Know your value.

That’s the guiding star women should follow as they navigate their career paths, according to Tesla executive Carolyn Hayden-Garner.

“I was doing this amazing work, but one thing that I did not know was my value,” said Hayden-Garner, Tesla’s Director of Payroll. “And when I recognized my value, I then began to see things differently. Today, because I know my value, I no longer work in fear.”

For many years, Hayden-Garner, now 61, worked grueling hours and sacrificed family time because of fear. Her reviews were glowing. She was getting awards everywhere she worked.

“But I was scared. What’s going to happen if I don’t work the extra hours? What’s going to happen if I don’t cancel my vacation with my family and go work on this project? What’s going to happen if I don’t go to my daughter’s PTA meeting? But once I found out my value, then I got to set the tone, and create my destiny and my schedule,” she said.

The catalyst of her epiphany? A boss who wanted her to make him look good – at her expense.

First, he denied her a promotion. Then, when another company recruited her, he told her she would never make it there.

“But you seek that desk in the corner?” he added. “When you come back like a dog with a tail between your legs, I’m going to hire you and put you over there and I’m going to let you work, because you are a good one.” 

Hayden-Garner thanked him for his inspiration, wished him well and never looked back.

“When that man had that conversation with me, and told me I did great work, but I’m not going to make it because I wasn’t on his team making him shine, that’s when I realized I must be pretty doggone valuable,” she said. 

That realization changed her as a boss, as well. 

“I had to go back and readjust how I managed people because I was managing people by fear,” she said.

“It became more about, you are valued. And because you are valued, you don’t have to minimize the things that are important to you outside of work so you can get recognized and be pushed forward, because we need you. You should not feel guilty or worry that you’re not going to get a promotion.”

Studies show that men will apply for jobs even when they can tick only a few of the qualification boxes – but women will not, even though they can tick many more. Studies also show that a man’s compensation is much higher than that of a female in the same position.

“That can be very daunting,” Hayden-Garner said. “But don’t focus on what you see as your reward today. If you can look beyond your paycheck and continue to be great at what you do, your reward is going to be even greater, because what you’re going to receive by the amazing work that you do is going to far outweigh a paycheck. And that value is going to go with you for the rest of your life. You’ll be receiving dividends forever.”

Women are often looked at as doers, people who are to take orders even if they have executive titles, she said.

“You have to demand your seat at the table. I appreciate you wanting me to take care of your coffee, but when you go get your coffee, I like mine with no sugar. My value is non-negotiable,” she said.

“I negotiated my value a lot because I wanted to make sure that I was seen and I was doing what they wanted me to do. But by doing so, you’re not respecting the gender, you’re not respecting who we are. And guess what? When I started saying, no, I’m not going to leave church to go to the office right now because you have an emergency, I still haven’t been fired from a job, because they still need me.”

Hayden-Garner’s first job right out of college as a financial analyst taught her at a very young age about leadership, by negative example. Her next manager at a savings and loan institution instilled an appreciation of quality work by demanding perfection.

“Those grueling days back then really helped me to understand that the quality of my work always represents my brand and who I am,” she said.

When savings and loan institutions tanked, Hayden-Garner was recommended to a large school district in Texas, but the position she was interviewing for was not a position of leadership. She vacillated for weeks about taking what appeared to be a step back, but it turned out to be the springboard to her career in technology.

The school district was growing and it needed new systems, and she was assigned to be the lead on multiple aspects of the project. The district adopted Oracle as its system and in the process, she became part of Oracle’s users group. Within less than nine months, she was president of a user group for human capital management, taking it from $200,000 income to over $2 million by growing the membership database by tens of thousands of people.

Hayden Garner was the longest standing female African-American president of the user group and is still vice president of financial affairs.

“We really pushed forward, and all of this was because I wanted to make it better for the people in my organization, as well as other people using the product,” she said.

After 15 years with the school district, she received a call from CBRE, the global leader in commercial real estate services, where she became director of payroll as the company expanded globally. Then aerospace giant Northrop Grumman recruited her to re-engineer its payroll department, and Tesla came calling several years later.  

There, she has moved up from responsibility for North American payroll operations to leading payroll operations across much of the globe.

It’s important for Hayden-Garner to have relationships and partnerships throughout the organizations she works for. She is executive sponsor for Black at Tesla, an employee resource group, and previously was a driver of the employee resource group at CBRE.

“For me, it’s not just coming to work, but actually being involved with work to help people reach their fullest potential,” she said. 

“I have taken people who had no education beyond high school, and now they’re studying for their PhDs after coming under my tutelage,” she said. “And it’s the people who have pushed me to this level. It’s the people who have said, we can take on these challenging opportunities because with your leadership we’re going to be successful.

“To be able to look back throughout my career and see the countless number of people who have been impacted by the work that we do every day – that’s called changing a generation.”

Hayden-Garner has been taught to give back her entire life.

“I saw how my family didn’t have financial resources, but they gave me their time. So when you look at my career, not only does it resonate with me when I go into an organization to being in an ERG or on a women’s technology panel, or serving a user group, or being international spokesperson for Oracle. Giving back is the essence of why we are here.”

After serving on many non-profits and participating in numerous volunteer efforts, she realized she wanted to leave something that she could put her fingerprint on. And so she built a support system for mothers and grandmothers called Mothers Shut In, “to help them know that they’re not alone with the things they struggle with, and the things they need help with.”

The organization, incorporated five years ago, helps empower, equip and encourage women and children through a variety of means including financial and educational support, mentorship and coaching.

“It’s trying to reach people where they are, saying, no matter where your life circumstances are, we will be there to help you from all walks of life,” she said.

“My goal is to find people who will partner with my organization, bringing whatever gift they have – not necessarily monetary, but gifts that can help somebody change their life.”