us a heck of a lot more value when we are fit and not exhausted. Here are a few of my personal tactics that have helped me along the way:

1)    Up until recently I did my best not to work at home. I realized my young children needed to know me as Mom, not the crazy lady working all the time. I also found it helped my stress level tremendously. Prior to that, when I used to start working again after the kids went to bed at night, I found I didn’t stop until the wee hours and then I had a hard time going to sleep. Once my mind and body got used to my new schedule, I found the stress leaving as I drove home and so by the time I walked in the door, I really was ready to be Mom.

2)    I work like a fiend during the week, but the weekend is for my family.

3)    I schedule some of my family activities exactly like they are important meetings.

4)    Flexible hours make a big difference in your quality of life. Roles where I have had a boss that doesn’t worry about where I am and what I’m doing at all times are the jobs where I’ve excelled and was happier doing it. It allowed me not to stress as much and to weave in family, time for myself, and time for my non-profit Open Hand Atlanta (http://www.projectopenhand.org).

What skill do you wish you developed earlier in your career?

Networking.  Early in my career I was all about finding the right answer(s) through logic, analytics, smarts and then working to implement that ‘answer’.  I always had close relationships with those I worked with day in and day out, but I never even really thought about reaching out and connecting with others outside my day-to-day world.  I didn’t understand how much I could learn from doing that or how powerful those relationships could be.  Now I make it very much a part of my life.  Each week my calendar has between 1 and 5 networking, career development, or mentoring type activities on it.  It makes me a happier and, more fulfilled person, to say the least.

Much of life is being able to succinctly articulate what you believe and why.

The other one is writing.  Early on, I learned to create compelling presentations and stories, but here I’m talking about prose.  How to write compelling points of view with language that people can connect to.  Much of life is being able to succinctly articulate what you believe and why.  Not just verbally, but in writing.

What are your thoughts on the so-called Millennials hitting the job market today?

Young talent today are determined to have a purpose in their jobs. They are not willing to just do a job for a paycheck. I find that very much refreshing. I learn so much from the younger folks on my team. They are not bogged down in any old way of getting things done. They have fresh perspectives and can be fairly objective about most situations. They tend to love to try new things. Their passion can be contagious.

On the other hand, I sometimes feel like their expectations of promotions and what it takes to succeed is somewhat off base. I worry that they can get bored easily and before you know it, they want to know ‘what’s next?’ They sometimes don’t see the value in lateral moves to learn new skills. They seem to feel like they need to be constantly moving ‘up’ in order to succeed.

I also think that many of them have mis-construed notions of ‘having it all’. You can certainly have it all (I feel like I personally do), but not all at the same time. For example, if you have decided you need to leave at 5pm every day to pick up your son at daycare, you can’t automatically assume that promotion is going to be as fast as it could have been. It’s a trade-off you’ve made. A good one. Remember that there are times we make decisions in the best interest of our career (for me, in 1997 we agreed to move to Switzerland for my job) and there are other times we make the best decision for our family (for me, one was staying in Atlanta in 2008). But we need to understand that we are indeed making those tradeoffs and need to be able to live with the potential consequences.

So the big question… If you were talking to a younger you, what’s the one piece of advice you would give?  

Jackie, I know you think that you aren’t that bright, athletic, pretty or mentally strong–so you are simply going to work harder than anyone else. Sweetie, it’s not necessary. You are bright, athletic, pretty and most definitely mentally strong. People love you for who you are; not how hard you work. I know you care. They know you care. Enjoy the people and world around you. We aren’t on this planet for very long. It goes by so very quickly. Please, please don’t take it all so seriously. It’s all going to work out just fine.

To connect with Jackie, follow her on twitter at @jackieyeaney.

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