The Page Role Models: Sheryl Battles

Vice President, Communications and Diversity Strategy

Pitney Bowes Inc.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I graduated from Stanford University and I was Human Biology Major.

What attracted you to a career in public relations?

It is funny because first, I had to start by explaining that to my parents -- since after I graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Human Biology I decided to work in communications. My area of concentration after taking the Biology core was using media/communications to support health care systems. I had different experiences like writing a radio soap opera around cardiovascular health. I also teamed with some of the graduate students of psychology at Stanford on a cable TV show to help people stop smoking, where I acted as producer and writer. My father watched that show and he used it to stop smoking! So I was very much into using communication as a tool to inform and shape behaviors in a very positive way. I was really fascinated about it at that time and I still am.

How did you reach the position you now hold?

It was not a straight path. My very first job, after I graduated from college, was at Stanford Medical School doing research. After about a year, I left and got a job in marketing communications with Embarcadero Center, in San Francisco. Throughout the years I had a variety of communications jobs in businesses and in PR agencies. I finally came to Pitney Bowes, where I have been for over 20 years. From media relations to special events, from strategic philanthropy to internal communications, I had the opportunity to pick up the full range of skills that a communicator needs to have. Working in a variety of environments equipped me to be where I am now, as Vice President of Communications and Diversity Strategy.

What particular professional challenges did you face as your career progressed, and how did you overcome them?

It is very difficult to get into communications and it was really challenging to get in the door for the next position. It was especially challenging to start over when I left San Francisco and moved back to Texas. As a young woman with less experience, you always have to prove your ability or your right to be in the room, which could be a challenge but I see it as an opportunity. It just means that you always have to be on your A game and make sure you know what you are talking about and really pay close attention to details. It is a lot of work creating a network and what makes a difference is your emotional intelligence and your ability to navigate and gain resources for ideas.

Were there personal challenges as well?

What I said about having to constantly prove myself could also be related to me being an African American woman. You have to make sure your work ethic is impeccable so no one can question your desire or commitment to doing the job really well. In the beginning of my career, I experienced situations like when I went to a job interview and the woman who was interviewing me looked at me said: "Oh, you looked so good on paper" and kept making comments about my hair. I knew in about a minute that I was not getting that job. But I also considered it related to her education. Some people just don't know any better.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in attracting more people of color to careers in public relations and corporate communications?

Sometimes people of color suffer from not having a mentor and especially a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who is in those rooms that you would not be in. The most important conversations about you take place in rooms where you are not present. The quality of feedback is also important and sometimes people of color don't get the necessary feedback. People tend to shy away from having conversations and research shows that we get less feedback because people don't want to discourage or hurt us. So it's good to develop your own "board of directors," people who give you realistic feedback. Find four or five people who have experience, and it doesn't have to be from the same field. Your "truth tellers." If you don't have people like you, it can also be more difficult to recruit and retain people of color. The role models should be in all the levels of the company. Otherwise you feel that there is no path at the top for you. You also need the courage to be the first and only in the room and to be a pioneer.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young professional today what would it be?

Make sure your skills are in order. You should be able to speak well, write well and tell the story well. Do the basics well, like writing an email well in order to get a response, because people look at your writing as a reflection of your thinking. So make sure it is reflective. Always be open to learning about technology, about your business and learning in developing relationships. Everything is changing quickly every day. Read as much as possible. Your job as a communicator is to help your organization to interact with a variety of stakeholders and you need information that helps you to understand the big picture and the specifics. Some of the most effective networking is when you figure out how you can be useful to those you are networking with, not just thinking about how they can help you.