Part of a series of ten segments, checking the progress of my 2017 New Year Resolutions.
Two things should be apparent to you right away:
- I’m ambitious when it comes to personal growth (10 resolutions for 2017 that I’m still talking about in December? Who does that?), and
- I’m a big time planner. It gives me comfort to analyze situations, think through options and make an informed decision before acting, the difference being that I actually do take action, too.
Age 50 was an inflection point for me. Time to really take stock of my career: where I’ve been, what I’ve done, satisfaction level, growth potential, and for the first time: growth capacity and ultimately retirement.
Funny thing is, this career of mine? I fell into it. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an auditor or a risk professional. Does anyone? I didn’t deliberately plan the steps along the way to the role I’m in right now. But three decades later, it just happened, kinda sorta…
As an adolescent, I felt called to do something bigger than myself, bigger than where I came from. I had encouragement from others that I had it in me. So yes, I wanted to do something of significance. Make a difference. I just didn’t know in what field or for whom. I never really had a “calling”, a thing I felt I had to do deep in my bones, like so many people who are compelled to be a doctor, artist, scientist, politician, teacher, whatever…. I always admired the people who knew their calling. I prayed that it would come to me one day, and that whatever I chose to do in the meantime would be good enough, a launching pad of sorts.
I even took one of those career assessments in high school, the kind where it gauges your interests and aptitude and reveals whether you lean more toward working with people, data, or things. Where did I score? Right smack in the middle, equally capable of anything. Talk about disappointment. I wanted a nudge, a clue….someone to grab me by the shoulders, spin me around and give me a gentle push in some direction, ANY direction, but I had nothing to go on. My high school guidance counselor was zero help: she simply told me, “You’ll figure it out, dear”. I didn’t have the courage or self-assertion to challenge her. I was a good girl who really needed help. Instead I was left to figure it out, on my own.
34 years later, I’m still trying to figure that out.
I had a sheltered, blue-collar upbringing with very little exposure to the many career possibilities. All these years later, part of me mourns my lost potential. The gift of time tells me that I could have had a much bigger impact than I have, an ability to really help others, make the world a better place. Having a legacy means a lot to me now, but as a teenager I didn’t realize just how much choice and control I had.
What I had always planned was to do, whatever I do, with excellence. That’s been my default modus operandi for as long as I can remember. I don’t know any other way to be. And by many objective measures, I can look back and say that I have been successful in my work, my career. That’s incredibly difficult for me to admit, but my rational brain says it’s true as does my husband.
Sure, I planned several tactical steps in my career, including many strategic ones, but it wasn’t like I set out in college with a goal to be a chief internal auditor or chief risk officer one day. Shoot, that latter wasn’t even an actual job until these last 10 years or so, so how could I have planned for it?
With all that context, what was my point in having a goal this year called “plan your career”? Let me go deeper. Way deeper.
Corporate America gets a bad rap for so many things: the way it treats employees like a number, stagnant wages, mindless work, cliques, harassment, glass ceilings, backstabbers, reorganizations, lack of communication, poor strategy, and workforce reductions. However, it can be an amazing place too, with personal recognition, skill-building opportunities, raises and bonuses for a job well done, stretch assignments that lead to professional growth, camaraderie and tight friendships, promotions, mentors, mergers between strong teams, transparency, competitive edge, and hiring sprees. I’ve experienced all of the above over the years, but far, far more of the positives. I am one of the fortunate ones.
By process of relatively simple elimination, Corporate America was the venue I chose in college to build my career, and it’s the landscape I periodically survey to drive my next move, figuratively and not.
Regardless of not having targeted my line of work early on, I have always thought of my work as a career, not a job. A job is where you collect a paycheck and watch the clock. You have no long-term interest in the skills you acquire or in the long-term success of your employer or company. Your coworkers are acquaintances you tolerate, not necessarily friends.
In contrast, a career is something longer term than any one employer, with skills you deliberately hone whether or not it takes you the mythical 10,000 hours to do so. You care about your work and about the company’s success. Your coworkers are colleagues you treat with respect, as you do your customers and suppliers, and if you’re lucky they become friends too. If you consider your work a profession as I do, you abide by a code of ethics that transcends your employer. You are trained in a specific field of study with certifications and continuing education. You are constantly building upon your knowledge and staying current if not cutting edge in your field. All good stuff. At least stuff that resonates with me.
