Life Changing Advice – Part 2

by Sandy L on September 19, 2012

I promised to follow up my last post with life changing advice I received relative to a person’s career.  As I look back, I’ve gotten some pretty awesome advice and people in my life made a big difference in the choices I made.  My parents didn’t have much to go on, so I had to rely on external sources to guide my way into the working world.

On Career Choices

My favorite teacher of all time was my high school chemistry teacher. She was tough, witty, but caring (even though she didn’t always show it).  She had a big sign next to the clock on her wall that said “Time will Pass, However you May Not.”   One day, we were talking about what I’d do when I was done with high school.  I told her that I didn’t like school and I’d do something that didn’t require college like becoming a secretary.   It’s not that I lacked ambition, I just didn’t know any better. My mom worked in a factory and the people she envied the most were the secretaries who had clean and safe jobs in a cushy office. They came home as clean as they arrived at work, injury free and happy.  My mom on the other hand, came home covered in so much axle grease that the smell never left her.  Anytime I go to a mechanic, the smell on their clothes reminds me of my mom.

My teacher just about jumped out of her chair.  She told me that under no circumstances should I aspire to become a secretary.  Who knew back  in 1990 that the computer revolution would pretty much make secretaries about as obsolete as overhead projector slides. But 20 years ago, there were tons of those jobs.   She took it a step further and nominated me for a women in engineering camp up at Michigan Tech and I was accepted.  It was the talk by the woman at 3M that talked about all the technology that went into a Post It Note that made me choose Chemical Engineering.  Most people don’t think about how complicated the adhesive is on that product. I mean, it has to stick relatively well to just about any surface for a long time, but then un-stick at will.  Oh, and the adhesive also has to stay on the paper side it’s connected to and never un-stick from the note itself.

What this teacher taught me is to not reach for an easy career that anyone can do without much effort, but one that stretches me.  She also incidentally told me not to be an accountant because it’s boring as hell and I’d go out of my mind.  She did accounting on the side, so she had some experience in that field as well.

On Picking a Company

I had done a co-op at a small chemical company overseas for a year in college.  They made all the random things no one else wanted to make and did a lot with cyanide chemistry.  You know Panthenol, that silky benign stuff that makes your hair smooth in conditioner? Well cyanide chemistry is how  you get from a bunch of poisonous chemicals to something oh so silky smooth and benign.  Anyway, at a company that size (which was 50 people), you get to pretty much do everything from the get go.  There is a tremendous amount of empowerment because of the sheer lack of people.  You are the jack of all trades, master of none and it suited me.

But then my senior year came along and one of my professors gave me some advice.  He said, “Start your career at a large company.”  You can always go from a larger company to a smaller company, but it’s harder to go the other way.   It was fantastic advice.   Although I’ve stayed mostly with the same company, I wouldn’t have had the career opportunities I’ve had if I were at a smaller place where I had to wait for someone to quit, die or retire in order to get a chance to do something different.  You learn a ton, meet lots of talented people from around the globe and you can always do something on a smaller scale later on. I still think my style would fit well with a small company but going big has given me a lot of experience I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Many of my friends are at smaller companies now and it’s that big company experience that got their foot in the door and the money and respect at their new places of employment.    I’m also super loyal so I don’t think I’d leave a small company for better opportunities, so I’m sure I wouldn’t have the resume I have today if I went the small company route.  In fact the company I worked for in the UK had a division in NH and it has since closed.  It was the right decision.

On Communicating

There was this VP at work who has since retired, but he was one of the most personable people you’ll ever meet.  We still keep in touch and I know he misses the interaction of work life to this day.  When I first started out at my company, I was on a training program and every 6 months we had to report out our projects.  Most people don’t like public speaking and at that time I still hadn’t had much practice at it.  Anyway, after one of my presentations, he gave me some advice.  He said that he noticed that when someone isn’t listening to me, I just use the same communication style more forcefully.  Instead of doing that, I should change my style to something that would allow the listener to hear me.  What a great piece of advice to get when you’re 23.  I have taken that to heart and really try to adapt myself to different situations.  On the flip side, I now notice when other people use the “old me” technique which is repeating yourself over and over and getting nowhere.  I still haven’t perfected this technique on my children, but I’m working on it.  Thank you Alan for great advice that improved the quality of my life in every facet of my existence.

