Becoming a leader with Linda Howard

Becoming a leader with Linda Howard

Linda Howard, Vice President of Technology at Kroger, gives Technology Magazine an exclusive insight into her phenomenal career

Kroger believes in the concept of “feeding the human spirit” to help every individual become their best selves. To do so, employees are encouraged to share daily uplifts with the team. These can range from children’s accomplishments to career milestones – anything that enables individuals to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and celebrate together as a team. 

By sharing her story with Technology Magazine, Linda Howard endeavours for her uplifts to demonstrate ‘advocacy for women’. After a long and incredibly successful career at the company, Linda has both personal and professional stories to share, each detailing the lessons she’s learned along the way – from overcoming imposter syndrome to learning she can only rely on herself.

Technology magazine is proud to highlight the groundbreaking journey that Linda has taken to become a remarkable and inspirational leader for other women.

Early lessons and upbringing 

As the youngest of five siblings, Linda grew up knowing what it felt like to be an outsider. “My family was a well-established entity before I came along,” she explains, “so I needed to figure out how to be accepted by the pack, as I called them. Being the outcast taught me very quickly how to read the room and to know when I wasn’t accepted, so I know what it feels like to be excluded from a group.”

In adulthood, and after putting in a lot of hard work, Linda has established a strong bond with each of her siblings and praises them for shaping her into the resilient, self-sufficient person she is today. 

This moulding of life resonated with Linda even more after a counsellor shared a particular piece of advice: “Your intellect grows up. You learn and adapt to new ways based on your knowledge, but your emotions don't. The things that trigger you remain throughout. It's important to recognise when the triggers occur, as it's how you handle them that makes a difference.” 

“These words have always stayed with me. Whenever it feels as if I’m being targeted, I basically step outside of my body and remind myself that I’m smart, I’m capable, and that I belong,” Linda says. “I tell myself to read the room, to understand where the other person is coming from and to discover the ‘why’ behind their actions. Intellectually, I know it’s rarely personal, but sometimes I have to check in within myself.”

As the youngest in the family, Linda admits that she was perfect for the ‘princess’ model, but her father did everything in his power to ensure she became anything but a princess. For this reason, he made it clear that he wanted her to love the career she planned to pursue. If not, it would just become a job with no passion whatsoever. He also encouraged Linda to take a path that she enjoyed so that when she woke up every morning, she would look forward to her day. There was, however, one deviation from this. 

“The day I sat down and talked to my dad about college, I announced I wanted to go to art school,” Linda says. “I loved everything about the creative process, and despite good grades in maths and science, I was in what I now call my ‘flighty’ period. He sat me down and told me that I needed a plan B. He explained that we are all responsible for ourselves, and I should not expect a fallback plan that someone else would provide for me. 

“My father knew I loved solving hard problems, so I decided to choose Maths as my major. This was mainly because I truly understood the need to stand on my own two feet. I knew I had to own my life decisions, and that, ultimately, I was charting the course that would bring me happiness.”

Standing on her own two feet

Three years of studying soon passed, and, in 1985, Linda started her first internship at Kroger. After spending the summer taking away typewriters, putting in PCs and teaching word processing to the admin staff, Linda was fortunate to be offered a full-time position at the company – with one catch. “The recruiter told me he would only offer me the position if I agreed to interview with other companies. He said he wanted me to work for Kroger by choice, not by default. 

“He outlined the importance of not skipping this step, explaining that if I ignored it, I may wonder what else is out there and resign after a few years. This resonated with me, and I encourage all our interns to be similarly well-informed before making their decision to work for the company.”

After 37 years at Kroger, Linda can say that she chose to commit to the company. “I remember telling my dad Kroger felt like home,” Linda says. “He encouraged me to take the position, explaining that working with people you want to spend your days with is worth more than a company in a glamorous big city or having a higher-paid salary. To this day, I’m still a big believer in this.”

When accepting the position, Linda was given two options: to choose between mainframe programming or store systems. Looking back on her internship, Linda understands why she was presented with these choices. “The way I showed up during my internship was a direct influence of several things my dad taught me along the way: if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right,” Linda recalls. “I am wired to give my all to the task at hand, regardless of how mundane or complex.”

Lessons learnt at Kroger

Throughout Linda’s career, she has explored various paths that Kroger offered – from store solutions to health and wellness. And, of course, as with any successful career, Linda has faced numerous defining moments that shaped her into the individual she is today. 

