Taking the opportunity to look back on your own career path – the people you encountered, the lessons you learned and the risks you took – can be a somewhat sobering experience.
My reflection of my own career path came during a panel/workshop at a recent sales and marketing conference in San Francisco. The panel, called “Empowering Future CMOs” was mostly targeted at women – though I’m happy to report that there were several men in attendance, too – and was intended to inspire up-and-coming marketing professionals.
What I really enjoyed about this event was the way audience members engaged with the panelists. The moderator, 6Sense CMO Latane Conant, did a fantastic job of positioning the session as more of a group discussion, a forum where stories were shared and viewpoints were expressed. We talked about big moments in our careers and recalled setbacks we’ve experienced. We talked about life’s moments that defined us. We talked about what we could manifest in our own careers and how we got to be where we are at these points in our lives. Careers don’t define or shape you. Life does – and it shapes each of us very differently.
That led us to the biggest takeaway from the discussion – the need for each of us to be true to ourselves, to figure out who we are as individuals.
That may sound simple but it’s no easy task – and I found that it’s normal for people to struggle with their identities, especially for women. I know I did. I started my career in tech marketing as a manager for Ariba, a Silicon Valley software company. At the time, I’d worked in the environmental industry for five years and knew very little about software. As tough as it was to quickly come up to speed on the technology, there were so many other struggles that defined me, specifically as a businesswoman. I had to learn how to be heard in a room full of men. I had to think about what I was wearing and how to present myself in a way that was authoritative but not aggressive. I had to learn to balance being a mom and an on-site manager. I learned a lot at Ariba as I moved up the ranks from individual contributor to managing a global team and have since made some amazing career moves, going on to work for Taleo, Jive, MapR, Marketo, Domo and now Planful.
There was one story in particular about my career journey that drew both chuckles and looks of shock when I shared it during the panel session. Early in my career, a female coworker once questioned whether I was in my position because of my intelligence or my looks. At the time, the encounter shook me to my core and made me question everything about myself. But over the course of my career, I’ve come to realize who I am, in part, by understanding who I’m not.
I’m not, for example, one of those power businesswomen doing yoga at 5 a.m. or getting the blood flowing with a three-mile run at sunrise. That’s just not me. But I am the person that makes the time to workout at least three times a week, who leaves work at a time that allows me to still be there for my daughter’s field hockey games and who continues to wear 4-inch heels because I like feeling tall. Most importantly, I understand the demands of everyday life and try to be flexible for both my team and myself. The team at Planful is made up of fantastic people and that trust, respect and compliment each other and most importantly do an amazing job.
Defining Your Brand
One element of the panel session was to talk about personal brands. As a CMO and a leader who builds teams, I sometimes find myself going into mom mode – which means applying tough love, being the person who says things to you that no one has ever dared say while also providing guidance along the way. It also means being nurturing towards people and trying to understand their perspectives. Everyone has different struggles in life and I try really hard to be aware of that. #momboss has been my personal brand.
As a woman, I understand the struggle that comes with trying to define oneself, especially as women seem to work harder at being recognized for their contributions in male-dominated business environments. Case in point: there was a lively discussion in the panel about power suits and whether women needed to “power up” their wardrobes to be taken seriously.
To my surprise, the other panelists felt that “powering up” wasn’t a bad thing, that people should do whatever it takes for them to feel powerful about themselves. For me, my power is found through a pair of jeans, a leather jacket, and some killer shoes. Recently, one of my go-to CMO pals, Inside View CMO Tracy Eiler, told me that I “really have this rock and roll chic thing going” – and I thought that was pretty spot on.
Seeking Help Along the Way
One of the biggest takeaways from the panel was that the journey through one’s career paths no longer has to be a solo adventure. Mentors – and, more importantly, sponsors – can really impact another person’s career paths.
As someone who is usually older, wiser or more seasoned in the job, a mentor tends to be that one go-to sounding board and provider of career advice. Sponsors, on the other hand, are the network of people who are more like cheerleaders, advocates or door openers.
A sponsor might be someone who recognizes your professional talent and helps to get you on the right projects or a seat in an important meeting. Sponsors aren’t necessarily your direct managers but maybe instead someone who led a cross-departmental project where you shined. When sponsors move to new jobs and new companies, they might think of you first for an important role.
Making Your Own Mark
I’m hopeful that the panel itself was helpful to the attendees. I felt good not only participating in the discussion but also taking some time to get to know people on a more personal level after the event. I met some amazing people whose career ambitions are focused less on climbing a ladder and more on making a difference in the world. I also met people who are energized by being sponsors and mentors to younger people.
Most importantly, I rediscovered myself. I remembered some of the lessons I’d learned over the years, in this job or that job. I remembered some of the people I’d encountered, for good and for bad. I remembered the times I fell down and the people that were there to help me get back up. And I remembered what it was like to be young in my career, looking for a path forward and wishing I had the network I have today.
I like to think that the people who walked into that session forgot that it was called “Empowering Future CMOs” and will instead remember it as something more like “Empowering the True You.”
This post is the first in a monthly series called #WomenCrushWednesday, which aims to recognize the women at Planful by celebrating their careers and accomplishments.