Updated: Apr 18, 2021
I made a post on LinkedIn last week about the best career advice I ever received. In talking to people who commented on the post it took me back to that era - that time when I was fresh outta school.
The feeling of graduating and becoming a professional. The few weeks between getting my accounting degree from The Ohio State University’s Max M. Fisher College of Business and receiving the verbal offer from Mr. Noles was surreal. Then that quick - I’m relocating, house hunting with the company-assigned realtor, and preparing to put these 5 years of accounting studies to use.
My first job out of school was initially nothing like I intended it to be. Partly because I imagined my first “real job” to be in some swanky office building with floor to ceiling windows in a major city with beautiful weather and lots of traffic. I’d occasionally travel to different offices, meet lots of people, and enjoy the perks of being in the accounting industry. While I did travel to different offices and meet lots of people, instead my first real job was in an “office-like” structure that sat across the railroad tracks from the plant where chemicals I’d never heard of were converted into many everyday things that required adhesion.
Listen to the podcast episode here: The Best Career Advice I Ever Got
Also partly because I showed up to said manufacturing facility, where pallets and railcars and dust and hard hats were everywhere, like I really was in that swanky office building. I showed up on the first day wearing a pencil skirt, button down shirt, stilettos, and rocking freeze curls. I got the blatant side-eye from my new boss, the controller who was about 35 years older than me. I got a more subtle side-eye from the 2 ladies who made up the accounting department, both not as old as my boss but still had a good quarter of a century on me in age. I shook their hands while simultaneously comparing their work clothes (jeans, sweatshirts and gym shoes) to my corporate millennial outfit and awkwardly smiled. A fish out of water was an understatement.
Let’s be clear, even at 22 my goal was to be the best. I felt awkward in my new workplace, and wanted answers to why I, a black girl with hella ambition from Cincinnati, was chosen out of all the other candidates for this role. There weren’t a lot of black students in Fisher and I knew I was up against many others that didn’t look, talk, or dress like me. I asked my boss why she picked me and braced myself for any abrasiveness in her response. She told me how tough the decision was between me and the other candidates but she thought I was the best person for the job and she appreciated my attention to detail. I was floored - I just knew something mean was going to come out of her mouth. Rewind several weeks prior: after my interview I mailed her a handwritten thank-you card and I saw it propped on her desk on my first day. Y’all!
Takeaway: details matter. The difference between me and the other person getting the job was the thank-you letter I sent. That I MAILED, not emailed, to her. Plus I had drive a couple hours to the interview so I sent the thank-you card the same day because I knew it would take a day or 2 for her to get it.
From that day forward I said, OK. Everything else aside let’s go to work, let me show this lady that she made the right decision in picking me.
I’ve always been intellectually curious and didn’t shy away from asking questions. One day I asked my boss what a polyamide resin was and her response forever changed my career. She said, "I could tell you or you could go figure it out for yourself.” I told her I wanted to figure it out so she gave me a to-do list for the next day which included a new wardrobe (implicitly stated). She called and told the plant manager I’d be spending some time on the production floor tomorrow. I was excited and nervous at the same time.
The wardrobe switch though?! She lowkey hurt my feelings with that! But I knew it came from a place of sincerity. Forget my feelings and how I received what she said. I’m still stuck on her having my thank-you card propped up on her desk like that. Anything Sandra said to me I was going to take it because I realized she meant well. She also told me don’t be a clockwatcher but that’s another story for another day.
The next day I was more appropriate - jeans, Thee Ohio State sweatshirt, steel toes, and a hard hat that crushed my freeze curls.
I showed up a little earlier that day and had my notepad ready to go out in the plant and ask these men who don’t know me 21 questions about their job. Would I be perceived as that newbie overachiever? How dare I try to learn something outside of the accounting job I was hired for? If that’s how you feel, good for you to realize that I’m not a game but I need you to explain what a polyamide resin is and note any production downtime from last night. These are the answers I needed to do my job - for when I go back to the “office-like” structure where my desk was.
That role (financial analyst was my official title) lasted for about a year before the company was put up for sale. I learned so much and got over my fear of not fitting in. I also had a lot of moments with Sandra where even when I thought I was ready for anything she threw at me I wasn’t. She pushed me to (1) develop thick skin (2) to not be a clockwatcher, and (3) to go for it - to look beyond just the work that’s happening on my desk and understand the entire business.
I’m glad I got that teaching. And I’m glad I got it early as part of my first experience in the corporate world. All the hiring and onboarding that happens on a company’s end but then there’s those unwritten rules of corporate America that one can only learn from doing and seeing and immersing yourself in.
I looked Sandra up because this was only 15-16 years ago and there was no social media, and I’d think about her occasionally because I don’t think she realizes the impact she’s had on my career. I’ve had people tell me I’m very ambitious and work with a sense of urgency and the fact that I can work cross-functionally and not afraid to sit across the table from a C-suite exec - a lot of that I learned from watching Sandra. We’d spend some days after-hours (again, the whole clockwatcher thing) in her office reviewing the P&L, making calls to Jacksonville to speak with the FP&A team, asking questions about production, so many things I learned from her that set the bar high for my career.
I’m reflecting on those days as I think about the plethora of questions I get about how to “move up in my career?” or “what skills do I need to advance?” The people who ask me for career advice on LinkedIn are in various industries and at different levels in their career yet they all ask similar questions. It’s a function of thinking about where you are now, where you aspire to be, and filling in the space between those 2 spots.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? Share in the comments.