I was asked to speak to a mentoring group at our audit firm – Frank Rimmerman – this morning. It was an early morning group – all women – all accountants but in different roles: auditors, internal accountants and outsource accounting. All under 40, the majority under 35.
Since it was an early morning session, and I only had 45 minutes, I decided to take a casual approach and discuss three basic guiding principles to help the audience structure their thinking about their career path.
After a preamble about the path my career had taken I walked through the following three principles:
1. Think about your career as a pyramid, not a ladder, and so think about the set of skills you need to build up over the first 10-15 years of your career. It’s important to have a realistic view of what you are currently good at, but also what the gaps are in your skillset, and then to pick opportunitities either within the firm, or if need be switch firm, in order to fill in the critical gaps.
In my case I shared the time when I wanted to be a CEO but got the candid feedback from a VC that I would never be recruited to run a startup unless I had experience managing a P&L. Hard to hear, but great advice, and at that point I set out to get a GM job so I could learn P&L management.
2. The people you work with and for are far more important than your title or how much money you make. There are 1000+ ways to do something wrong for every 1 way there is to do something right. Working for high quality people, working with high quality people is critical at the early stages of your career (well it’s always important but it is especially important when you are on the steepest part of your learning curve). It is 1000 times more efficient to see and learn the right ways early on.
In my case I have a viewpoint that life is short, we spend many hours every day at work, and it is simply not worth the time to work with and for people you don’t respect and that you can’t learn from. You don’t have to like them. You do need to respect them. Pick a high quality firm to work for.
3. You are responsible for your brand, you must take control of your own PR. It is true in life that people think of you what you think of yourself. They see the you you project to them. As a women in particular you need to be very aware of the projection you give – your confidence, your willingness to speak up, your courage in volunteering for hard jobs. Men often understand this early on – society rewards confidence and even brashness in a man, but while social society does not reward that in a woman (remember you are supposed to wait to be asked to the prom), work society gives opportunities to the confident. So – take charge of your own brand.
Think about the funny side of this and you’ll realize how true it is. Women often excel at self deprecation – how many times has it happened to you (if you are a woman) that when someone compliments you on what you are wearing you respond with “really, I got it on sale” or “really, you don’t think it makes me look fat?”. Men just don’t respond that way, they just say “thank you”.
I enjoyed talking with the Frank Rimmerman team – they have different issues being in an accounting firm, and yet many of the same issues – how to figure out the catalog of skills they need, how to get mentoring, the child-rearing challenge, and how to network. I was glad to be another voice in the discussion and to share some of my life lessons.