May 2020 | Elena Stegemann, BSCHE, MBA
A special note: this blog was written a few months ago when the world was very different, and we all interacted freely at places of learning and work. While the world has changed dramatically since then, I believe my observations are still valid for those navigating various stages of their careers. I encourage you to read on and to think about how today’s rapidly evolving norms about how and where work takes place will either challenge or enable you to embrace my advice more freely.
Earlier this afternoon I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of MBA students at the Ross Business school in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’ve been speaking as a guest lecturer at the University of Michigan for a number of years and my lectures are based on experiences gained through positions with growing responsibility in Operations, Manufacturing, and Business Development. Currently I am the COO at McCreadie Group, Inc., where I have the good fortune to lead a very talented group of people who bring innovative software solutions to pharmacy researchers and educators.
Visiting the business school always brings on a mix of emotions for me. It is a reminder that I am another year older, while my audience is perpetually young. I am grateful for the fun ride that my career has afforded me, yet I am envious of this group of people who have yet to travel their own path. I reminiscence about mistakes I’ve made along the way (some of which I shared with the class), things that turned out to be blessings, but at the time I tried to wish away. While today’s marketing lecture focused on a span of about 8 – 10 years, my career goes back a lot further than that. Humor me and allow me to reflect and share some of those “teachable moments” with you.
Early Days: Don’t Underestimate Small Moments
I took a year off between my Sophomore and Junior years of Engineering school to earn money to pay for the remainder of my college tuition. During those 16 months, I worked as a Junior Engineer trainee at a large chemical company. While at the time I thought the money and the big company name on my resume were what it was all about, there were even more valuable things happening that I didn’t have the perspective to appreciate at the time.
One of the most impactful moments occurred on the production floor when I was called in to troubleshoot a pneumatic label printer that started acting up. It was putting labels on drums in all kinds of unpredictable places, and I was the Engineer assigned to fix the problem. As the group of frustrated production workers stood around watching my efforts (with some skepticism I might add), I was intensely aware of several things: I was an infant compared to everyone around me, I was the only woman on the production floor, and most concerning, I had no idea what I was doing. I racked my brain to identify the very complex technical problem behind this, trying to come up with a very elegant and equally complex solution, but nothing from my engineering classes was helping me. Frustrated and at my wits’ end, I started walking around the machine to see if I could find any clues. That’s when I noticed that the air hose, which was hidden behind the business end of the machine, was kinked and not providing steady air flow. I un-kinked the hose, and the production line was back in business. While relieved to have fixed the problem, my prevailing emotion at the time was disappointment. I hadn’t fixed anything using my “impressive” engineering knowledge.
Like many people that age, I believed that proof of my professional usefulness (and my right to hold that job title) was tied to being able to solve the big problem. What I came to realize over several decades that followed was that more often than not, the problem and the solution are fairly simple, and that one’s ability to identify and solve those everyday problems with calmness and good humor will make you an indispensable part of any team. It will also be the reason your superiors will trust you with the bigger problems…later.
Mid-Career: The Bad Stuff is the Good Stuff
During a recent holiday visit with my family, I asked my young adult nephew about his new job. He liked the company, but he didn’t like the boss. When he finished telling me about all the ways his boss was a disappointment, I looked at him and said, “That’s so great!” He looked confused. And annoyed. We ended up having a great conversation about how bad situations (working for a bad boss, being assigned to a project that nobody wants, or dealing with a difficult colleague) are the opportunities that we are given to learn about how the world really works. These experiences teach us to let go of unrealistic ideals and to make those situations work for us.
I explained to my nephew that when I interview job applicants, I want to hear about their failures much more than about their successes. An employee who has dealt with a difficult situation will not only have more humility but will also have a much more realistic view of the world. They will have compassion for those around them and know how to support teammates, subordinates (and yes even bosses), in an authentic way that will inspire loyalty from others.
Did I always see it this way? No. Just like my nephew, I did my share of moping about difficult situations, but as luck would have it, I had no choice but to slog through them. One such learning moment occurred when I was assigned to a project that the previous owner told me was impossible to complete. My employer at the time (hint, the world’s most recognizable brand) had many data systems that did not talk to each other. My job was to figure out how to integrate data from a handful of systems that would then be used to create a management dashboard for the Executive Office. The former project owner was a data person, but since he couldn’t figure it out, his valuable time was re-allocated to another project. Because I was not an expert in this area, I happened to take an unorthodox approach that ended up working and getting the project goals achieved. Result? I received a performance award that came with a sizable cash bonus (in addition to endless bragging rights with my colleagues).
Easy projects and amazing bosses sure make life more pleasant, but they don’t push you to discover what you are capable of. Don’t hide from the bad stuff, make it the good stuff.
Later Years: It is No Longer about You
At some point in your career, in order to keep moving onward and upward, you will have to start getting comfortable with giving up control so other people in your organization can step up and have the freedom to lead in the way that is authentic to them. If you have had a long career filled with accolades and accomplishments, they were probably the direct result of your own initiative, hard work, and performance. You have been that person for decades, and it will be VERY difficult to stop seeing yourself as the conduit for all big things.
Sure, you will have done a lot of delegating to people who have performed carefully carved out chunks of work under your guidance and leadership, while you were just a hallway conversation away from knowing exactly what’s going on and able to do course corrections as needed. Remember, your direct reports are people who you hired for their ability to execute the big stuff, and you need to stand back and let them do it.
I know this all sounds far-fetched, like the sort of thing you read in a management textbook, but good senior leaders really do this, and I have seen it happen a number of times. A few jobs ago, I was a manager in charge of a global product portfolio that had big name clients like L’Oreal, Chanel, etc. I had made some impactful (and controversial) decisions about the distribution channels used to deliver our products to these clients and had just finished debriefing my boss. As I wrapped up, I fully expected him to ask for a detailed analysis to back my decisions, which he would then carefully review. Much to my surprise his only words were “I trust your decision. Send me a few backing points so I know what to say to the CEO.”
Wow. Are you as surprised as I was??? This brief statement spoke volumes to me about the confidence this senior executive had in me and his willingness to put his own reputation on the line for me. This moment taught me to extend this kind of trust to those I’d lead in the future.
So, to wrap things up, treasure those small victories and the difficult moments as they will be just as resume-building as the big job titles you’re after. And, when the time comes, step aside so that someone else can step up!
If you have any notable career moments that you’d like to share with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear them!