03/28/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

CEO Series: Female Tech Executive Talks About Her Rise to the Top

When Paulett Eberhart started as a junior level accountant at Electronic Data Systems (EDS, now part of HP), she already knew she wanted to branch out into other parts of the business. At that time (1978), EDS had revenues of $300 million and approximately 3,000 employees. During the subsequent 20 years, she not only succeeded in transforming many parts of EDS, but also herself.

I recently spoke with Paulett to learn how she reinvented herself from a "finance person" into her current role as president and CEO of CDI Corporation, a $1.2 billion engineering and technology services company with more than 10,000 employees worldwide.

You started in the accounting area and eventually made yourself indispensable to the Finance department. How did you branch out to other parts of the business?

I was fortunate in that I had several individuals along the way who mentored me. They were males. There weren't other females to really use as mentors or coaches. It's interesting because the first individual who mentored me was married and had five daughters of his own. I think he was looking at how the workforce was changing and at the same time, his daughters were graduating from college and moving into the business world. So, he's the one who first started talking to me. He said, "Look, you can do a lot more. You have a lot more potential than you realize."

He really started pushing me to expand my horizons and move into different areas. Then, when he thought that he had taken me as far as he could, another individual, who happened to have two daughters, took over mentoring me on an informal basis. He made sure that I got on some projects that would help get my name out there so people would recognize my abilities beyond just finance and accounting. He, too, pushed me and helped me figure out how to negotiate and maneuver within the company.

Many women would love to get good mentors. How did you position yourself to get these men to take you under their wings?

If it was something conscious I did, I'm not sure what it was. I think that I worked hard, and they saw that I had potential. But my advice is, don't walk in and pronounce, "I want you to be my mentor." Just develop a relationship. Look around your company, look at someone who you admire and build a relationship with them. You'll likely find that people are willing to reach out and help you along the way. Don't find mentors who look and act like you and have your same background. Find mentors who are different from you.

So with the help of your mentors, you worked hard and gained opportunities to take on bigger and more complex projects in the company. And you were promoted several times along the way. Did you face any particularly difficult career choices?

One of the best moves I ever made in my career was to take a step down the ladder. At one point I reported directly to the CEO. But when I went from the finance organization to run a piece of the operations, I dropped to two levels away from the CEO. A lot of people told me I was crazy for doing that. They said, "You should never take a lateral or step down." Look, I felt that it was the right thing to do to achieve my long-term objective. Within a year, I was right back up reporting to the CEO, but the majority of opinions I got were, "Don't do that. That's a bad move for your career." But it wasn't. It was one of the best moves I ever made.

Describe an event that had a profound impact on how you viewed yourself and your career.

I was at a meeting. One of my bosses at the time was going around the table and asking for opinions on something business-related. He got to me, and I said, "Well, I'm the finance person." He said, "Everyone in here is expected to have an opinion. I don't care if you are the HR person, the finance person, the sales person or the president of the business. Everybody here is a business executive and you need to have an opinion."

After that, I thought, I'm never going to make that mistake again. So, whether it was about strategy, products or anything else, I always had an opinion on it. I wanted to be known and viewed as a strong business executive.

What do you mean by a "strong business executive" and does that influence your leadership style?

You've got to develop the courage of your convictions. I think you have to be willing to take some risks and some gambles, and to maybe take an unpopular position because you really think it's the right thing to do. I'm very willing to have open, frank conversations that other people just aren't willing to have. But you've got to be professional about it. You can't just go out there and, as we say, break glass everywhere, because that doesn't accomplish anything.

You have to be tough and able to sort through a massive amount of information and figure out what's critical. You have to prioritize. I have learned through life, balancing a career, raising a family and spending time with my extended family, you learn to cut through the issues very quickly and get to the heart of the issue, try to solve it, and then move on. Because you just don't have a lot of spare time.

I believe in finding balance in life. You can't be the best at everything. I really pride myself in carving out a niche that's more focused on transformation, and how I transform businesses. And, at the same time, throughout my career I've transformed myself. I think you have to do both.

Speaking of balancing career and family, how did you do that? What sort of sacrifices did you make?

There are certainly things that I've missed in my children's lives along the way -- a soccer game and various events. Maybe I didn't participate as much on a day-to-day basis, let's say in school activities. But I think I made up for it in other ways with my children. I brought my daughter's seventh grade class out to EDS and took them through the data center. And my kids traveled around the world with us.

Early in my career, my husband and I both worked for Fortune 100 companies, so it wasn't always easy. My husband was in sales, and I was in finance so I wasn't traveling as much. But, as I got further up, I was traveling more and more. Since he's very much the entrepreneur, he went out and started several new businesses, which allowed him to have much more flexibility. He coached our kids a lot and did things like that in sports that I would have never been able to do because I just did not have that much flexibility.

If you were giving advice to a younger you, what would you say?

First, do what you love, what you enjoy.

Second, stay current in skills, in your industry and in current affairs. I find a lot of younger people don't necessarily stay current with what's going on in the world. Again, it goes back to this mantra -- I wanted to be known as a really solid and outstanding business executive. I find that too many individuals cannot talk about economics, their views of the world or the political situation. They don't need to try to change someone's opinion, but they should be able to sit down and have a dinner conversation.

Then, specifically for women, I think that they need to realize that you can't be perfect at everything. I think my generation was raised to believe that you needed to be perfect. Figure out what's important to you and find balance in your life. Recognize that you have to give on certain things.

Third, and I didn't start this early enough in my career, is to develop your network of individuals. Stay in touch with them. Don't just pass out a business card to them. Be interested in their career and where your career is going.

And finally, you've got to start making some things happen for yourself. There are a lot of really smart people working really hard who don't get noticed. Don't be afraid to go talk to other people in your company or in other companies. People are very willing to give advice. If they see you working hard and really trying, they want to help and see you get ahead. That's something you've got to go and ask for. I think back in the beginning of my career, something I didn't do enough of was promoting myself. It didn't come naturally for me.

If Paulett's story is any indication, women will continue their rise to the top despite the glass ceiling. In upcoming posts, I'll be writing about other remarkable women (executives and company founders) who are disrupting the traditional leadership model.

This article first appeared on