Women in Business: Sharon Rowlands, Chief Executive Officer, ReachLocal

03/18/2015 05:56 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Sharon Rowlands was named CEO of ReachLocal in April 2014. Ms. Rowlands has more than 20 years of experience leading multi-billion dollar companies serving small and medium-sized businesses, financial markets, and enterprise customers. She was most recently CEO of Altegrity, a billion dollar global risk consulting and information services company with approximately 10,000 employees around the world. During her tenure from 2011 to 2013, she transformed Altegrity from a holding company into three independent business units each with their own growth strategy.

From 2008 to 2011 she was CEO of Penton Media, the largest independent business-to-business media company in the U.S., where she led development of the company's digital advertising platform and scaled it to a core capability - providing Penton's six million advertisers with the tools needed to increase their online presence. From 1997 to 2008, Ms. Rowlands worked for Thomson Financial, a $2 billion dollar division of The Thomson Corporation that provides content, technology and services for the world's largest financial institutions. While with Thomson, she held a variety of executive-level positions, including President and CEO from 2005 to 2008. Ms. Rowlands was instrumental in developing the strategy that guided Thomson Financial's transformation from 45 disparate product platforms to a more cohesive global financial information and technology provider serving thousands of global companies. She also established Thomson as one of the most innovative partners to the global financial community, as evidenced by her induction into the Inside Data Hall of Fame in 2003. Previously, Ms. Rowlands held executive leadership roles at Financial Times Information (now Interactive Data Pricing and Reference Data, Inc.), a leading provider of financial information and analytical software.

Ms. Rowlands served on the Board of Directors for Automatic Data Processing, Inc. from 2008 to 2011. She was a member of the Media Governor's Group at Davos in 2007 and 2008, and she received a Merit Award in 2005 from the Women's Bond Club of New York in recognition of her career accomplishments on Wall Street. Inside Market Data named Ms. Rowlands its Executive of the Year in 2003.

Ms. Rowlands received her Postgraduate Certificate in Education from the University of London and her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Newcastle, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My leadership style was shaped by my experience as the oldest of four in a working class family, I was "head girl" in my high school in England, and early in my career, I transitioned from being a teacher to a financial executive. All of these experiences, helped shape me into the leader I am today. I always find myself excited by the next challenge. A small example of that is seen in my passion for golf. Before one of my mentors mentioned to me that I could actually conduct business on the golf course, I had never even picked up a club. Now I do it as part of my business process, but also as pure enjoyment.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ReachLocal?
One of my first significant leadership roles was as a sales manager. In sales, you quickly learn if you have what it takes - or not. You hit your quota or you don't. As a sales leader you're doubly accountable for those measures because you're responsible for ensuring your entire sales force meets their goals as well. In short order, you must learn to hire the right people and help them develop their skills, to set goals and to appraise people correctly. If you don't develop those talents you won't succeed. What I learned thirty years ago as a sales manager is still useful to me today in my role as a CEO. We are an organization that relies heavily on sales success and making sure our clients are happy so that skill set is still very important to me today.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ReachLocal?
We are on a transformation journey that we expect to begin showing positive momentum sometime in the middle of 2015, and leading us back to growth and profitability for years to come. When I started in April, I knew we had some work to do. As a business, I think we lost a bit of focus. We made some tactical execution errors. For example, we made a change to the North American sales operation in December 2013 before I started that has had a significant impact on the performance of the company. Good news is that we know how to course correct and are moving forward with a more effective "go to market" approach that includes a stronger focus on lead generation. We're evolving our sales organization to one that balances the need for new business growth and client retention. Internationally, we're being smarter about the markets that we invest in and aligning success scaling appropriatelyin those markets. As a result, all of these challenges have helped us better understand our clients and we are now developing products that provide them greater value - products that they want and need. We have a solid, talented leadership and employee team who are passionate about our business and helping our clients succeed. We are working on the right things now and we have a product roadmap in place that will get us back to growth and profitability. I remain optimistic and excited about the future of Reachlocal.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
I recently wrote an article for Huffington Post that included tips to becoming a CEO. I think those tips are also relevant to women who want to start their own business. Those tips are: 1) manage a sales force at least once in your career, 2) learn your way around a balance sheet and a computer, 3) build your network. In addition to that I'd advise building a sound business plan so that you are smartly measuring your risks associated with that business. Putting all that aside, I say go for it! We can always come up with a reason for why we shouldn't do something.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I had always thought that if I focused on my job and drove results then the next opportunity would come. When my previous employer merged with another company I did not get the top job. I realized that I had not spent enough time networking, managing up to the board and building my own PR. Making sure you have champions who can help push on your behalf and also bring opportunities to your attention is also key. I tell my executives that I don't want them to do much of this, but the reality is you have to do some of it.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm not sure that there's such a thing as work/life balance, and everyone defines that differently. I think it's just life. What do I mean by that? There are going to be times when I'm so focused on work that I have to push everything else aside. But then there are times when I may not look at email all day if I've made a commitment to one of my children. There are times when I might be on my way to the dentist and I'm taking a conference call (hands free, of course!) on my way to that appointment. Each individual has to adjust their life in the way that is best suited for them.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think men and women run into similar challenges in the workplace. I do still think that women have to work harder to move ahead in certain areas of business. That's why I think it's critical for women to ensure they have the right financial acumen if they have ambition to follow a career path outside of support functions in a business. I would advise those women to take that more seriously at the beginning of their career.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I attribute part of my success to the fact that I had great opportunities and great champions along the way, but I also worked to develop skills that I saw were necessary for the leadership roles that I wanted which eventually led me to my role today. I also want to call out that I had "champions." I think "mentors" can be helpful, but champions or advocates can have even greater impact. These are going to be the people who open up paths for you, make you aware of opportunities that you otherwise may not have visibility to and who introduce you to other influencers that can help you in your career.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
It's great to see more women leaders across all sorts of organizations - political, business and non-profit. Personally, I am impressed when I see women who have achieved so much despite having to overcome many personal challenges. Typically these women all have something in common - courage. I have gotten to know so many courageous women over the last few years that have become great friends and colleagues. Women who have suffered pain in their lives from losing loved ones or going through intense emotional challenges such as divorce and illness. Yet, they still manage to succeed in their careers and serve as inspirations to many people. If I have to name one person in terms of public figures, Hillary Clinton always stands out for me. I love the way she holds her head high and powers ahead despite all she endured in terms of her personal life playing out in the public arena. It's a great lesson for us all in keeping your focus and not allowing the challenges that inevitably come up get in the way of your ultimate goals.

What do you want ReachLocal to accomplish in the next year?
I want us to remain focused on executing our strategy of providing the leading total digital marketing system to local businesses. We know that our clients need great products AND a great client experience. I want us to be more vocal about the unique value that we provide our clients - software with expert service (so we help you do it). We can help business owners easily and simply get a total view of all of their digital marketing, from lead sources to conversion rates to revenue from new customers, all so they finally know their return on investment and can make better decisions about their marketing budget - something that our competitors can't offer.