Take the Chance - Opportunities Await Outside Your Comfort Zone

By Yasmin Hosseinzadeh, Corporate Communications + Digital Content Manager, PayPal
May 18, 2017 12:20 PM ET
This month, we are featuring Peggy Abkemeier Alford as part of our Women Leaders of PayPal series. Peggy is PayPal’s Global Head of Cross-Border Trade and was recently named SVP, Human Resources – People Operations.
Thanks again for taking time to share some personal insights with us today, Peggy. Let’s start with some background information – tell me about your family and early years.
I am one of six kids – six adopted kids, actually, all of different ethnicities. I was in born in Pennsylvania, but only spent my first five years there while my mom worked to earn her PhD in Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She is extremely accomplished in a typically male driven field, so I was influenced and inspired by her achievements from an early age. We moved to Missouri following her graduation and I grew up in St. Louis – in the middle of the country, the true Midwest – from age 5 on through high school. I attended the University of Dayton in Ohio for college, where I ran track and cross country, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting. I returned to St. Louis following graduation to join Arthur Anderson LLP, which was part of the “big five” accounting firms at the time.
Can you share an overview of your professional background?
I spent four years in the audit business of Arthur Andersen LLP’s St. Louis office before transferring to the Washington D.C. audit practice to work on government clients. Then in the early 2000s there was the IPO boom in Silicon Valley and the firm had a program where they recruited global employees to work in California to assist with all the firm’s technology clients. I came out to San Francisco as part of that program and was handling transactional work, the practice responsible for merger and acquisition consulting and diligence, and was there for a three years before I had the opportunity to join to eBay.
I joined eBay’s accounting policy group as a Senior Manager working on acquisition and divestiture diligence. The very first deal I worked on in September 2002 was actually the acquisition of PayPal! I spent four years with the group and was eventually named Senior Director and team lead. Around this time our eBay “Deal Captain” asked if I would relocate to Santa Monica to be the CFO of Rent.com, an eBay portfolio company. At the time, I was single and living in San Jose.… so I said absolutely! I moved to Southern California to be the CFO, which was a huge learning curve because I went from a background in business consulting and auditing to taking on Financial Planning & Analysis, Strategy and all things a CFO is traditionally responsible for. That said, it was the best learning experience ever in terms of being able to round-out my finance skills and to learn what it means to run a company. I later stepped into the role of CEO and managed the company’s product and technology teams in addition to the finance and operations functions I was already overseeing, including sales, marketing, and strategy.  I served as CEO for four years before accepting an offer with PayPal in San Jose.
I started as the Americas CFO for PayPal - so back to finance, but still very operational because it was a regional position. I went on to manage different parts of the finance organization – Americas, Global Credit, Merchant and Consumer business units – before taking on the role of COO for PayPal’s APAC region and serving as the company’s Global Head of Cross-Border Trade. I continue to lead our cross-border business today and was recently appointed the SVP of Human Resources, People Operations.
You’ve taken on various roles and responsibilities in your career - what character traits have empowered you to keep learning new skill sets and taking on new opportunities?
First, I’ve tried to always look at what I’m working on from an end-to-end perspective and not just the specifics of what I’m personally responsible for. This comes from my consulting background - that’s how they train you, so that’s how I go about learning and how I think about getting up to speed quickly. This approach has enabled me to learn in a broader and deeper way, and to obtain opportunities in areas where I didn’t have as much experience because leaders felt comfortable knowing I would jump in to learn it. I think this mindset is key regardless of the discipline you are in.
I also have a true appreciation for surrounding myself with and hiring people that are better than me and whose skill sets complement my own. You have to hire well to enable yourself to learn new areas. When I went down to Rent.com, I leveraged the teams that already had expertise in newer areas for me without letting the fear of “I’m not offering anything here” deter me. As a new leader you have to be willing to leverage your team’s talents to help the business move things along while you’re getting up to speed.
Lastly, a trait that I’ve heard is stereotypically a challenge for women is being ok with jumping on an opportunity when you don’t feel completely ready. That’s a scary thing to do and I think stereotypically women like to feel prepared before they tackle a challenge and that can limit your ability to progress because the timing of when you get opportunities is not something you can always control. Being willing to feel that fear and feel that nervousness and do it anyway, knowing that you’re going to leverage the talent that already exists there, is something that you have to just practice and have to continue to forcing yourself to do.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing female leaders?
