I recently have been working with a number of young women, one as my summer intern, and all of them curious to know what I thought were important lessons for them as they embarked on their own career journey. So I decided to capture what I would want to share with them and with my own daughter. Starting out as a nurse and moving to the ranks of a senior communications executive has had its shares of ups and downs and a ton of learning along the way.
I decided to capture those lessons from different times in my career to demonstrate what one can learn wherever they are. You don’t learn it from any one book, person or job. It’s the combination of everything that eventually builds confidence and a sense of knowing what to do. I’ve been blessed to have many teachers over my career, most of which never knew they were teaching. The popular “mentoring” efforts people formalize today didn’t exist much for me but it never precluded me from learning. Most of what we learn, we learn from watching, listening, paying attention and then trying things out.
So what advice would I give my own daughter? What would I want her to be aware of as she grows into being her own person? The first thing I would tell her is that where you start is not where you end up. I started my career as a Registered nurse, mostly ICU and today I head global public relations and corporate communications for a publicly traded beauty company…yes, a beauty company. So how does that happen and what have I learned?
Career transitions or I call them “career takeovers” happen when you let your professional life unfold by following your passion and building on your strengths. As a nurse, I learned that great communication skills are at the basis of great patient care and focusing allows you to deliver what’s needed to get the job done. When someone’s life becomes a straight line, there is no room for error. Focus and timing is everything. Listening to my patients, asking the right question, being specific and understood and working collaboratively matters in a hospital and everywhere else.
Solid communications translate into selling skills, so I moved out of the hospital into the arms of a drug company to become a “detail man”. That term was transitioned into sales rep soon after most companies realized that women could sell. I left nursing, not simply because of the night shift (I could never stay awake past 5am and that’s a problem when you work in ICU) but I was curious to move on and learn something new.
As a sales rep, I learned the importance of “your word” and “your action”. If you say you are going to do something and you do it…people trust you. Trust is the foundation of great relationships and positive relationships are needed to move beyond a certain point. Trust is also what people buy into when they move you up the ladder and it’s what people remember most. Your boss’s will only raise you and your career if they trust you. Say what you mean and mean what you say. No trust = limited movement.
Working hard and then some is what separates you from the others. Working hard is expected. And the “and then some” is the icing on the cake. It’s what’s your employer is looking for when thinking of advancing your career. Just doing your job is not getting you where you want to go unless of course you are happy to stay where you are. Some people are happy to stay put and knowing that, understanding how far you want to go and being happy about that decision is perfectly fine. We don’t all want the same things and thank God for that.
I started to move up the pharmaceutical ladder and took sales management positions I never believed I was ready for, but those who I worked for saw things differently. It was challenging at times, a constant learning curve but if you are willing to grow where you are planted…good things can and will happen. There are three types of people in the workplace (same in the world at large). People who make things happen, people who look at others make things happen and people who don’t even know anything happened. That third category kills any career! We all think of doing great things and some of us actually do them. If you want advancement, you need to be both a thinker and be a doer. Early in your career you do things. Eventually you get to think about what needs to be done and do them. If this works out well for you and people trust you, eventually you do the big thinking (called strategy) and inspire, motivate others to carry out your plan.
Then one day, a challenge (in my case the advent of AIDS drugs) happens and you leap forward in uncharted waters where it’s all gray. No black or white road signs, just a lot of unknown. Unknown territory really means opportunity. I was placed in a role that had not existed before in a category that was fraught with peril and yes people were dying. Bravery or stupidity? I wasn’t a journalism major or a professional in public affairs, but none of that prevented me from taking a role as head of public affairs for the company in Canada. I was a nurse who could sell and I didn’t let myself or others “pigeon hole” me into one thing or another. Realize that you can repurpose your skills and experience to do other things. What I did have was a solid foundation of what would be needed (strong communication skills, common sense, perseverance and tons of energy) to figure things out and a supportive management that yes…trusted me. It is your cumulative experience and knowledge that prepares you. Not just your education or past experience. The sum of all of your parts comes to play in your thirties. Those gray areas are where careers are made and broken.
Faced with unprecedented challenges in dealing with AIDS activist (and they were a tough bunch I admired) reporters looking to portrait the pharmaceutical industry as greedy and a government (Canada) paying attention, I learned that I needed much more than me. I needed a network of collaborators and needed to constantly communicate up, down, sideways, inside and outside of my role. Others had to travel with me if I was going to get anything accomplished. In time and with experience you learn who needs to know what when. Not everybody needs to be involved at the same level all the time.
Judgment, context and common sense always prevail. We’ve all seen those people who report on absolutely everything and in the process; even if they are doing good work, disengage people because they are seen as “climbers” and “brown nosers”. A sure career killer if there was ever any. Yes, you might see them getting some traction but eventually, the world catches up with them and their careers become limited.
There were many dark days in that role and I didn’t always believe I would get through it. It was hard, grueling and emotional work but I persevered. Perseverance is the art of moving forward no matter what. I was once told by one of my mentors that all forward movement is good. Even when you fall down, you fall in a forward movement, rarely backwards.
With success in my sails, I was promoted to move to the big leagues in New York. Probably the scariest position I ever accepted. This was after all the Big Apple and I was sure people would make mince meat out of this little French Canadian girl. I changed everything in my world yet changed nothing about me. I wasn’t going to pretend to be anything but who I was. Being your authentic self and not pretending to be anyone else is easy and it’s what people remember. The “you” we are does evolve over time, and we build and develop with experience. But your values, those things that you are known for, stay pretty much the same.
