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Learn from hardship

Kay Hammer restarts her career—and thrives

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

As president and CEO of Evolutionary Technologies International Inc., Kay Hammer has an unusual résumé. At 31, she was a professor of linguistics and a single mother with two young daughters to raise.

That’s when she reinvented herself. She learned about software development and applied her new knowledge to the booming field of data integration management software. Today she runs a successful software company.

WS: Your new book, Workplace Warrior, talks about conquering adversity. What kind of adversity did you face?

Hammer: Every advance I’ve ever made has come out of pain, anger and frustration. I think that’s true of most people. Leaders deal with pain head-on. Others run away from it or blame people for it.

WS: Can you give an example?

Hammer: I grew up in Shreveport, La., in the 1950s. From an early age, I struggled to gain acceptance in a man’s world. I got accepted to Smith and to Barnard, and I couldn’t wait to go away to college. But my father pulled my funding two weeks beforehand so I couldn’t go.

WS: What did you do?

Hammer: I didn’t go to a big-name college. I got married a year later. I got jobs, but I kept locking myself into battles with my bosses. I really had a chip on my shoulder. I started asking myself, ‘Why do I keep making the same mistakes? Why aren’t I getting anywhere?’

WS: Did you come up with any answers?

Yes, I knew I had to stop battling with bosses and move around them. I stopped the “He’s stupid—I’m smart” way of thinking and just got things done.

WS: What lesson did you learn?

Hammer: There are two kinds of leaders. The first kind are weak. They’re more concerned with how they’re perceived from above than below. The second kind navigate the hierarchy to get things done while making those under them feel a sense of loyalty and influence.

WS: How did that realization affect your management style?

Hammer: I really started paying attention to my employees. I’d watch their faces. I recall going up to an employee and saying, ‘You look upset. Is something bothering you?’ After some prodding, she told me about some things going on in her area that I needed to know about, that I was able to fix only because I was willing to be there for her and let her open up.

WS: But doesn’t that lead people to complain or dump their problems on you?

Hammer: That can happen. I had an employee who was very bright but she would always tell me about bad people and how life was unfair. I’d listen to a point. Finally I said to her, ‘Your problem is you think the world is unfair. And that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ She was angry at me after that, and she eventually quit.

WS: How do you suggest people weigh risk when making career decisions?

Hammer: All I can say is what I believe: I’d rather face the devil than face a life of regret.

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