“Early on in my career, I had a tough decision,” Linda states. “When I questioned whether I should try to appease all the divisions, my director, Larry, responded that he was not paying me to be popular. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and it was a reminder to always do what is right for the company.”

Working her way up the career ladder, Linda was often the only female in the room, which can come with challenges. “One time, the CIO lost a button on his jacket,” Linda shares. “A partner he was meeting with happened to have a sewing kit in his briefcase – yes, I lived through the Mad Men era. Although it pains me to say it now, I didn’t stand up for myself when I was asked to sew the button back in place. But it reinforced the lesson that only I was responsible for standing on my own two feet.”

Likewise, when Linda received the confirmation of the promotion to her current position as Vice President, she was only allowed to share the news with a handful of people – not even her parents. “I had to face down immense self-doubt every time the phone rang as I was convinced it would be the CIO calling to tell me that they made a mistake and I was not being promoted. I had to explore where this was coming from. The data points and accomplishments supported my promotion, so why was I doubting myself?”

To come to terms with the imposter syndrome, Linda recognised two things. Firstly, she had seen a lot of men being promoted to VP over the course of her career, but few females. She believed that this was a result of the era she lived in, rather than a reflection of the capabilities of women. 

Secondly, Linda recognised that the personal relationship she was in was toxic. She started the process of accepting the how and why, once again, reminding herself to stand up for herself and reclaim her happiness. “It took me longer than I want to admit,” Linda confesses, “but a health scare made me face it head-on. I'm a big believer in signs from the universe, and, after ending it, it was like blinking billboards along the highway with messages about redirection, all telling me that I made the right decision and that I was finally on the right path.”

Feelings related to imposter syndrome have recurred intermittently throughout Linda’s career. When attending the DeloitteWomen's Leadership Conference, Linda was surrounded by a lot of other female leaders. Battling with understanding how to fit in, Linda reminded herself that she was smart and that she belonged in the room – a concept that she related back to when she was struggling to fit in with her older siblings.

“At that conference, I learnt another very valuable lesson from a speaker that spoke about advocacy,” Linda says. “Men have a natural tendency to build a relationship that results in advocacy by making time for golf, having beers after work or attending sporting events, for example. This creates a natural advocacy network. I believe this is a factor in promotion opportunities, so I urge women to be more conscientious about forming a network of advocates.”

Influence, persuasion and mentoring

Linda establishes that she is in the “last season” of her career, which is focused on coaching and mentoring individuals. “People usually want to help. I try to be the first person to volunteer myself at intern functions or when finding new hires, for example. Usually, when someone has seasoned years in a company, they’re looking at how they can position the organisation to maintain success in the future. This means they want to coach and mentor others.”

As an advocate of equal opportunity, Linda also goes out of her way to elevate others struggling to find their voice. “If I notice someone is being particularly quiet in a meeting, I will actively seek their opinion to give them the opportunity to share their thoughts,” Linda says. “When individuals are given immediate feedback for their input, it helps to build their confidence. I also remind people that, collectively, we’re the smartest person in the room, so we need to hear each other’s opinions.”

Linda is happily married to the man who has always been the one for her – lifelong friends who supported each other through their growth journeys. But the timing didn’t align for the two to unite in marriage until recently. The pair were married by Elvis in Las Vegas in 2021. 

For the first time in a long time, my dad got to see me truly happy,” Linda expresses. “My dad sadly passed away on New Year’s Day. Although we knew it was coming, it still feels surreal to this day. His eulogy contained a story from his time in the Navy that he had only ever told my brother – they had both always kept it to themselves. We knew he had received a medal, but he would always just state he ‘was just doing his job’. He in fact saved the lives of two men, putting himself in harm’s way.

“Now, when I’m having moments of stress or uncertainty, I ask myself, ‘what would Don do?’. It’s almost like he's right there helping me through it. I share this story because there are so many facets that you bring to work every day. I think it's important that we all look at our own stories and life experiences to see how we approach work and our personal lives every day. We all have the strength and the obligation to chart the course that is right for us.

“I ask everyone to see what that looks like and to question how they’re showing up for their teams and for each other. Finally, I encourage everyone to check in on friends, family and co-workers. After all, it’s not always just about the work.

“I will always be the five-year-old girl full of self-doubt, wanting to figure out how to fit in. But I'm also a 58-year-old woman with 37 years in the corporate world, who's capable of leading very complex initiatives and moving mountains.”

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