On Confidence and Your Personal Brand

My first year out of school, I had a wonderful manager. He used to be a professional basketball player for the Clevelend Cavs before he went into sales.  He was 6’3″ and a force to be reckoned with.  He was African American and came from humble beginnings just like I did and he took me under his wing and was my informal mentor for 10 years.  When he left the company, we sort of lost touch but I still value all the things he told me over the years.  Curtis and I were in global sourcing, so we traveled a lot together, so we had many many conversations about life.  He was one of the first people who really talked to me about racism and pointed out how people would stare at the two of us in airports. According to him, people stared because he was a middle aged black man and I was a young and pretty white girl.  (We are also both very tall.)  I was totally and completely oblivious until he pointed it out. He was right. People did stare at us. Weird.  Most white people don’t get to experience what it’s like being a minority and he gave me a little window into his life. It really changed how I perceived race and racism.  That was big lesson 1. Racism exists, even if you don’t think you yourself are racist.

Anyway, there were two other big things he managed to drill into my head.   The first was how you perceive yourself.   We used to have to do these self assessments at the end of every assignment and he told me to rank myself an A1.  This was the highest ranking.  He told me to always rank myself a top performer until someone tells you otherwise.  If you rank yourself a B, then you’re managers will start thinking you’re a B as well.  They don’t know about your deep rooted self esteem issues, they just want to know what kind of worker you are and if you rank yourself as mediocre, who are they to say otherwise.   He repeated this lesson to me on a number of other occasions. I was asking him once years later if I was qualified to be a product manager. I was young and didn’t have as much experience as the other PM’s.  He told me “Of course you are..You tell them why you are qualified and let them prove you wrong.”   He was a big fan of aiming high and not looking back.  I did end up getting a PM job and was one of the youngest in the company at the time. I was still in my 20’s and 3/4 of my peers were in their 40s and 50’s.  It was for a smaller business unit but he was right.  I was good enough and got the job.  Lesson 1:  Don’t talk yourself out of a certain job if you really think it’s the right next move.  Don’t worry about who else was in that job and what experience they had.  Focus on why you fit into the role.  Convince yourself that you’re the right fit and then campaign like hell to get it.  If you don’t get it, then ask for feedback and work towards getting it the next time it comes around or go to another company.

On Attire

The other part of your brand is your outward appearance. Newsflash: People judge you based on how you look and dress.  Curtis told me that you can not only under-dress for a part but overdress as well.  At big companies, assimilation is key.  For example. Curtis shared the story of when he got his first managerial job. To look the part, he started wearing a suit every day to work.  After a few months he confided in one of his mentors and was wondering why his employees were intimidated by him and didn’t talk to him much. After all, he was very a personable and funny guy and was making an effort to get to know his staff.  His mentor told him he was overdressed his employees didn’t know how to relate to him because of it.  He was skeptical, but was willing to give it a try.  So off went the suit and on went the golf shirt and khakis.  You know what? All of a sudden, people were more open with him. He was shocked at how big a difference that small change made.   Word of warning though, this need to assimilate  can border on ridiculousness, so please make sure you maintain your own sense of style and identity in the process.  I remember back in the 90s one of the CEO’s got into the habit of wearing sweater vests.  Suddenly every manager and aspiring lackey was wearing sweater vests to work. It was hilarious.

 On Prioritizing

I had a mentor Gina about 7 years ago.  She was great and has since left the company I work at.  We would talk once a month about all kinds of topics. Usually we’d talk about my strategy around my current role and how to do it more efficiently, etc.  I now have a mentee of my own, so I’ve had some time to think about what I can pass onto her.  Anyway, one day we were talking about being a manager and what makes an employee stand out from the rest. Obviously, performance is always the first box you must check but it wasn’t just that.  In short, the big lesson and it’s a simple one was: “Do what your manager asks of you.”   Our organization is pretty flat, so there is no room for micro-managers.  Most managers don’t have time to monitor your every move. It’s mostly a self guided journey. That being said, all managers ask their teams  to do certain tasks on either a routine or as needed basis.  Some people want highlights every week, so if that’s what your manager wants, make sure you do it, every single week.   Even if you just do one, it’s still better than having 20 highlights one week and then none for a month straight.   Everyone is busy, and it’s insulting to your manager if you prioritize some other task ahead of what they specifically asked you to do.   You managers need help reporting to their superiors, so when they ask you to send them ideas ahead of a staff meeting, drop what you’re doing, however important and fulfill their request. They might not use your idea but at least they know you helped.   Being too busy to fulfill a manager’s request is the worst kind of productive. Don’t think that just because they have a large team, they don’t notice when you fail to respond. They do.

