Dorothea Grimes Farrow: Sharing a Lifetime of Leadership Insight and Personal Transformation

Dorothea Grimes Farrow:

Sharing a Lifetime of Leadership Insight and Personal Transformation

In conversation with Brigid Moynahan, C.E.O. The Next Level Leadership Inc.



Dorothea Grimes Farrow, Supply Chain Operations Director, Cisco


A note from Brigid:

I interviewed Dorothea Grimes Farrow a few weeks ago.  I have known Dorothea for many years, but this was the first time she let me know that she was the first African-American woman named to Director at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 100 years.  It’s fascinating to hear how Dorothea traces the arc of her career and life in relation to the things she discovered so many years ago.  Watching Dorothea’s leadership throughout her career has been a privilege, and one that we want to share.

Brigid: Dorothea, can you start by telling us about your early career?

Dorothea: Sure. I started out as a pure scientist with a background in physics and a PhD in science education and cognitive psychology. I was very structured and driven by logic. I started my career at Bell Labs, which is, of course, an environment for a scientist. But as I began to manage people, I realized I needed a different approach to get people to be innovative and align with me. That’s about the time you and I met, Brigid.

Brigid: Yes. I helped you with a strategy session you were doing with your engineering team. I remember our conversation about letting them express their feelings honestly as a way to ensure they were aligned and invested.

Dorothea: That started my transition to broadening my thinking–linking technology, logic, and being authentic as a leader.

Brigid: Then later, you were a participant in the ELP as a candidate, then a coach, and most recently as a panelist. From the start, you took what you learned and led with it. When we brought in the head of Working Women Magazine to participate on the ELP panel, you talked about how isolated it felt to be the only African American Woman Executive in your organization. She said that’s an interesting topic. You then responded by reaching out to African American Women Executives and writing about them in an article that got published that year. All this while still working full time at Avaya.

Dorothea: It helped me expand my network while I remained in that environment. Because it was a technical environment, there were few women and zero other African-American women at or above my level.

Brigid: Watching you in your ELP peer mentoring group also taught me something very important. As your coach, I used to tell you repeatedly, “Don’t expect your work to speak for itself, no matter how good it is. Get down the hall and connect with people.” But it wasn’t until I heard you say almost the exact same thing in your Success Circle, that you internalized it.

Dorothea: That was another point where I said, “Wait a minute! Mentoring is a gift, but am I taking this in myself?” That’s why I think building supportive networks, mentoring, and being mentored are so important. We tell others what we most need to hear ourselves, and then we start doing it. It took me a while to internalize that people won’t value you just by the work you do and the results. They value you as they come to know you when you’re open to being mutually vulnerable in building that relationship with them.

Brigid: You founded your own mentoring business, which you do in addition to your other full-time job. Do you want to speak to the experience of that?

Dorothea: It was part of a larger “event” of coming into myself. In mentoring, I was telling people: “Take risks. You have a right to have an opinion because that opinion is rooted in all your expertise, your training, your confidence, and your courage.” The more I said that to others, the more I behaved that way myself. I mentor not only because I enjoy it and think it’s important, but because it’s another way to reinforce for myself that I’ve got something to offer.

Brigid: Let’s talk now about your career, Dorothea. Your very first job was at Bell Laboratories and you stayed within that system through all the changes as AT&T divested and then split apart. You’re an amazingly hard working and talented leader, but it took forever for them finally to give you the title you deserved by making you Acting Vice President. And then once you got that title, you picked up and moved with your son from New Jersey to California to work as a Director at Cisco, a company you love. How did you make the decision to move?

Dorothea: I rationalized that Avaya was a great place, because I was compensated well. But my sixth sense said, “I want something different, and when it comes along, I’m going to go for it.” I’d reached a stage of maturation where I was ready to take a risk and shake things up. I disrupted my lifestyle and put my livelihood at risk. When someone at my level, mature in their career, moves from one company to the next, over 50% fail and are invited to leave that company within a year. So it was high risk, but I knew I could do it. I had to step up my self-confidence, and I also recalled that the one thing that stood out about the women that I’d interviewed for the Working Women article was how confident they all were.

Brigid: Cisco wasn’t the only thing that drew you to the West.

Dorothea: It was the right thing for me because it encompassed all the different parts of me. I was going towards independence, having my own say, and making my own decisions without wondering who would criticize me for making those decisions. I picked up my young son and I came to where it felt really good.  Northern California is my place. Every town you go to might as well be a different state. It’s Yosemite; it’s skiing; it’s walking; it’s biking; it’s running. Just being outside, bird watching; it’s all the things I loved that I wasn’t taking advantage of where I was.

Making a major change like I did takes a lot of thinking and self-awareness. It requires understanding and recognizing who you are and who you want to be. It takes some investment. I was fortunate enough to have all those experiences with the ELP program. As a result, I worked hard to build a network of genuine friends in this business. To lead with courage, you need an environment where other people are encouraging you, as in putting courage in you…so that your self-confidence is a constant.

Brigid: Encouragement, that’s our mantra.

Dorothea: I’m thinking very differently here at Cisco. It’s a huge place, and I’m thinking, what are all of my opportunities here? What motivates me? What do I want? What’s in it for me? Am I being compensated what I’m worth?  Those would have been difficult questions to ask myself had I put the company before me.

Brigid: What’s some advice you have for women leaders?

Dorothea: Always to go towards and not run from. When you go away, you’re on your heels, whereas when you’re going towards, you’re leaning in and thinking ahead. Continue driving your career.  Find your leadership voice whether at school, in the work place, or in relationships. Make sure you speak with your “outside” voice, so people hear what you have to say. We’ve been taught that to be polite, we should use our “inside” voices, and often that voice doesn’t get heard in leadership. Lovely Gloria Steinem just turned 80. I remember her saying, “This is how 40 looks.” So women in the work force 20/20 need to be saying, “This is how women leaders look.”