Becoming a leader was not an exact science for me.
For those who have a career checklist, I respect your master planning. I am not one of those people.
Mine has been an evolution rather than a mapped path, and every step required decisions about which way I wanted to go – deeper into my craft or broader into a larger leadership role.
If you ask people who have had a career discussion with me, they just may cite the hourglass in my office that I often use as a metaphor for career.
When you’re in an individual contributor role, you need to develop your critical skills, knowledge and talents so you glimmer and shine as one of the many grains of sand. As you move into management and director level roles, you start ascending into the middle of that hourglass, where you can see both the work being done by the teams and the strategic decisions that inform the work.
I truly enjoyed that pinch point, operating in the middle of the two worlds driving context, alignment and accountability. And, I felt like I had a unique value to contribute, having performed the work in the past and now getting a more bird's-eye view into it, with the responsibility of ensuring things happened in concert with strategic intentions, and in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
Then my opportunity to move into a role as vice president emerged as business needs, my skills and career goals aligned. When those stars align, great things can happen!
The move made me the first marketer and woman to lead the function, and the youngest vice president at that leadership table. Just like every new leader, I had to earn the trust and confidence of my peers, stakeholders and team — many of whom were a half-generation older than me.
The experience confirmed for me that everyone has something that makes them unique, and there is power in those differences.
People talk about being the “only” at the table and assume that means woman or person of color, but there are a lot of layers to being the only in a room, on a team or in a function. Diversity is not just gender and ethnicity. Those are the things we see above the surface.
We are diverse because of life experiences, skills, styles and beliefs, and our uniqueness can bring great value to our changing business landscape.
From the moment I moved into the top of that hourglass, I accepted responsibility for setting a strategy for the organization, driving clarity and prioritization of our work, and fostering an environment where the diversity of my organization could feel engaged and included. The organization brings together a variety of professionals with varying experiences across marketing, communications, engineering, sales, and business – a diversity that I saw as a fantastic formula. And I wanted to nurture a healthy, productive and progressive culture in our function that continually evolves, while ensuring we were in sync with the larger organization, doing the right work at the right time.
The Right Path
If you love the act of creating and executing, there are many opportunities in organizations to focus on your craft. Those roles can provide a lifetime of learning, development and skill building which companies need and value from its talent.
The higher you go in an organizational structure, the less of that craft you personally get to perform, but instead your responsibilities move towards developing strategy, driving alignment and influencing change at higher levels.
As I didn’t have that step-by-step plan for my career, I found as I had opportunities to lead and drive, I truly enjoyed those aspects of a leadership role even more than I had anticipated.
The only right answer is the one that’s right for you.
My advice is to be confident in yourself and the value you bring to your role. Consider where you contribute the greatest value to the company, and what delivers the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to you.
Think about the impression you want to leave in any role you take on and be diligent about keeping true to it. For me, that’s really been about demonstrating authentic, humanistic leadership.
Whatever your goals and aspirations, here are my thoughts to keep in mind as you navigate your career hourglass:
- Be who you are. Truly learn and understand what your natural strengths, skills and interests are, so that you can bring your best to work. Authenticity delivers results.
- Know your personal brand. Be honest and self-reflective about what impression and contribution you will bring to any role you take. Why are YOU uniquely positioned to bring the greatest value? And how does that match up to the business needs and your personal aspirations?
- Ask questions. Every time you’re faced with an opportunity, think about how that role could help you build your skills and bring you greater personal satisfaction. Weigh those opportunities against that hourglass – considering whether you do your best when you’re in the action of your craft, or whether you really want to lead business change, alignment and outcomes. Remember, the only right answer is yours.
- Don’t focus on the title. If you’re using a title as a measure of ‘arriving’ at your career destination, the thrill will be short-lived. Love what you do and push yourself always to do better, keep learning and step up your contribution. What you achieve and contribute is way more important than a title on a business card.