When I was 15 years old, I interviewed for and got my first real job as an assistant in a veterinary hospital.
I proudly worked full time all summer for $2.30 an hour and learned, sometimes the hard way, how to interact with the public in stressful situations and how to work with a temperamental boss—both good things to know. My first career takeaway was less obvious, however. I learned that sometimes even the gentlest of beings will growl, scratch, or bite, but that’s the most important time to show them kindness. Lesson: This “Always be kind” mantra applies to humans as well.
Inspired by several teachers, I chose agriculture education as my major in the university. I continued working with animals all through college, but I thought I might be able to get a job after graduation with an education degree. Little did I know that it would be nearly a decade after graduating before I was in a position where my degree and my job description matched up. Lesson: Agility matters.
The year I graduated college, there were 20 graduates in my major and one job opening. It was 1982, and I was the only female graduate in a male-dominated field. And as much as I would like to say I was the first female agriculture instructor in my state, I can’t, though later in life I did have the opportunity to be the first woman in a few other career endeavors. Lesson: It’s OK to take the scenic route in your career.
I figured out quickly that my unusual major wasn’t a barrier to working in other fields. I’ve worked in both education and agriculture, but I’ve also had fulfilling positions in disability rights and advocacy, program management, human resources, and, most recently, international operations. I didn’t learn about any of those roles specifically in my vocational education training, but I did learn how to work, and I wasn’t afraid of it. I reaped huge value from always joining and being active in the professional organization that was most relevant to my position at the time. Without exception, the value of membership far exceeded the cost, and I continue to stay active in several organizations. I was also fortunate that my reputation was good enough that in later years, sometimes decades later, job opportunities were presented through connections I made through my memberships in various professional organizations. Lesson: Build, don’t burn, bridges.
STAY IN TOUCH WITH FORMER COLLEAGUES
Education is important, regardless of how or where it’s obtained. College was great for me, but I chose a field that encouraged vocational education and learning by doing. When I was growing up, there was pressure to get good grades, so I did. Now I believe that grades can be important, but they don’t always reflect true intelligence or determine future success. Because I was working in fields that weren’t necessarily related to my college major, I sought out relevant certifications that made me not only more proficient at work, but also more able to advance within my company. I’ve obtained certifications in emergency medical technology, human resource management, grant writing, and association management. Obtaining a certification is only half the battle; maintaining it is paramount to continued success. Lesson: Old dogs can learn new tricks, and working to earn one or more professional certifications pays dividends.
One of the most fulfilling jobs I ever held was as the executive director for the Oregon Future Farmers of America Association, which communicated its mission to employees effectively. It began my love of nonprofit work and taught me a great deal about patience, the real value of volunteers, and how much passion can change and grow an organization. I believed that if I surrounded myself with great people, then great things would happen. And when you hire great people, others will notice and end up making them great offers. We were a small nonprofit; the best I could offer was long hours with moderate pay, and there wasn’t much upward mobility. So, I always encouraged those talented young people to move on to new opportunities. I was proud of them for it and kept in touch with many former employees. I believe this tactic reflected well on the organization I worked for, since those past employees spoke highly of our work and often came back to volunteer and, in several cases, convinced their new company’s leadership to become sponsors of our cause. Lessons: People will work for an organization with a cause that they believe in, and stay in touch with former employees and colleagues whenever possible.
STAND UP FOR YOURSELF AND BUILD CONSENSUS
In my 30s, I was the only woman in a male-dominated field. I got asked often about what it was like. I’m not always sure how to answer that. It was a different era, at times misogynistic and often frustrating. But I was in a position that required that I do my best for the organization, and that meant being able to hold my own despite challenges. And I won’t lie: It’s a tightrope at times. I never wanted to be loud and brash to get my way, even though many of my male colleagues would resort to that. I’ve always believed that it’s better to listen, stick to the facts, stay on topic, and work to build consensus while standing firm on my principles. I didn’t treat my male counterparts as if they had the worst intentions, but I also told all people quickly and directly if something they said or did was offensive. And then we’d move on. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and communicate your feelings; people can’t fix something if they don’t understand that it’s broken.
My work at IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) in international operations management is similar enough to work that I’ve done before, but it’s also ever changing and challenging enough to make it exciting. I feel like every lesson I’ve learned while progressing in my career path is reflective of IMA’s culture and core values, which makes my job such a great fit for me. Kindness, agility, the value of continued education, relationship building, believing in the cause, making good choices, and clear communication are all keys to success. And after 45-plus years in the workplace, the last lesson I’ll take away from my time working at IMA: Do what you love and love what you do.