Business sages and career counselors of the world often say that no one cares more about your career than you. I wholeheartedly agree which makes it even more important to assess your situation routinely. Is your work rewarding and challenging? Is your company’s strategy sound and is the organizational structure stable? Is your company and are your coworkers ethical? Do you trust and enjoy your colleagues? Do you feel like you belong? Do you have growth opportunities? Are you paid and treated fairly? Are other people recognized and rewarded fairly for their contributions? Do you believe in executive management ability to lead the organization in good times and bad? (Does this sound like you’re picking someone to marry?) Do your work demands jive with your personal and family needs? Are you pleased with the path you’re on and the progress you’ve made?
Now there have been moments over the years when I didn’t really have the luxury of asking questions like those above and taking action if I didn’t like the answers. I’ve survived five, maybe six, reductions in force over my career. All of them, in other words. Having been through so many doesn’t make it easier the next time around. It just gives you perspective.
The first few were unnerving because they happened relatively early on in my career when I was single. Naive me had no basis for understanding whether the economy was humming along when I joined the job market. The crash of 1987 was a couple of years earlier so I thought things were going well enough. It’s quite possible that my Big Eight accounting firm decided that their attrition rates were too low so they had to intervene and cut ranks. Still, I was disappointed yet relieved to make it through, as tough as it was to see some of my friends get laid off. I made the mental check of my performance which was excellent, and figured that’s what carried me through. “Keep doing what you’re doing” was my mantra.
Fast forward to the 2008 financial crisis. My employer was a 6-year-old company forced to lay off people for the first time the week I returned from maternity leave with my second child. Executive management made a big deal of explaining the significant analysis they went through to make the tough decision to cut deep.
We all were “shocked”, but not really since so many other companies were doing the same. The kicker was how my employer was forced to do it all again a mere two weeks later. Despite all of the initial analysis and transparency about the process, their estimates were wrong and first round of cuts were not deep enough.
Double sucker punch to the gut. Kinda ridiculous for me to say (or is that survivor’s guilt talking?) because I wasn’t terminated. But this time, I was the breadwinner for my young family. The pressure to keep my job no matter what was far greater than anything I experienced before. Nothing about my life to-date prepared me to be the breadwinner mom, the unprecedented responsibility that puts on your shoulders. So, so much of my self-worth was tied up in my ability to provide, to anticipate and be prepared for emergencies of any sort. I was way too smart to be caught off guard. It would humiliate me otherwise.
I couldn’t believe I survived both cuts. After all, I was at a level where I was responsible for sales, yet I knew I wasn’t the top sales person in my small office let alone the region. A few years after the fact, I asked my boss why they kept me on since it made no sense. He told me that 1) they could count on me to deliver on my projects as I was well skilled and ultra reliable, and 2) my ethics were impeccable. He didn’t realize it at the time but he gave me one of the best professional compliments I had ever received. I felt “seen”…understood. Executive management had no idea how important that was to me….
The threat of losing my job has always scared me. I lost both parents by the time I was 32 and was single until 34. We didn’t have much growing up, and I was taught repeatedly that I was to fend for myself. I was on my own. Emotionally too. My parents were overall good people, but I struggle to this day with that message, that commandment, “you are on your own”. I’ve subsequently learned that it really does takes a village to raise a child, but I still hear, “you are on your own”. If you screw up financially, “you are on your own”. If anything at all happens to you, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.
I guess it’s a good thing they taught me that because at 32, it was true. I mean, I had siblings 10+ years older than me, but they had their own lives, and their own young families. I had myself. For all intents and purposes, it was true. I was on my own.
So yes, the specter of losing my job has haunted me, always. I know no matter how financially prepared I am, losing my job, the only thing I had going for me when I was single, and the primary source of my family’s income and a significant component of my self-worth today, would push me mentally off the deep end.
