By Sara Ann Hutto ’17
Illustrations by Chris Koelle

Navigating a career comes with many challenges and hard decisions — it’s the name of the game. We sat down with four alumni business leaders to ask their advice on how to play.

Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde chase you around every turn on the glowing arcade screen as your little yellow avatar races to eat up all of the Pac-Dots without falling into their ghostly multicolored clutches. You only have a few dots left before you win, but then — panic! You make a wrong turn, only to find Inky waiting on the other side. Pac-Man dissolves miserably on the screen. Game over?

Navigating a career can often feel like playing a high-stakes video game, whether you’re chasing down interview opportunities or stressing about making mistakes in a new role. Modern technology and advancements have increased communication and efficiency but have also made the game harder, if you will, leaving you trying to keep up with digital marketing trends or managing endless phone pings on “vacation.” Whether you’re a recent grad or a seasoned pro changing career paths, entering the job market or a new workplace can feel like being swallowed up by a legion of emails, entry-level positions and dead ends.

The landscape may be shifting across many industries, but that doesn’t mean the time isn’t right to level up your career. We asked four Clemson alumni at the top of their respective fields to give advice on leadership and failure in the workplace as well as some pointers on communication, pursuing position changes and more.

MEET THE PLAYERS 

SKILLS:
Leadership  +  Organization  +  Adapting to change

Cheri Dunmore Phyfer ’93, M ’99
President, Fortune Brands Global Plumbing Group

Cheri Phyfer got acquainted with the Carolinas in her childhood, traveling from her Maryland home just outside of Washington, D.C., to visit her grandfather in Florida. In high school, she put Clemson on her list of schools to visit; when she did, she fell in love with the University. Phyfer earned a management degree and, later, her MBA from Clemson.

“Straight out of college, I started with Sherwin-Williams in their manager training program and quickly evolved into the sales side,” she says. This began her 24-year career at the company, which would see her become vice president of marketing, where she ran Sherwin-Williams’ Southwest and Southeast divisions. Then Phyfer moved to Cleveland to run their consumer brands group, which sells to stores like Lowe’s, Menards and Ace. At that point, Sherwin-Williams was selling around 60 brands of paint globally, according to Phyfer.

After over two decades with Sherwin-Williams, it was time for a change. Phyfer turned to Moen, joining as the U.S. president. In 2019, she was named president of the larger group, Fortune Brands Global Plumbing Group, where she can be found out with customers, working with large partners, meeting with the outside sales organization and looking for innovation opportunities with suppliers: “It’s a fun job, and if you can picture every component of manufacturing, distributing, selling, inspiring — it’s all part of it.”

What was it like moving to Moen after being with another company for so long? What advice would you give for those wanting to make a similar move?

I will tell you there was fear. All of a sudden, I was thinking, “Am I only successful here? Is this the organization in which I’ve had success? Will that transfer?” I was very fortunate that I came into a great organization. I had credibility from the career I’d had, and I learned to have some confidence in the leadership style that I bring.

You have to get your arms around the role you’re in, and then I think you should be asking for more. Have proactive conversations and let people know where you aspire to go, especially for women. You have to lean in. And if you’re not seeing the opportunities, I would say be open to external ones. Make sure when you’re joining a company that you’re not just joining a company but a brand that you’re proud of, a company that’s moral and ethical, and, most importantly, a culture in which you see yourself succeeding.

In the job, how do you stay informed and keep learning about your role and your field?

Customer engagement is really important to understand what’s happening out there in the industry. I’m very blessed that I serve on a couple of boards, and I think that exposure to other businesses and other business opportunities or issues really helps me stay informed on the people side, on the legislation side and on the trend side. We’ve started a board matching program to get all of our presidents and above serving on a nonprofit board. I think it helps the nonprofit, it helps a person develop and it helps our organization.

Whether you’re a leader or a team player, how should you approach a meeting?

More and more organizations are moving to matrix organizations [where leadership positions are organized more as a grid than the traditional hierarchy], so I think communication is really important. The most important thing in being effective is having effective meetings. Put together an agenda, make sure there’s a pre-read and make sure there is a goal coming out of that meeting. Meetings should not be data dumps; that should be happening in the pre-read.