So, that’s it in a nutshell. I have one more topic in this category and it’s about Networking but that’s a post all in it’s own, so I’ll save that for another day.  I’m sure I could write a whole book on the topic if I had more time, but these are the items that had the biggest impact for me.  Anyone have any other work lessons that changed the way you work and live?  101 Centavos, what do you think? I know you have shared your fair share of career advice over at your blog.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Invest It Wisely September 19, 2012 at 8:51 AM

Looks like you had the benefit of some really great mentors early on! I also believe that mentors are really important, and they have made the difference for me both in places where I’ve had them, and places where I haven’t. Interesting that you got to see the perspective of your basketball player and see racism at work. Where I live, we have some of that over language as well, though most people are usually reasonable. Still too easy for people to judge prematurely!

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Joe @ Retire By 40 September 19, 2012 at 11:56 AM

You have a collection of great mentors! I think mentors are really important and I’m sure you reached out to them. I’m not very good at reaching out and missed out on some opportunities.
The only thing I disagree with is starting out in a big company. I think starting at a start up is good for an engineer. There are more opportunities to move up as the company grow. If the company didn’t work out, you can always get a job at a big company. My friends who started at a start up are much more flexible about their career. They are not all successful, but they are doing as well as those who started out at a big company.

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Nicoleandmaggie September 20, 2012 at 9:45 AM

Wow! Another great post!

My sister is right now thinking about making the move from her big company. She says it’s hard because she really likes the disposable income, but at the same time she’s begun to dislike the moribundity that her big company (and many big companies) fosters. But one nice thing about the big company is that she’s been able to save a lot of that money so she can definitely weather the more uncertain employment in small companies. She’s just not sure she wants to. I think we still carry that fear of being poor from growing up… deep down we think if we stop working, we may have to go back to that, even though that is really unlikely.

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Kim@Eyesonthedollar September 20, 2012 at 11:59 PM

I have been lucky to have some great mentors along the way as well. The doctor I bought my practice was a great people person. He taught me to treat everyone as a valuable person. It is really true when you think about it. If you toilet if clogged, the plumber is the most important person. If you’re trash is overflowing, the garbage man is very important. Yours was certainly right to tell you to think or yourself as A1. I can only hope that I will be able to pass something along to someone else someday.

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Kellen September 22, 2012 at 8:45 AM

I already decided against the big company route when I graduated, but I think that I could have the chance to “switch up” this year – I am low enough on the totem pole that a big company could still train me in their process, and if I wait another year, they’d expect me to come in at more of a supervisory position, but I’d have to learn how to supervise and learn how their company works all at once.
I just dislike how impersonal they are. You have to be really good at networking within the company to make sure that the right people know and like you. Maybe your networking post will help me decide whether I can do that :)

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Kingston September 23, 2012 at 11:42 AM

Terrific post, which I will share with the young adults in my family.

I had never thought about it before, but I think the advice to start out at a large company is very sound. Quite by accident, I spent the first eight years of my post-college working life at a major news organization that has a lot of name recognition. Even though it was many, many years ago and I was never in management, it still seems to impress people who see my resume. The name confers credibility. I found working there soul-crushing in many ways, but in retrospect I have to admit it was worth it.

I’ve also been deeply grateful for the retirement account started for me by that company, when I was at an age at which I never would have done it on my own. It’s not enormous (and it’s not my only retirement vehicle), but it’s more than the average person my age has and its existence helps me sleep at night.

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Adam Hathaway October 7, 2012 at 6:59 AM

What great life lessons and experiences to share. I hope that many young and aspiring people read this and take it to heart. I particularly like the rating yourself section. I never thought of it that way and in the early stages of my career I knew I was a top performer yet I still gave myself average rankings.

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101 Centavos October 11, 2012 at 5:53 PM

What do I think? I think this is a tour de force, required reading for all young and old in the workplace! Great stuff, Sandy!
I like the piece on communications, something that’s on my mind quite a bit these days. How to communicate across global regions, and how to get people who don’t want to listen to *hear* your message. I had an exchange recently with a British guy that was very hard: no eye contact, no understanding, just recriminations and action items. It’s a current project, how to get across and deliver a “wow!” understanding.
I especially like the advice on proper attire. I have a younger understudy whom I’ve been trying to coach on successful business dress, even in a business casual environment. Shallow as it may seem, people do respond to good fashion, even if subconsciously.

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Benji W. December 18, 2012 at 5:04 PM

Ah, grade school teachers.

I’ve learned a few good lessons from them:
Here’s my favorite High School teacher..

We were having a scheduled book check, Mr. Velace would grab all texts books and check for our bar code number and compare them to his inventory to confirm that we had brought our ‘own’ book.
He called me up, flipped over the book, looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going to check your book number now.”
and i said, “that’s fine, I have nothing to hide.” He scanned me for a few seconds, smiled and said, “You know, I believe you, I know you wouldn’t lie to me.”

I hadn’t lied, but I realized not all high school teachers think we’re punk-ass little kids.
I appreciated that a lot.

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