The thing is, I can’t tell how much of my career is due to good planning versus good luck. I know both were involved. I don’t want to test the theory either…I’m just gonna keep doing what I do.
So I periodically assess my career, every 12-18 months. I’ve used it to plan physical moves to another city, ask for (and receive) increased responsibilities, and ask for (and receive) formal, significant, masters-level training a couple of times over. I’ve used it to change roles, change jobs, and negotiate a raise. I’ve used it to rework my resume and keep it current, enhance my LinkedIn profile, explore new jobs and benchmark my current position through interviewing, connect with old colleagues, develop new relationships, pursue certifications, and take steps again and again and yet again that push me outside my comfort zone. It has served me well.
Technically you can say I’ve spent the majority of my career as an auditor, even though I’ve always approached my work more like a business coach and consultant. My employer is required by law to have a chief auditor, so I felt more secure in my old role and felt I had reached maybe the zenith of my career. I didn’t deliberately pick auditing but somehow I did it for the better part of 25 years so why not go for 20 more? My boss even told me he couldn’t see anyone else running the department and he confirmed that he could see me as a vice president in that same role. He was a guy with enough trust, seniority, and credibility that I believed him, and felt comforted by the conversation.
Except four months later things changed. He was in a position to know they could. Org structures changed to accommodate a major acquisition. I ultimately landed into a brand new, but related role that had intrigued me for 15 years, a role I admitted I would enjoy, with no precedent, tons of creative freedom, no one reporting to me, and access to collaborate with senior executives. This job can be exhilarating, professionally challenging, and fascinating. Great for networking and relationship building.
But it cuts both ways. This new role comes with all sorts of insecurity. The worst kind of career insecurity. See, you can plan your career all you want but there are just some things outside of your control. As in, if we were to experience an economic downturn, I could easily be one of the first people they RIF. My role is strategic but an experiment that is still being tested. They wouldn’t fire an incumbent in another role and move me into it to keep me, no matter how good I am at what I do. They just won’t. And there are all kinds of companies going through significant business disruption (have you seen all of the businesses that have filed bankruptcy this year?) so this crazy “doomsday” scenario I’m dreaming up is within the realm of possibility here.
And it’s situations just like this where you hear advice about controlling how you respond to those sorts of events. I’m responding like a breadwinner with three young kids whose college education isn’t quite covered yet. I’m responding like someone successful enough to have totally secured that already but I haven’t. Not to mention the college planning I’ve done was for state university tuition yet I have a daughter who has set her sights on Harvard. I believe she can do it. And I’ll be damned 1000x over if I’m going to stop her from going to Harvard if that’s what she wants and earns, and especially if I should be financially savvy enough to get her there.
So definitely this past year’s assessment was a bit different than all of the others. 2017’s “plan my career” was two-fold:
- Continue to do what I’ve always done because it has worked, and
- Stick my neck out and try new things because maybe, just maybe, my next career move is totally uncharted territory.
Let me break it down by recounting my self-counsel which has always worked:
- Walk through whatever doors of opportunity open before you. Two years into my career I was given the opportunity to study information technology in a 16-week training class something akin to a masters program. Not to mention this class was held in Tampa, Florida, when I was 24 where they paid me to learn, put me up in an apartment complex with coworkers, gave me a per diem, and travel expenses to return home now and then, and then apply those learnings on the job which I did for the better part of my career. You bet I would take them up on that opportunity, and others like it, like a 5-week session in Center City Philadelphia a few years later.
- Don’t become complacent. Don’t assume your employer will always do the right thing, or always follow through with their promises. Gain every skill you can get your hands on. Pursue every certification that supports your interests and expertise. Ask for feedback frequently from anyone willing to offer it. Take criticisms gracefully and constructively to do better. Don’t slack off because you’re tired or bored or unhappy with your assignment. And if you just can’t stomach the work at your employer, quit and find a new place that jazzes you and appreciates you. Guard against complacency.
- Don’t let negativity consume you. I think it’s perfectly fine to find things that need to improve and to talk about it, to sort out the right course of action. Bad things happen, they do, and whether those bad things happen is often outside of your control. What’s in your control is your response. Don’t bash and complain non-stop and do nothing to fix it. Don’t wallow in contempt.