Also, make sure you have the right people in the meeting, and make sure people who aren’t in the meeting can find a place to be informed; that’s really linking to the IT side of it. You don’t have to be in a meeting, but you can read the pre-read, the agenda, what happened afterwards. Then you know when it’s going to hit your desk because when you’re taking a product from A to Z, there’s going to be a piece that you own. There are going to be a lot of pieces that you don’t own, and you’re going to have to trust the people bringing it in and trust the people that you hand it off to.

SKILLS:
Transparency  +  Treating others fairly  +  Inclusivity

Jeff Brown ’95
CEO, Ally Financial

Jeff Brown earned a degree in economics from Clemson before moving back to his home state of Ohio to work at Abercrombie and Fitch’s headquarters in Columbus for about a year and a half. Following a brief stint working for his father’s small international dairy business, he landed at Nations Bank (now Bank of America) as an analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina. Brown moved through the ranks at Bank of America until he had the opportunity to join Ally as CEO, a position he’s held for the past five years.

As one of Ally’s major leaders, Brown is focused on creating and maintaining a culture devoted to teamwork: “We all are a part of one company. We’re going to respect each other. We’re going to trust each other. And we’re going to work with each other to build something better. … I view culture as a living, breathing creature, and you’ve got to care for it and nurture it every single day.”

Do you have any personal mantras or guidelines you’ve followed throughout your career?

No. 1: I do what I say I’ll do. Credible communication matters, and it still amazes me today when people don’t follow through on their word. No. 2: I surround myself with good people. That is truly the art of being a good leader. No. 3: I’ve always had this philosophy that my boss should be my biggest advocate. I’m going to protect my boss at all times, obviously within ethical standards. Today, that’s how I treat my board. I try to make sure there are no surprises and that they understand the good, the bad and the ugly. If you have that degree of transparency, I think you can have a really awesome career.

You’re one of Ally’s major leaders. What’s something you’ve made a priority in the company as CEO?

When I reflect on my time with Bank of America, one of the things I thought they did really well was having a true focus not only on diversity but also creating an inclusive environment. When I got to Ally, we didn’t really have that focus. Fast forward, I sit in the CEO chair, and I admit that this is an area that we’re weak on. So, we started employee resource groups, we hired a chief diversity officer, we’ve started new innovative programs. I was recently recognized as the Thurgood Marshall College Fund CEO of the Year, and that’s a huge moment of pride for me — not so much that it has anything to do with me but because that’s recognition on how far this company has come taking a stance on diversity and inclusion. Very, very proud of all that.

Is there a misconception about CEOs that you’d like to clear up?

People sometimes say they’re not human. They’re not people. They’re workaholics. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I think the most effective CEOs are those who recognize, first and foremost, we’re all people. And we have an opportunity to learn in every single engagement with one another, whether it’s with a day-one analyst that comes in with a fresh idea or a 30-year employee. Being a CEO, I embrace that I can learn from everyone; it’s treating people as people versus treating people as employees.

SKILLS:
Staying cool under pressure  +  Mental preparedness  +  Willing to take risks

Tanya Chisolm Sanders ’97
Head of Retail Credit and Fulfillment, Wells Fargo Auto

“I’m an Army brat,” Tanya Sanders laughs. Growing up, she moved around often due to her dad’s position in the military, but she knew he would retire in his home state of South Carolina, which is one reason why she went to Clemson. The other reason? Engineering. 

After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Sanders got a job at General Electric in Greenville, where she worked on gas turbine and power plant designs. At GE, Sanders went through a two-year rotational engineering training program as well as an internal leadership development program known as Corporate Audit Staff (CAS). CAS opened the door into financial auditing for Sanders, which she took on at GE for four years prior to earning her MBA.

When she got married to her husband, who was in the Navy, Sanders moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and found a job with Bank of America, “which is when I moved into auto finance,” she says. She spent 10 years with Bank of America, five years with JP Morgan Chase and is now the head of retail credit and fulfillment at Wells Fargo Auto, where she’s responsible for developing the company’s long-term lending strategies and goals in terms of auto finance.

how do you stay energized and motivated during long work weeks?

