Recently I was asked to speak an event sponsored by Best Buy, Medtronic, and Lindquist & Vennum, called Access to Leadership. The panel included several other remarkable female executives and the discussion focused specifically on how women lead; run companies; and balance the demands of work, family and children (if they have them), and other important personal priorities. Among many great moments, the most important one for me was a candid discussion about how I navigated my own career development, and some of the obstacles I encountered along my path to CEO.
I shared with an audience of more than 200 a story about my first performance review at my first job after graduating from college. Two things are tattooed in my mind from that conversation. First, after asking about my career goals — I said I planned to be a CEO — my manager asked how I could know that I wanted this and believe that goal was even realistic when I had just graduated and was only 21 years old. Second, he mentioned that I needed to be mindful of my “aggressive and direct” communication style.
I could have taken this feedback a couple different ways — either shrinking my ambitions, tamping down my personal style and trying to fit in where I was, or planning my exit strategy. I chose the latter. That performance review confirmed that I was in the wrong organization and needed to find a place where I could hone my skills and build a path towards my dream.
The decision to move on led me to several amazing companies, both start up and mature, where I had the great fortune to develop my professional and leadership skills under several phenomenal mentors. Ultimately, my career path led to the education industry, and that’s where I found my professional passion. Along the way I fell in love and married my wonderful husband. We built a life together — including creating two (in my opinion) remarkable children — and I got to experience first-hand, especially in the last year as CEO of Questar Assessment, the joys and challenges that come when your planning and hard work pay off and your dreams come true.
Many people, notably Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, have observed that many of us rein in our dreams, ambitions and even our personalities to toe the line of what many still consider acceptable behavior. Maybe because of that, and because I achieved my goal of becoming a CEO, many people have asked me if I have experienced these types of challenges in my career. I can only say that any path you choose will come with challenges. You have to take thoughtful risks and you have to determine a path for yourself. If you depend on others to do that, you will likely fall short of both personal and professional goals.
This brings me back to my Access to Leadership experience. Using my personal experience to make the point, I told the audience that the biggest challenge they will face — that we all face, men and women alike — is not to settle for less than we deserve and do whatever it takes to clear the path between us and the life we want to live, regardless of any obstacles in our way or biases that may hold us back.
For me, the path of least resistance wasn’t an option. I was raised to believe that if you don’t like something, you work to change it or change yourself. That’s me — but each of us needs to find our own way.
I feel lucky that all the changes I made in my career put me into the orbit of the many phenomenal leaders — many of whom are the women I count as inspirations, mentors, and friends — at the helm of major education companies and divisions today. I am also grateful to work in Minneapolis where we have a thriving community of strong women executives driven to help each other and build great companies. As I thought of the leaders I admire I started to wonder about their own career (and life) strategies.
How do they, each in their own way, not settle for less than they deserve and do whatever it takes to clear the path to the life they want to live?
As I thought more about this question, I realized how many leaders I know who could share relevant insights and offer valuable advice on this topic. And an idea for a blog series — Principles, Leadership, and Success — was born!
Over the next several months I will be chatting with strong, successful leaders, both men and women, and share with you their recipes for success, leading with integrity, giving back to their communities, and finding their own work-life balance. Stay tuned — it’s sure to be enlightening.