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A Great Example For Women in IT

Colleen Blake

Greatest Challenge: Without a traditional HR background, having come from the IT and systems-consulting world, she has dealt with increasing responsibilities in an HR organization. "Being a nontraditional HR person has allowed me to come up with nontraditional solutions, which can be both a strength and a challenge," she says.

Greatest Achievement: As a committed mother of three and successful HR leader who started in IT, Blake has led by example and has made a positive impact on her company's culture through programs such as Women in Networking, which encourages women to enter the technology field.

This article accompanies Reinventing Core HR.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
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Editor's note: At the time this issue went to press, we learned that Colleen Blake had decided to leave Brocade Communication Systems Inc. to pursue other work and life options. Though her trajectory may have changed, she is no less a Rising Star.

Colleen Blake knows from whence she leads. Chosen as one of this year's HR's Rising Stars, Blake -- the senior director of global people operations for Brocade Communications Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif. -- was proving women have a place in business and business-technology leadership well before she entered the HR realm at Brocade.

A marketing major at Santa Clara University, Blake headed into consulting and marketing roles for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and IBM in the late 1990s. She then filled information-technology roles with Saba Software until 2001, followed by her first taste of human resources as a program manager for HR global systems with Sun Microsystems before joining Brocade in 2003 as a senior HR technology program manager.

"The fact that Colleen started off in marketing and quickly transitioned into a consultative role, which leveraged her strengths in marketing and IT, gives her immense insight into the inner workings of the business -- a perspective that, often, other HR professionals are lacking," says Lisa McGill, senior vice president of human resources and Blake's boss.

That insight doesn't stop at the intricacies of her business. Having already proven herself in often-male-dominated technology stints and having more recently embraced the struggles and satisfactions of working motherhood (Blake, 37, and her husband, Eric, have three daughters, Emily, 10, Lauryn, 7, and Olivia, 3), she is passionate about helping women succeed in high-tech fields.

When Blake first joined Brocade, female employees ranked the company lower than their male counterparts in 54 of 58 satisfaction-survey questions. After much planning and negotiating, Blake several years ago launched and now oversees Women in Networking, consisting of a council of 15 people -- men and women -- at all levels of the organization who meet regularly to devise and institute more networking opportunities, work/life integration, and mentoring and developmental programs for all workers, particularly women.

As she recalls, Brocade leaders "had approached me when I returned to work [after Emily's birth] and said, 'Colleen, we have this problem encouraging women in this field.' To be tapped on the shoulder like that felt like a real sign for me, that I was meant to do this -- not just for me, but for my daughter as well."

Since its inception, nearly 1,000 of Brocade's 5,000 employees -- men and women -- have joined WIN and awareness of the importance of networking and developmental opportunities has grown, "particularly for the females at Brocade," says McGill. Satisfaction-survey results have also improved. WIN has been so effective, in fact, that it has not only "justified the company instituting a dedicated head of diversity and inclusion," according to Blake, it's also gotten her noticed. The evening of the very day she was being interviewed for this story, Blake was to be honored at the Silicon Valley Business Journal's Women of Influence awards dinner. She was also recently recognized as one of New Leaders Council's Silicon Valley's 40 Under 40.

Blake is passionate not only about helping women excel in IT, but also about helping companies improve their systems through technology. Three years ago, before Blake left on maternity leave for the third time, it became apparent to her that employee data was not readily available and the time it was taking employees or managers to obtain information was jeopardizing productivity.

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In response, she created and launched "HR365," a self-service intranet portal, available globally, where employees can learn about and process information and forms in eight separate HR-related categories: benefits, employment verification, global immigration and mobility, learning and development, managers, new hires, Oracle and recruitment. The new function, HR Solutions Group, keeps every task simple and straightforward. "For example," Blake says, "the recruiting function was first called 'talent acquisitions.' For Joe Schmo, I'm not thinking in [those] terms ... . So TA became recruitment," she says.

As a result of the initiative, email and phone calls into HR were cut by more than 50 percent and employee productivity "improved by at least 25 percent," according to McGill.

Even outside the company, and even while taking an active role in her daughters' school activities and development, Blake voluntarily mentors K through 12 girls with a focus on getting more women into science, technology, engineering and math careers. She's also active in the annual Dare to be Digital Conference, designed to attract middle-school girls to technology fields.

To be effective, Blake says, HR needs to adopt the "methodologies, metrics and project-management" approaches that can be found in IT and marketing.

"Stop using the buzzwords," she says. "Go back to the straight talk ... . I do tire of hearing 'What's your employee-engagement plan?' [HR shouldn't] focus on these things that are intangible; instead, be that catalyst" for more direct communication between top leaders and employees about business goals and everyone's role toward them.

Blake's authenticity underscores her work, life and leadership, says McGill, and makes her "a great role model ... of how women [really] 'can have it all.' " 


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