Women in Leadership 2: Patty Sewell

With more than 35 years of experience in corporate finance, accounting and administrative management, Patty Sewell is the CFO of Sabey. In her current role, Sewell is a multi-functional member of Sabey’s Executive Leadership Team responsible for setting the Company’s financial strategy to support its long-term goals. As an executive leader, Sewell is passionate about developing future leaders and instilling in them the organization’s core values.

You have been at Sabey for almost a quarter of a century joining in 1996 as a Controller. Can you share with us what your journey has been like from Controller to CFO, and what have been your key milestones?

When I joined Sabey as a young accounting professional, I could never have imagined the ensuing journey.  Reflecting on that time, I am confident that, had anyone asked me to try to envision it, I may very well have scared myself out of it.  I was extraordinarily fortunate to find my professional home with a remarkable family-owned company that, by the time I joined, was already long recognized as one of the premier commercial real estate companies in the Pacific Northwest.  It was my first job in real estate and I immediately took to the complexities of the business, eager to learn all that I could.

There were so many milestones as I made the transition to CFO—closing my first financing transaction, speaking at an all-company meeting, helping to craft what still is Sabey’s Core Ideology (Core Values, Core Purpose, etc.) but what stands out most is the investment made in developing relationships and building trust with my team members – without having accomplished that early on, I never could have succeeded at Sabey.

Our founder and now Chairman, Dave Sabey, has always supported me and convinced me that I would thrive in the CFO job.  Dave was right – the role is equal parts challenging and exhilarating. Best of all, I am still learning every day and that, together with working alongside an incredible team, is what continues to make it fun and rewarding.

As a female leader and part of the management team, what has been the most significant barrier/challenges you may have faced in your career progression?

In the early years of my career, I was, of course, aware of often being the only female in the room – it was simply the reality of working in the industry then.  It naturally took some time for me to feel less of an outsider but once I made a conscious decision to stop noticing it, my perspective changed and I realized the value of my  unique perspective that was, fortunately, respected by my male counterparts. I know how blessed I was to find an early seat at this table and am thrilled about the fact that I am now seldom the only female in the room!

What has been the key to your success, in terms of reaching your level of success, given the sector’s gender gap, especially among leadership?

The datacenter industry was born out of the conversion of information technology and real estate, both male-dominated industries, so it makes sense that men are disproportionately present in the industry’s leadership.  However, I have never felt that women are not both welcome and supported and as more enter, I think we’ll see the same shift other mature business lines have made.

Sewell with young students from Impact School in Tukwila WA on Sabey’s annual “Day of Giving Back”

Who has been the source of inspiration for you in your career?

I am self-motivated and much of my inspiration comes from within. I had a difficult upbringing, so I was forced to constantly look beyond my own circumstances to see what was possible. Early on I developed a keen ability to see strength, wisdom, character and kindness in ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  I love the fact that there are now so many successful women in positions of leadership and influence. My two granddaughters (ages 10 and almost two) are growing up in a time when women in positions of leadership is the norm and I am proud to be a role model for them.

What are the qualities of a good leader?

As a leader, you never stop developing and I am embracing the role now of being a leader of leaders.  I mentor a group of very talented women and men, the future Sabey leaders and, ultimately, my successors.  I believe that the world will become increasingly complex and leaders will need to manage through an accelerating pace of change with new levels of strength and confidence, and also with empathy and humility.  At Sabey, we are committed to developing great leaders and I am honored to be the Executive Sponsor for Sabey’s Emerging Leaders’ Professional Development Program.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

The best gift that a future female leader can give to herself is to work in a culture aligned with her values.  It is both easier and more enjoyable to thrive when you are surrounded by those who share your values. Women aspiring to leadership roles generally have natural leadership qualities, so the key is to be in an environment where those qualities are recognized, valued and cultivated.

My advice is: get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The path to leadership is filled with moments that take you well beyond your comfort zone. How you are in these moments will prepare you for when others look to you for difficult and frequently quick decisions. I remember sitting alone in my office late one evening, anxious over a deal that was just not coming together as I had envisioned it.  It had been a long day and I didn’t want to head out until I had a plan, but as hard as I tried the solution was not coming to me.  I finally leaned back in my chair and had a brief but powerful conversation with myself.  It went something like this: “You have been here before, in fact many times before – stretched outside of your comfort zone and you have always figured it out.  This time is no different, you’re uncomfortable and that’s okay—to continue to grow and develop, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and trust that you will find the way.”  That little ah-ha moment forever changed me—I still get uncomfortable, but it is now a familiar feeling, and my experience tells me I will prevail.

As the sole women in the leadership team, what is some of the advice you share with young women entering a male-dominated profession? 

This question makes me smile as I think about a recent conversation that our executive leadership team had.  We were all participating in a 360-degree review exercise over a Teams’ Meeting and I made a comment about being the only “girl” on our team.  It caught everyone off-guard and one of my colleagues laughed and quickly responded that in the context of our leadership team, he just doesn’t think about the fact that I’m a woman.  My male counterparts think of me as one of them.  It takes hard work, building trust and delivering value – any woman who consistently does all three will be a leader in her chosen industry.

How do you balance your work and life responsibilities?

I am at a place where finding balance between my professional and personal lives requires less effort than before.  My husband of forty years is my life-partner and best friend. He helps to ensure that, despite professional demands, I make time for family, friends, travel and adventure.

During this time of COVID-19 my heart goes out to all the professional women also raising their families – much is required to care for and actively participate in educating their children during this unprecedented time, blurring the lines between work and personal life. My daughter-in-law, Sue, is one of these amazing women and I am continually inspired by her strength and you-just-do-it attitude. We are blessed that she and our son, Brandon, are committed to the wellbeing of our three young grandchildren.  We pray that 2021 will return us to a greater sense of normalcy. I bring passion to virtually everything that I do but helping others brings pure joy.  My role at Sabey allows me the opportunity to support so many people in a variety of ways; it’s a big part of our company culture and it is what we do.  Simply put and to reiterate my earlier point, it is great to be part of an organization that values what I value!