- Your integrity is everything. Don’t lie, don’t backstab. Don’t pussyfoot around bad news; deliver it by being direct but fair. Give your word and stick to it. Remain professional no matter what. You lose your integrity, people’s trust in you? It’s gone forever. You don’t get it back.
- Network. Man, I hate that word and all the connotations it conjures but no matter: the point is, stick your neck out and meet people. Networking, when done properly, is the mutual exchange of value. Don’t just take, take, take….and take only when you need it. Give in return, without thought to reciprocation to keep the mutual part of networking fresh and genuine over the long run. Touch base with your current and former colleagues. Call or text but stay in touch. Have lunch. Keep it fresh. Use LinkedIn to stay in touch. I was an early adopter of that platform as I saw pretty big value in it, especially for an introvert like me.
- Strive for excellence not perfection. There is a time in your career when you can work long hours to build your skill to approach perfection but there also comes a time of diminishing return. Recognize the tipping point, which moves as your career changes and as your personal obligations change.
- Work at a place that is aligned with your values as closely as you can get. Get clear on what you value early on, but know that your values can change. Know that no organization is perfect. Know what you can and cannot tolerate, and be willing to leave if you can’t tolerate or change it. No organization with bad values should be rewarded with loyal employees.
- Keep your resume and your skill set current. Always. Pay to have your resume professionally written, especially if you have about 10 years of experience and a couple of different jobs under your belt so you know what accomplishments are worth highlighting and which should be left off entirely. Be ready at a moment’s notice should an opportunity arise. Look for a new role or even a new job when you don’t need to. Benchmark your skills and salary to know your worth. Warmly welcome every outreach from a recruiter, even though you will certainly be contacted by newbies in the industry who have no idea whether you’re well qualified for the role they’re pitching.
- Hold your head high. Don’t let insecurity, fear, anger, shame, or jealousy on the part of others or within you warp your sense of self. Being an auditor is an incredibly tough job. No matter how good or talented of a businessperson you are, you will be disliked, criticized, and even backstabbed while bystanders watch. I know that I spent a lifetime conducting myself in a fair and ethical manner when it comes to clients and colleagues. I have done the best I could on behalf of my clients, my employer, my coworkers, my team, my family, and myself. No matter how hard I worked to remain professional, fair, and respectful in my conduct, there will be people who will smear you and tear you down in front of your face and behind your back often and gleefully. It will sting. It will crush you. And their smears will work, for a while. But get up. Keep going. You can be human….you can cry and pine for someone to talk to in those dark hours, and you’ll find there is no one you can confide in, because you shoulder a unique burden that requires confidentiality on your part. Keep going. You’ve been through tough times, and your success rate in making it through to the other side, even better than before, is 100%. And those people who do the smearing? Karma is a bitch. You don’t ever really wish ill upon anyone but there is a certain level of schadenfreude when you see people reap what they sow. It will happen infrequently but enough to give you faith that doing the right thing will win in the end.
- Keep learning. See points 1 and 2 again. Don’t be the dinosaur. You may old enough to remember the executives who refused to use email because they were too stubborn to learn “new technology”. Don’t be that guy. Besides, your next career move might be something that hasn’t been created yet. Follow your curiosity as Big Magic author Elizabeth Gilbert tells people to do.
- Speak up. If you see something, say something. Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Ask for what you want or what you need, be it a raise you deserve or a new role so you aren’t bored. Be respectful but be assertive. Don’t assume people know what you want or need in your career. Don’t assume they understand your home situation. Talk about what you want, even if what you want is an unpopular idea, like traveling less on the job so you can get pregnant. (Yes, I did that.) Get the conversation out on the table so you know what neighborhood you’re “living” in, and if you don’t like it, move.
- Find a mentor. Find several of them, formal and informal. Shoot, create your own “board of directors” and consult with them often. Thank them. Be a mentor long before you think you’re ready. Give back, early and often.
