From Call Centers to the C-Suite: Owning Your Journey – A Conversation with Wanda Cherry

Photo: Cox Enterprises. (2022, June 8). United By Our Uniqueness | Wanda Cherry [Video]. YouTube.

Written By Hailey Hunt – 

The business world is rife with stories of determination, adaptability, and growth. I recently interviewed  Wanda Cherry, former director at Cox Communications, to discuss her illustrious career, the value of soft skills, her insights into women’s unique challenges in the corporate landscape, and the top mistakes she made throughout her career.


From Call Center to C-Suite: The Unlikely Path

Wanda Cherry didn’t begin her career in technology; she started in a call center. While many would consider this a humble beginning, Wanda leveraged the opportunity to master soft skills like customer care, team management, and quality assurance. This unique skill set gave her a distinct advantage in the tech industry, an industry often criticized for lacking customer-centric leaders. Her route to the executive level was marked by a focus on business process outsourcing and vendor management. Wanda’s diverse background proves that there is no one-size-fits-all path to leadership.


Leading Through Challenging Times

As the pandemic set in and the world shifted to remote work, Wanda found herself responsible for managing C-suite-level executive meetings virtually. The experience was initially intimidating, yet it revealed her innate ability to adapt and manage high-pressure situations with grace by putting a focus on learning new tools to institute more productive processes. A combination of a dedicated team and her customer-focused mindset helped her transition these high-stakes meetings to an online platform seamlessly. When asked how she managed the pressure, Wanda responded, “I knew what needed to be done and had a fantastic team to help. My focus was always on taking care of my customers, in this case, my executive team.” Wanda recognized a need and took initiative. She navigated through many scheduling nightmares yet managed to bring 15 different executive teams together for their weekly morning meetings. Wanda’s innate ability to create cohesive and creative spaces made her the best person for the job. 


The ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and How to Combat It

Like many professionals, Wanda admitted that she grappled with self-doubt. This often manifested into her undervaluing her contributions to projects and team success. She attributed this mindset to a societal tendency that discourages ‘tooting one’s own horn.’ However, Wanda overcame this by adopting an empowering motto, “Permission granted,” allowing her to celebrate her accomplishments and those of her team members. “Sometimes we feel like we need permission to say ‘I do know,’ ‘I did that right,’ or ‘I was good.’ It’s not about being conceited. It’s not even about being boastful. It is just owning and understanding the value you have.”


The Illusion of “Done” Learning

Wanda mentioned that after earning  her MBA and a PMP certification, she felt she was set for success. This feeling is common for many who believe that formal education is the finish line for growth. It is an illusion that can cause a career plateau. What stood out in Wanda’s experience was when she realized  that one needs to be intentional about their growth. Being a part of a book club was one of the simpler solutions she adopted for her personal growth. However, the true transformation came when she decided to lead a book club. It wasn’t just about absorbing knowledge but also facilitating knowledge sharing. When asked how to keep learning throughout one’s career, Wanda emphasized that learning is not just about acquiring technical skills or certifications. Soft skills and personal growth are equally important. She encouraged putting oneself in positions that challenge, stating emphatically, “We grow when we’re uncomfortable.” 


Beyond the Job Title: Expanding Your Professional Identity

One career mistake closely related to the topic of growth is the risk of tying your professional identity solely to your current position or employer. Wanda cautioned against becoming myopic and losing sight of one’s true self during projects. To counter this, she advocated for becoming a member of professional organizations outside of one’s company. Wanda strongly recommends that employees participate in external resource groups if your company offers them. “It helps you to learn and grow with your colleagues,” she shared. During her tenure at Cox, she emphasized the same in executive forums. “Seeing colleagues in different environments can significantly enhance workplace relationships,” Wanda stated. Resource groups are more than just communities; they serve as learning platforms that enhance (or enrich) both your professional and personal development. There is a popular quote by Jim Rhon that states, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Wanda beautifully extended this idea, mentioning that a diversified network can provide various kinds of support, from career guidance to emotional backing.


Networking: Nurturing Over Collecting

Wanda emphasized the importance of networking, specifically, the need to “nurture” one’s network. She explained that it is about being intentional with your connections by maintaining communication in a meaningful way and looking for opportunities to assist others. Networking is not a tool just for self-promotion; it’s a two-way street of shared growth and opportunities. It is often described as the ‘scaffolding’ of a successful career. Many of us, however, do not fully leverage the potential of our professional networks, and some of us even neglect them.The key takeaway here is that these external associations offer significant growth opportunities, not just resume-fillers. Our networks offer opportunities to meet like-minded professionals and contribute to larger objectives, beyond one’s immediate job role. “Your network is ongoing, and you need to prioritize expanding your reach before you need the benefits of having a vast network,” Wanda remarks. Many people realize the importance of their network only when they need something, like a job or a business opportunity, and at that point, it might be too little too late. Wanda advises everyone to consistently update their professional social media accounts, like LinkedIn, not only to maintain existing connections but also to establish new ones.


Advice for the Younger Generation

“If you’re in the mailroom, make it known that you aspire to be the CEO,” says Wanda. Whether you are just starting your career or are already midway through, expressing your aspirations can set the pace for your professional journey. It not only helps you but also allows peers to know your goals, which makes the path clearer and potentially faster. Sothe next time you find yourself doubting your abilities or the value of your contributions, remember Wanda’s words: “Permission granted.”