Women in Power: JCPenney’s Sharmeelee Bala on the Importance of Showing Up Authentically

As part of FN’s annual Women in Power issue, we asked more than 15 footwear execs who have stepped into prominent new roles this year to talk about overcoming obstacles and their advice for the next generation.

Sharmeelee Bala joined JCPenney in January as chief information officer, charged with the task of developing solutions to unite the retailer’s physical assets with its evolving digital footprint. Prior to joining JCPenney, Bala held several leadership positions at Gap Inc. since 2018, most recently serving as the head of product engineering. She also spent 20 years with Walmart in a number of technology and executive roles of increasing responsibility.

Here, Bala discusses her leadership style, her most significant career barrier and taking time to consider your own needs and values.

My leadership mantra:

“My leadership style is all about creating safe spaces and showing appreciation, not only for hard work, but also for risk-taking and vulnerability. It’s very important to me that leaders show up authentically, bringing their whole selves to the job. I actively try to model this and encourage this behavior for my teams.”

The most significant career barrier I’ve faced and how I overcame it:

“A blend of wanting to be perfect in everything I do and always questioning whether I’m ready for the next step – either from a capability or a capacity standpoint – are feelings I have grappled with throughout my career journey. Too often, I’m the one standing in my way, but amazing mentors in my life have offered encouragement and new perspectives that have given me the confidence and courage to take the next step.”

Advice for women starting out in their careers:

“One of my mentors often says, ‘All the easy jobs are taken, so ask for the challenging roles or the special projects and continue to learn.’ I take this advice to heart and encourage my team members to continuously seize new growth opportunities.

As you advance in your career, take stock of what excites you and brings out your unique superpower, and use that. Be intentional about building your brand and defining your leadership style – and even establishing some non-negotiables. I have a few and adhere to them at all costs. For example, I can’t always attend my kids’ athletic games, but when I do, I commit to being fully present and cheering them on! It’s important to realize that what works for one might not work for others, so take the time to consider your needs and values.”

One thing I wish someone had told me:

“Don’t forget to have fun! Work should be a source of delight, growth and community.”

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