Pat Yarrington, CFO at Chevron, and Cynthia Bates, Vice President of Microsoft’s U.S. Small and Medium Businesses (SMB) Organization joined us today in Los Angeles for the Dialogue with Leadership at our MBA Women’s Conference. Dean Olian of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management hosted the conversation.

The conversation was candid and far-reaching. Here are some highlights:

Cynthia studied microbiology in college and worked on Wall Street early in her career. When the opportunity presented itself, she took a role at Microsoft, in the M&A group, “shocking my friends, who wondered why I would ever leave Manhattan.” She says that kind of risk-taking is key to building a successful career over time. Speaking of her career at Microsoft today, she says: “I love the energy of starting companies, growing companies, and fueling the economy. This is a really transformational time. The intersection of technology and small business has never been so powerful. Technology products that were available only a few years ago to large companies like Microsoft and Chevron are now available at affordable prices to small businesses. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a place where my team can help people start companies and see them thrive through the power of technology.”

Pat noted that, early on, following in a family tradition, she thought she might study law. But she gravitated toward business school, drawn by the global nature of the corporate sector.  Although she has spent more than 30 years at Chevron, ascending to the CFO position, she didn’t have her career planned in advance; rather, she was presented with unexpected opportunities and learned to treat each as an adventure. “There were times in my career when I was asked to do a job that I didn’t want to do, that I didn’t think fit my skills. In each job, I found there was something new to learn, connections to make, and pieces of the business I could come to understand better.” She shared a particular anecdote about a time early in her career at Chevron when the CFO gave her a challenging assignment. He noted that he would not have asked her to take on the assignment if he didn’t have complete confidence in her ability to handle it, and suggested that her self-confidence should match his faith in her. “That piece of advice has stayed with me almost daily,” she says. “I go in with a view that my voice can and should be heard.”

Both speakers shared their tips for building a successful career. Pat suggested that MBA women focus on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) as a strong educational foundation for becoming part of tomorrow’s business leadership. Cynthia echoed that. “Today, we all are masters of technology. It’s so much part of our daily lives and today’s businesses,” she noted, observing that a strong base in math, science, and technology lay the groundwork for a successful career in many sectors.

On a personal note, both women noted that their parents raised them with the self-confidence and sense of equal opportunity that gave them a strong foundation for business leadership. Dean Olian asked Pat what makes her a strong leader, and she noted that building a collaborative environment and cultivating strong teams has been key to her success. She added that she has always held herself to a vision of continuous improvement, and Cynthia also spoke about the importance of building a culture of excellence. Asked by Dean Olian what she does to build that culture, Cynthia said that creating an environment that encourages risk-taking and bold decision-making is key. She also noted that it’s important for a leader to have a mix of humility, recognizing that we’re all human and make mistakes, and confidence, including the belief that together, the team can accomplish great things. Pat advised seeking out the right managers early in your career to build your leadership potential. “I have found that it’s more important who you work for than the actual job. If they inspire you and your skill development, that’s more important than the actual job itself.”

On the topic of continuous improvement, Dean Olian asked both women how they continually improve themselves. Cynthia talked about studying other leaders, paying attention to what they do well, and asking for feedback. “It’s really important to know the conversations that take place about you when you’re not there. Know what your areas are for development.” Pat says that she finds it works well to ask for feedback immediately following a presentation or the completion of a major project, seeking out input on what you could have done better and how it went.

The Dialogue concluded on an optimistic note, with both speakers noting that women are better represented in business leadership today than in the past. “We’re on the right trajectory,” said Pat. “It’s about the pipeline, and that’s why I come back to science, technology, engineering, and math, so we can be. We need to have a pipeline that represents the full diversity we want to see in business.”

After the conference, we’ll share a video with highlights of today’s Dialogue, including a one-on-one interview with Pat and Cynthia.

Tell us what you heard at the conference! Twitter @fortefoundation, #MBAConf. More coverage to follow.