What I do, and I’m very religious about it, is three things: I exercise several days a week. It’s the first thing I do in the morning, and I do it when everybody else is sleeping because I’m a mom of three. I meditate every day, which I usually do at the end of the day, and then the third thing I do is I make sure I get sleep. I sleep eight hours a day.

You switched from engineering to a career in finance. What is your advice for those wanting to change jobs or careers but are unsure how?

Step out there and take the risk. I think a lot of times, people try to overthink all of the steps they need to take — the training or the extra degree or whatever it is they think they need — in order to make the change. My suggestion is reach out to someone who’s doing what you want to do. If you don’t know what that is, then start setting up exploratory conversations. And don’t assume that there’s only one way or only one right way to make that career change. Start with the first step and then adjust as you learn more.

As a leader, how do you approach a crisis in the workplace?

If my team were here, they’d say, “Oh, Tanya would say, ‘Calm is contagious.’” It’s actually a quote that I heard from a Navy SEAL. As a SEAL, you’re leading your team into combat; there’s a lot of uncertainty, and there’s a lot at risk. Your team is always looking to you to understand what tone is being set or how afraid or concerned they should be. The leader must be calm and thoughtful and deliberate and confident in how they move through, whether or not they have the answer. I try to make sure there are clear lines of communication to help guide the team through the crisis.

Editor’s Note: Sanders was recently named head of transformation at Wells Fargo Auto.

SKILLS:
Connecting to different perspectives  +  Taking responsibility  +  Prioritizing customers

Kevin Purcer ’99
Senior Director of Customer Digital Experience, Chick-fil-A

Kevin Purcer came to Clemson as a computer science major but quickly realized he wasn’t cut out for it, despite his fascination with technology. “I wanted to get into a little bit more creative field,” he says, “so I transferred into marketing my sophomore year.” Through the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Purcer met Joe Erwin, “who ran an [advertising] agency up in Greenville, South Carolina, where I ended up going to work for him after school.”

At Erwin Penland (EP), Purcer began as a junior account executive, working with Michelin. “That was about the time of the dot-com boom and bust transition,” he remembers, “and agencies had just started doing some digital or interactive marketing for brands and building websites.” This new area of marketing piqued Purcer’s interest, and he dug into the emerging field before eventually leading EP’s digital marketing team.

After 16 years at EP, Purcer took a position at Chick-fil-A to lead social media, which eventually led to his current role as senior director of customer digital experience: “The customer-facing Chick-fil-A app, our rewards program, Chick-fil-A One and a restaurant-level CRM tool that lets local operators build relationships with their customers are the four main digital products that we manage and steward to help build a good digital relationship with our customers.”

With technology changing so quickly, how do you stay on top of it in the digital space?

I built a network of connections to folks who are plugged in and have different perspectives. Make sure you’re not just surrounding yourself with technology evangelists — have some critics in there. And bring in people with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, some close to technology and some not close to technology. I think it’s easy to get shiny object syndrome in this space, and I think we probably overestimate how fast things are changing in the near term and underestimate how fast things are changing in the long term.

How do you handle making major mistakes in the workplace?

When I was at Erwin Penland, we did a website project for BMW; they were having a big homecoming event in Spartanburg at their manufacturing facility for all the roadster owners. We built a registration site that had a countdown clock on it, and people were dying to register. There was an overflow of folks, and the site broke. We were emailing confirmation details to the wrong accounts and stuff like that. It was just a nightmare, a mess. What it taught me was to own your mistakes. Own it, but then pick up and move on and do whatever you can to fix the problem. The team really rallied — it was a lot of manual work, a couple of all-nighters to dig out of that, but we recovered. And the client appreciated the effort.

What’s the most important thing to remember when operating a business or leading a team?

It all starts with the customer. If you serve the customer, the business will come. It’s easy to get in the trap of running a business a certain way: We need to be profitable and have a good margin in order to keep serving customers. But I think what Chick-fil-A does uniquely well is really prioritize the customer, knowing that even though you can’t specifically measure it in that instance, it’s going to be a good business strategy. It’s going to pay off in the long run.