The Road to CDO — How Sherry Aaholm Navigated Challenges in a Male-Oriented Industry

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Sherry Aaholm

Courtesy of Sherry Aaholm

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Early in her career, Sherry Aaholm recognized that women faced more challenges in the workplace than their male counterparts. 

When she was hired as an assistant to a VP of marketing at a transportation company, she discovered that there were no other women in leadership or management positions. “The view was that trucking was a male-oriented business and women wouldn’t want to work there in leadership roles,” she explained. 

But Aaholm pushed her male manager to allow her to participate in the manager assessment program, which enabled her to secure a managerial and then director role, becoming only one of two female directors at the company. When she applied for a VP position and was passed over, she left. “[I was] frustrated that I couldn’t break through the glass ceiling,” she said.

Today, Sherry Aaholm is the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at Cummins Inc. But the road to get there wasn’t easy. 

Working as a waitress and operating the grill in fast-food restaurants, she struggled to make ends meet with no benefits and a part-timer’s paycheck. Once she had worked her way up to her first VP role, also in the transportation industry, she was the only female VP at the company. 

“I constantly felt like I was having to prove myself and trying to fit in,” Aaholm said. “I wore suits or pants, cut my hair short and talked about sports. I’d find myself questioning if I was good enough.”

But that changed when she was recruited to join another organization. “That company valued diversity, and suddenly I found myself in a place where my gender did not matter.”

Aaholm worked her way up to becoming the first female Executive Vice President at the organization. Unfortunately, she found herself back in her original position, where she struggled to fit in among peers who were all men. Her eye on the goal of becoming a CIO, she realized she would need to leave in order to find a company that “demonstrated diversity at the top, not just talked about it.”

That led her to Cummins, a company that appeared to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. 

“That is why I love Cummins,” Aaholm said. “We live our values, rather than just talking about them.”

Aaholm joined Cummins in 2013. In her role as VP and CIO, she was responsible for IT transformation strategy, digital innovation, connected products and daily operations of the global infrastructure footprint, as well as the executive leadership of the global strategy of the IT Operating Team; the Digital Accelerator, which leverages the latest technologies to design and launch connected solutions for global customers; and Advanced Analytics, which uses statistics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify challenges and opportunities for customers.

Aaholm was recently named Chief Digital Officer for Cummins, and she will focus on the digitization of Cummins’ products as an integral component of the company’s strategy of maintaining product leadership and acceleration of growth in new areas. 

Paying it forward.

Aaholm credits much of her success to having mentors who have given her constructive feedback and advice, encouraged her to step outside her comfort zone and “take a chance on myself.”

Now, she takes the opportunity to pay it forward and be a mentor to others. It’s especially rewarding when mentees at previous employers reach out and check in.

“It is so special to see them thrive, grow and forge their own paths,” she said. “I am so proud of what some of these women have overcome. Mentors see things you do not see and guide you. I didn’t believe in myself, but my mentors did and that gave me the freedom to move into the IT world when I didn’t think I was qualified.”

Aaholm considers herself a strong advocate for helping to develop the next generation of talent, and for encouraging women to pursue careers in IT. In order for fellow women to succeed and attain leadership positions, she offers the following advice:

  1. Believe in yourself. Recognize that you have more to offer than you may realize.

  2. Lay out your goals. Define a clear vision of what you want to achieve in five or 10 years.  Think about the big and small steps to get you there.

  3. Be yourself. You should not have to change to conform. If you do, the job may not be the right fit.  

  4. Challenge the way things have been done.  Ask questions, and push the envelope.  Women see the world through a different lens.  We have to take care of the kids, our parents and relatives. We have challenges others do not have. Make them known.

Aaholm has plenty of experience putting these principles into practice. For example, when she had her daughter, she found herself struggling to find daycare. “So, I didn’t ask permission to bring her to work,” she noted. “I just did it.”

Furthering the mission of diversity.

Ultimately, Aaholm believes diversity and inclusion aren’t just about attracting great talent; they’re also about advancing them into leadership roles.

“In the information technology sector, there is competition for diverse talent,” she explained. “My team cares deeply about this, and has implemented courageous conversations with diverse talent, formal mentoring programs and succession programs for diverse talent. We believe this is not enough and continue to assess how we can do more.”

“This one is very personal to me where I am on my own journey to understand my white privilege,” she added. “I know I grew up poor and had to prove to others that I could succeed.  However, I also grew up with Black kids in my neighborhood who were treated worse than I was in school …  People questioned my gender, but they did not question my skin color. Yes, gender is hard, but it is even harder if you have a different skin color and are a woman. That means all women, regardless of race, must push others forward.”

Sherry Aaholm’s work in developing leadership programs has been recognized by Computerworld, and she has spoken at Gartner and Computerworld events on the subject. In addition, she believes strongly in helping women to achieve their goals, and was involved in the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, which focuses on helping single mothers get an education and support to succeed. She has been awarded the CIO “Ones to Watch” and Computerworld’s “CIO 100” List.


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