I’m going to let you in on a little secret. As driven as I seem to be, I was once completely ambivalent about my career. Soon after I graduated college, I set a goal for myself to become a client account leader – to lead a team and the client relationship. I had a great female director as a role model. She was wise and kind, strong and bold. I knew she had my back even as she challenged me to grow, and she had the client’s respect. She truly inspired me.
I held onto this goal early in my career, working hard to develop new skills and show I could lead, with or without a title. And then I had children, and my crystal-clear goal, while definitely still there, became blurry. I could still envision it, but I was no longer charging for it at full speed. I knew, of course, I still wanted a career and even pursued career coaching sessions. My leader helped me map out a plan to get there. But I was still on the fence. I mean… could I really give my children my energy and time while pursuing a leadership role? My current role was already demanding, and a leadership role would only require more of me. With my decision to have children, of course I wanted to be the best mom I could be, but could I be a great mom and a great leader all at the same time? This question seemed daunting, and honestly, having both didn’t seem possible.
Ambivalence or ambiguity in professional goals is not uncommon among women. According to Mastering Your Inner Critic … and 7 Other High Hurdles to Advancement: How the Best Women Leaders Practice Self-Awareness to Change What Really Matters by Susan Mackenty Brady, approximately 95% of women they interviewed did not know what they wanted next professionally. Think about that staggering number. Almost all women in the workplace don’t know what role or challenge they want next. How can we bring all of ourselves to work if we are conflicted about what our path should be and what fulfills us? How can we be fully engaged in our work if we are meandering through a field with no direction, no destination? How can we reach our goal if we aren’t willing to fully commit to it?
While I haven’t achieved my long-term career goal yet, circumstances have forced me to make tradeoffs and face the ongoing dilemma of continuing to push for my goal or own walking away from it completely. I had to get off the fence, and since taking that first leap, I feel confident that I can take the next and the next and keep going until I get there. I have also found that as I get closer to my goal, I keep raising the bar. I no longer want to be a director (well, I do, but not as my final destination!). I have bigger dreams, including exercising my own voice more confidently, facing my fears head on, including writing this blog contribution.
If you’re at the beginning of your journey, here are my top six pieces of advice 17 years into mine:
- Get off the fence. Stop meandering. Choose a destination, and when you get close to it, choose another.
- If you truly don’t know what you want, spend some time in self-reflection on the types of tasks you enjoy most in your current role, what your strengths are and what challenges will excite a passion in you. The answer is there. It takes self-reflection, which means time truly focused on yourself, to find it. This could be the hardest step in your journey. Just remember that it’s more important to start than to have it all figured out from the beginning.
- Have a female role model so you know it’s obtainable. It’s not just kids who need someone to look up to!
- Embrace the risk, the unknown, the doubt by getting really specific about what you think stands in your way and map out a mitigation plan.
- Ask for help! Whether you need more support from your spouse, your family, your leader or a mentor, ask! You have a village; let them in.
- Be bold. Be brave. And as Ms. Frizzle always said on The Magic School Bus, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.”
As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, “Fortune does favor the bold, and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”
So, what are you going to try? What do you want? What is your next career destination? Envision it, own it and achieve it.