- Mind your energy and stress levels. There will come a time, especially if you take on more responsibility or handle more difficult, intricate situations than you have in the past, and especially if you don’t have the proper support network at home or at work, where you will be in over your head. You’ll notice it because you’re physically sick all the time. It could be a lingering cough that stays too long. It could be the result of asking for repeated help and being shut down so you stop asking and simply take on more and more work like the good corporate citizen you are until you break. But you have to recognize that something will give. Something. Will. Give. It will be you, your work, your marriage, or your family, but something will. Know the early warning signs and act on them before the damage is done. Only you know which one of those things you can gamble.
- Delegate. This is a tough one to grasp, especially if you’re a voracious learner, avoid complacency, and/or are addicted to perfection. If you don’t want to fall victim to #6, you need to delegate early and often, to people who can handle it, welcome it, and grow through it. You really do need to learn to let go. Not be so prescriptive about how stuff gets done but THAT it gets done, relatively efficiently but definitely effectively.
Yes, those are guidelines that have served me well over the years, guidelines that I believe full-heartedly and know to work. But something told me this year that I needed to challenge the status quo. It was time to consider and do things I hadn’t done before, like this:
- Start planting the seeds for the “repurpose” period of my life that is retirement. Granted, it’s still 10-15 years away for me…or so I anticipate right now. When I was younger, I wondered whether I’d be the kind of person who would quit my professional job cold turkey and only then have the time to pursue my passion or just a plain old hobby. This year, I decided that I would not wait. Too many people wait until retirement to start living the life they love….only to die shortly before or after. I’m not willing to risk that. It’s time I channel my energy, and sense of self-worth beyond my family and existing job to other areas. There is so much more to me than my family and my job. For one, I decided I would start this blog. I have no idea at the moment where it may take me. Right now, I’m just enjoying the creative outlet of writing and sharing with an audience in a way that I’ve never done before. And frankly, no one other than my husband ever hears the stories I tell on here. I have a lot to share, if only people would ask. No one ever asks.
- Ramp up my presence on LinkedIn. People you trust and admire can and will let you down despite their best intentions, and it will mess with your head forever if you let it. So don’t count on them. I decided that I have several hundred contacts over my career and thoughtful, intelligent opinions. I’ve decided that I would read, share, and comment on articles that I like about professional development, personal growth, stress management, leadership, etc. Starting in 2018, I will seriously consider penning some articles myself to share on LinkedIn. After all, the one and only time I didn’t work in a formal audit or risk role was when I quit public accounting to start my own business as a personal and small business coach. I ached to make a positive impact on people who really wanted help to improve themselves or their business, and I felt ready to give it a try. Unfortunately I hung my shingle two months before 9/11, not anticipating how terrorism would derail so many small businesses including my own! So, maybe LinkedIn can be an outlet for the very best kind of networking, helping others, and holding stimulating, productive business and ethical conversations. Because you just never really know what will happen in today’s job market and I don’t want to be caught flat-footed.
- Pinpoint my personal mission statement. I don’t recall where I got this exercise, maybe it was Simon Sinek, but it went something like this:
- Who are you?
- What do you do?
- Why do you do it?
- Introduce yourself by starting with the why. People don’t “buy” what you do, they buy WHY you do it.
My goal as a professional businesswoman and fellow human is to help those around me – family, friends, coworkers, employer, and third parties – be the best version of themselves. I do that by listening, showcasing opportunities, connecting people to one another, researching, planning, removing obstacles, creating energy around what’s possible, acting, and inspiring others. Very Oprah, I know. But that’s what I do. It was disguised as auditing for most of my career. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be an auditor in the long run, after all.
So that’s what I’ve done this year. This was a long, roundabout way to say I will stay true to what has served me well, but I will also take risks “marketing” myself better than I have in the past. Draw people to me. I honestly want to see everyone thrive in their lives, relationships, and livelihood. If all this ambiguity about my own personal career led me to this point, to this realization, then so be it. Let me somehow be that channel of good and hope for others. That’s the “loving UP” part of Live Laugh Love Louie.
Until next time…
Photo credits in order of appearance, all from Unsplash.com: John Baker, Amy Reed, Nathan Dumlao, Daniel Hjalmarsson, and Rita Morais