I had many lateral moves once in New York. Different business divisions working on different projects for different people. By my late 30”s, I established myself as a strong crisis and issues manager. AIDS drugs was the first crisis of many to follow inclusive of silicone breast implants, counterfeit infant formula products, cancer allegations and hair dye safety, mislabeled products in China, natural products movement and others. The one reason I believe I was successful in taking on these issues was my ability to simplify the complexity of what was going on and keeping things as simple as possible for the masses and being able to go deep with only the few where it mattered most. None of what I was dealing with was simple but the ability to express the complex in a simple manner is a great skill to develop. I have seen many people in my career who are way smarter than me and have much more education. But if they can’t express themselves in a way that will bring others along and get to resolution, they don’t move up the ladder at any great neck speed.
Life happens and I was blessed with a daughter in 1993. The most important and cherished milestone in my life! All of sudden you are faced with the questions of “life balance”. What is it, how do you get it, how do you manage it, what role do you and your husband play in it, what does it look like, on and on, like a roller coaster. Bottom line, you can have it all but not all at the same time! Accept this simple reality and you will have less stress and more fun. This is also a time in your career where you need to know yourself enough to know what is non-negotiable for you. What are you willing to sacrifice and what won’t you sacrifice or put on the back burner? It could be any number of things and it’s different for all of us. But knowing this is critical for you to have “balance” if you will work and be someone’s mom, wife, daughter, sister, neighbor etc all at the same time. For me it was my daughter’s doctor’s visits; regular visits or emergency visits. Birthdays and Sunday dinners…I had to be there no matter what. Did I always get my way? Not always. But knowing where I wasn’t going to cheat myself helped to limit the emotional damage that often plagues young professional women.
I eventually found myself at a beauty company, was acquired by a much larger company (Fortune 50), survived a decade of growth and retired to be home with my 12th grader who was preparing for college. Following a full time career of hard work, long hours and global travel, I needed to be present for this college prep year. It became a non-negotiable item on my bucket list. She wasn’t the one needing me. She had grown up to be independent, beautiful and strong. I was the one who needed her. I was the one who needed to be present and enjoy that journey with her. Time is the one thing you can’t buy, re-do or reclaim. It really is the most precious asset, don’t waste it.
With my daughter moving into her next chapter, I decided to go back into another career chapter for a smaller company where I knew I could make a difference. I also realized that I had more to give and really loved working. I now head PR and corporate communications for a global beauty company and am privileged to work with amazing young women and men (mostly women). I leverage and share all that I know, have experienced and continue to learn and grow with them. I mentor and teach as I go. I welcome people to shadow me and learn from the front lines. I explain and give background. Sharing what you know builds community, strength and a positive workplace. I challenge people and ask of them only what I would ask of and expect from myself. I also keep putting things into perspective. Unless things are life threatening…anything can be managed!
Twelve Lessons From the Ground Up
1) Where You Start is Not Where you End Up
Don’t let the location or position of where you are today limit where you can go tomorrow. Job skills and experience can be repurposed into new adventures. Always think about what skills you have, not which ones you don’t have. Follow your passions and build on your strengths.
2) Develop Strong Communications Skills
Your ability to listen, ask the right questions, and use positive language that is understood is at the basis of anything good happening to you. Communicate often as needed, up, down, sideways internally and externally. Know who needs to hear what and when.
3) Say What you Mean and Mean what you Say
Stand on your word. If you commit to something, do it! At the end of the day, you are only as good as your word. Trust is build form this simple principle.
4) Work Hard and Then Some
Always do more then what is expected. That’s when you get noticed. You need to be both a thinker and doer.
5) Grow where you are Planted
Do your best wherever you are, even if you aren’t happy to be there. Nothing lasts forever and be able to grow and learn in any situation bodes well on your abilities and flexibility. Don’t be afraid to leap forward in uncharted waters. Careers are made there.
You are nothing if you don‘t learn to work with and ask other’s for their help. We live in a society where partnership is the only way to get anything done. Love to collaborate and love the energy and diversity it brings along.
7) Judgment, Context and Common Sense
It seems simple but sometimes people forget that your instincts have strength and context is critical as it can change your thinking. Who are you talking to and what do they need? This question alone will propel any career!
8) Change Everything and Change Nothing
Be willing to do adapt to a new world. Embrace change but stay true to yourself. Being your authentic self is easy and natural and it’s what people remember.
9) Simplify the Complex
Complex matters need to be dissected and reassembled in a way that will be understood by all. Those who can do this well… win.
10) Share Your Knowledge and Experience
Don’t keep knowledge to yourself. People who can share the wealth build better and successful teams. Keeping knowledge to yourself will make you look like a control freak and will limit your possibilities.
Persevere until it’s obvious you need to stop. And if you do stop…stop and move on.
12) Having it All…Not all at the Same Time
Except the fact that multi tasking and being a super women is a short term plan. Except the reality that you can accomplish a great deal more when you focus on fewer things at the same time. You will be better organized, less stressed and more successful. No what you want and know what is non-negotiable in your life.
I have shared these lessons with you, now its your turn to share with others who could benefit!