When I was in my 20s, success came easily to me, and all evidence pointed to a straight trajectory to the top for my career.
Not only had I graduated first in my class in one of the best college public relations programs in the country, I’d snagged a plum job at the most respected PR firm in Seattle. While there, I so impressed our largest client – a Fortune 500 company — that they hired me as their first head of corporate communications.
By age 28, I’d built my position into one of the top marketing jobs in the city, and was a trusted advisor to the company’s new hot-shot CEO. When my husband’s career aspirations called for a move to Chicago, I quickly jumped on board. Everything I’d done to that point had turned to gold; I believed a new city with more career opportunities could only mean greater success.
Arriving in Chicago, I did some slap-dash networking, and within four days had landed a job at a PR firm based on a single interview. I started the next week, ready to show my stuff.
It didn’t take long for reality to set in. This new firm operated with an old-school hierarchy. As a mid-level manager, I had no decision-making authority and little opportunity to work directly with clients. They were impressed with my work but didn’t see that as reason enough to bend their operating rules, which had delivered them success for 25 years.
So nine months later, when a recruiter called with a senior-level job at yet another PR firm, I jumped at the chance.
My ego so hungered for the big title and salary, I didn’t bother consulting anyone before making the decision. I didn’t have much of a network in Chicago anyway, I reasoned. But once the news was out, several acquaintances clucked with concern, sharing cautionary tales about people who’d had bad experiences there.
Believing in my ability to be successful anywhere – and that every company has disgruntled ex-employees – I went on my way without checking them out further.
Long story short, the new firm was a disaster. Its leaders, rarely seen in person, communicated mainly through nasty emails late at night. Management practices were arbitrary, goals and direction constantly changed, and employees were routinely hired and fired within a year.
Despite the toxic atmosphere and a rocky relationship with the CEO, I achieved some success building a team and satisfying our clients. So when the axe fell on me, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) and also scared to death.
It was a huge wake-up call. For the first time, I was forced to examine how I, the golden child, could have failed – and how I could keep from making the same mistakes again. My top four realizations:
1. Recognize the line between confidence and overconfidence.
Confidence is great. A confident person does their homework, so they can assess a situation, determine what it will take to succeed, and take action. Overconfidence – the belief that we cannot fail – is like putting on blinders. An overconfident person flies by the seat of their pants; they fail to look for potential obstacles and don’t listen to people who don’t see things their way. And yet we need to do both to make smarter decisions, and ultimately, to succeed.
2. Stop chasing other people’s idea of success.
I’d bought into the popular definition of a career success: moving up the ladder to ever bigger titles and salaries. I replaced that with my own definition: contributing my talents to a cause I believe in, surrounded by people I respect, whose values I share. Sure — recognition and compensation are still important, but they mean nothing without the rest.
3. Don’t throw in the towel too early.
Change takes time. The people at my first Chicago firm were good folks with great clients. They just had a different way of working, and they were loath to change what worked for them. If I’d stayed longer, I could have done more to prove myself and start breaking down barriers.
4. Failure is not a death sentence. In fact, it can lead to rebirth.
As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” Faced with my own failure, I changed my view of myself. No longer did I see myself as the golden child destined to win ever-bigger prizes. I became a life-long student of management and leadership, focused improving myself and coaching others to help them succeed, too.
What was your #BestMistake?
Author: Melinda Brunell
Melinda Brunell has served as trusted advisor and right hand to visionary leaders for over 20 years, using her experience in communications, change management, leadership development and strategy execution to help leaders transform their organizations and achieve success. The views expressed herein are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer, Dairy Management Inc., or the dairy industry.