A successful career requires that we continually take advantage of learning opportunities, within our organizations, within our fieldsóand within ourselves
By Erin Chan Ding
A dozen years into her career with a multinational corporation, Marianne Markowitz grew restless.
She had the financial skill set to do well at her job, and she had grown comfortable in her role as a senior risk analyst in treasury for Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, but she had trouble seeing herself outside the career box she had so far experienced, and that bothered her.
“In developing myself,” she says, “I felt a little stuck.”
So she asked herself what she wanted and where she wanted to go in her career. She decided she wanted to be a better manager. Then she asked herself, “What skills do I have to get there? What skills do I need to get there?”
As a result, she began working toward an MBA degree. The new degree paid off. She was recruited by Express Scripts and given the opportunity for an increased managerial role, and she took it. Then, after a move to Europe due to her husband’s job, she took a position with Syngenta, an agrichemical company based in Switzerland, which gave her the opportunity to manage 20 consultants.
“I had very deep technical skills, so I was given larger positions,” Markowitz says, “and along with that came staff responsibility, and I developed my management responsibility along the way.”
In 2007, her skill and managerial competence led to her appointment as chief financial officer of Obama for America during President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
Still, Markowitz kept innovating herself. During the campaign, she took steps to hone a skill she felt she long lacked: public speaking. She feared it so much that she had navigated career responsibilities to avoid it.
“I did all this work, and I wasn’t the one who presented it,” she says.
So she took Toastmasters International classes with a group from the campaign. She hired a speaking coach to get her comfortable in front of crowds and podiums. She asked a voice coach to help her with her volume.
Ultimately, Markowitz’s position as a regional administrator for the Small Business Administration during Obama’s presidency required her to travel across the Midwest and speak to numerous groups and conferences.
Looking back at her trajectory, Markowitz says it all began with self-examination.
“You need to make sure you are being very introspective about your skill set: What are you doing well? Keep doing it well, and developing it, but where are your holes?” says Markowitz, who’s now a bank executive and is still making speeches. “Do you need additional education or certification? Address those things you think are holding you back.”
Addressing those weaknesses, says Sheila O’Grady, a consultant at Spencer Stuart, an executive search and leadership development firm, is critical—and not easy.
Be open to hearing the hard stuff,” O’Grady says, “because I think if you can hear it, take in information that maybe you don’t love, but be objective about it, and then act on the insight out of that and the development that you may need, you will grow and flourish. You have to be able to hear it, digest it, and act on it, and that’s very hard.”
Start with you
Even before figuring out what you want to do, where you want to go, or how far you want to rise, you have to figure out what matters to you. That will guide other decisions.
Allyson Laackman had spent the first decades of her career working in accounting and finance before taking seven years off to be with her kids.
When she was ready to transition back into the workforce, her husband, Don, suggested she work with a life coach to gain clarity and perspective.
“It was pretty amazing,” says Laackman. “You tend to spend the first session really focusing on identifying your core values, and I think that alone was the impetus for pretty much everything that’s happened since.”
Laackman’s life coach, Kathleen Aharoni, started with a two-hour, foundational session that solidified Laackman’s central values of fairness, justice, unconditional support, and mentoring.
Aharoni says she works “to bring a person into oneness with herself, so she’s not one person at work, one person with her girlfriends, one person with her significant other, so that she’s not fragmented.”
One thing Aharoni advises is to avoid focusing on specific details of a work position. Instead, connect with the qualities you want in a job.
She says it may mean saying, “I want greater collaborative opportunities. I want to have more profit share. I choose to be directing a group of people who are ambitious, creative self-starters.”
For Laackman, aligning her values with her work meant openness in her career path, which in the past decade has taken her from working at the White House as chief financial officer for the Executive Office of the President of the United States during the Obama Administration to her current position as executive director of the Burlington Housing Authority in Vermont.
“I don’t have any agenda,” Laackman says, “other than having the biggest impact.”
Low maintenance, high visibility
Gail Golden, PhD, a management psychologist and the founder of Gail Golden Consulting, proposes a framework to illustrate how people operate at work: low visibility, low maintenance; high visibility, high maintenance; low visibility, high maintenance; and high visibility, low maintenance.
Many women, she says, tend to fall into the low-visibility, low-maintenance quadrant—worker bee types who don’t cause problems but whose contributions don’t get noticed by their supervisors.
For women to put themselves in the best position for advancement, it helps to adopt a mentality of low maintenance and high visibility, in which the value you bring is obvious, and you’re also seen as easy to work with and affable.
“Women tend to believe that the key to success is doing a really good job,” says Golden. “They don’t recognize that there’s this other piece. Oftentimes, women will refer to it as politics and put a negative spin on it.
“Part of your job is to bring the most value to your company, and that means do your job well and also help the people in charge see all you have to offer, so they can deploy you in a way that’s most useful to your company. That’s putting yourself ahead, and that’s not at the expense of somebody.”
O’Grady, who once served as chief of staff to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, says, “You do have to be an advocate for yourself, and you do have to use your voice to let others know what your goals are. Obviously, that all needs to be done in a thoughtful way. But you do need to own it—otherwise you risk others defining you and making assumptions in what you want.”
Sirmara Campbell, who started as an office assistant at LaSalle Network, a recruiting and staffing company, and is now in its C-suite as the chief human resources officer, says from the beginning she nurtured a curiosity about how the company functioned.
“I would ask [founder and CEO] Tom [Gimbel], ‘What are you doing? Payroll? Can I do it? You’re sending invoices? Can I learn how to do that?’” she says. “My mentality has always been to go for it.”
Having a boss who could envision her advancement proved central to her leadership development. For Campbell, her jump from support to management came when Gimbel asked her to create a human resources arm. When she felt unsure, he pointed out she had already been steeped in it.
“Tom is a driving force in my career and in my life,” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be without him.”
Lead on the outside
When Emilia DiMenco worked at Harris Bank, now BMO Harris Bank—where she rose from management trainee to the first female board-approved executive vice president at the company’s corporate and commercial bank—the corporation paid for her MBA and developed her leadership skills by offering media training and courses in public speaking.
At LaSalle, Campbell points to an internal training department, a tuition-reimbursement program, and the recommendation of employees to conferences, seminars, and workshops.
These are all opportunities women should take, but DiMenco, now the president and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago, also says that women can grow their leadership capabilities through nonprofit organizations.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of nonprofit organizations that need committee members, who need chairs of galas,” she says. “You’ve got to take leadership in committees, you’ve got to go for the board, you’ve got to do fund-raising, you’ve got to work at galas. You have to pay the price, in time and effort, to speak, to lead.” DW
Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Fit Pregnancy, and Midwest Living.