It’s not the same for all women, but for some I’d say it’s an opportunity issue. Once you get to a certain level I think a lot of the opportunities are relationship based – and I’m not saying that you don't have to meet the qualifications for the job, you definitely do, but I’m saying how you hear about opportunities is often relationship based. It’s natural to gravitate to people you share similarities with and it can be difficult when you don’t see other women, or even diverse folks, at the top.
Other times it’s a balance thing. Balance can be extremely difficult for working mothers trying to find that happy medium of continuing to advance their careers and doing what they feel they need to do at home. Often women will opt out or feel like they can’t seek out that next big opportunity because it may take away from their responsibilities at home. So it’s a very personal decision and is really dependent on flexibility in the workplace or the ability to work differently. I’ve found myself sometimes saying “I don’t know that I can do this” – and it’s not that anyone has told me that, it’s just that I personally feel that way. But I’ve taken steps to make sure I’m vocal about my needs at work. I’ll say “I’m more than happy to take this call, but I have to spend an hour reading to my son and getting him to bed tonight - I’ll be free to chat after that”. And it’s not the same every day. I have to be flexible, I have to ask for flexibility and I have to prioritize what’s most important when. I am a true believer that women can have it all, but may not all be at the same time. So whether that’s determining when work or family is the priority, you have to decide what works for you and be honest and open about that.
What counsel do you have for first time leaders and people managers?
I think it’s exactly what I was describing - go in with a mindset of seeking to understand first, don’t try to just jump in and change everything based on what you think following the first meeting. Set the stage of seeking to understand first. Don’t feel like you need to know it all, own it all, do it all. Lean on your team and give them credit, allowing them to participate in the process – and your success - by involving them in your learning curve.   
Also, always have the confidence to know there’s a reason you’re in the position, even if you’re not a subject matter expert. Maybe you bring leadership skills, collaboration skills, an intuitive vision into how cross-functional groups need to work together. Maybe you’re skilled at teasing out the root-cause issues of problems that could help the business move forward. Whatever it is, be confident in what you bring to the table. Without that confidence you can end up stifling your ability to be successful by trying to overcompensate and acting like you can do everything single-handedly.
That’s an interesting take on leadership – can you tell me more about your personal management style?
I’m big into providing insight, clarity and context to help my teams understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it aligns with our North Star and strategy, and the importance of working together because there are dependencies outside of what we do as a team. Often times you find that different levels have different access to the strategy and road map, which means some employees may never get context around the work they’re doing. From a leadership perspective, I think one of the biggest things we can do to enable and empower our teams is to provide that insight, that context and that direction.
I also think building successful teams and hiring well is extremely important. I am hyper-focused on building diverse teams and when I say diverse, I mean diversity of background, thoughts, and views. What I typically think about – for instance, when I was building PayPal’s Cross-Border Trade team – is what are all the skill sets needed to move this team, project and company forward. It’s about finding complimentary skill sets, making sure the team works well together and ensuring everyone contributes to the greater goal.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Step outside your comfort zone. I think I’ve done that to some extent, but you can never do it too much. Step outside of your comfort zone, seek opportunities that help you grow and round out your skill set. Don’t worry about the typical path or progression from a level perspective, worry about it from a skill set perspective because that’s where the jump-step progression comes.
The other thing I would say is don’t be scared to really confront the need to balance your personal and your professional life. I got married late in life – I got married at 39, had my first child at 41 and am having my second one at 45 (I’m just days away from maternity leave) because I was so focused on my career. It’s really important to figure out that integration strategy as early as possible because it’s something that you’re going to have to practice throughout your whole career if you choose to have a family. It’s just something you’ve got to get right and you’ve got to figure out how to navigate. So don’t wait to do that.
And listen, you’re never going to feel like you’ve got it right. I still feel like I don’t spend enough time at home and I don’t spend enough time at work. It’s natural, so you’ve just got to be ok with that.
Thank you, Peggy. We appreciate your time!
Content has been edited to fit the format and for clarity.