A Few Things My 35 Year Career Taught Me
By Bernadette A. Sahm
Every year I look at when my “retirement” year will be and lately I reflect on all that I learned in the 35 years of my professional career? What lessons did I learn along the way? What can I share with those that come after me?
- Get along with your co-workers.
You do not have to love or even like your co-workers, it helps if you do. Be willing to learn from them and in getting along with other professionals, you model behavior that your supervisor wants to see in you and that you will appreciate seeing in those that you supervise.
Join networking groups and professional associations that allow you to learn and grow while growing your network. Exposing yourself to new and different people and exchanging ideas with them can be so satisfying and helps to keep us current.
Play nice is not just for kindergarten, do not take what is not yours, give credit when credit is due and if you can’t say anything nice, it might be best not to say anything at all.
It has been said, “be kind to the people you meet on the way up as they are the same ones you will see on your way back down.” Treat others with the same respect that you would like and most often it works. The way you treat the custodian says a lot more about you than how you treat the President.
Many of my good and best friends were born out of my professional relationships. Colleagues that began as co-workers and became friends and like family to me.
After leaving the restaurant business I began what I consider my professional career and a more structured job in real estate. I was always self-motivated however becoming a Realtor would demand it.
On my first day in my new office my manger showed me my desk. I had a desk and a phone and a good luck from her. It was up to me to make it happen. I went to training and I mingled with my new associates. If I wanted to be successful, I had to go out andsecure my own buyers and sellers and I did. As the youngest person in my office at just 26 years old, I consistently ranked in the top 25% in sales and listings. I was hungry and I wanted to succeed. Clearly, I was not the most experienced Realtor in my office, but I had the drive, the determination and self-motivation.
No one is going to do it for you, set goals and go after them!
Leadership begins and ends at the top, I have been fortunate to work with and for great leaders. I learned so much from them and witnessed many styles. My first favorite manager was from real-estate where my manager had such a high opinion of you that you never wanted to let her down. Marianne believed in you, period. Her positivity was contagious and a winning strategy.
The second would be when I went into non-profit and was managed by the President of the organization. He was/is a visionary and encouraged you to take risks. His take on a mistake was “at least you were trying” and under his leadership, I became part of a 16-member leadership team. We gathered every two weeks and learned from different paradigms. It was a room with teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, development team, facilities managers, admissions, and others. We came from different fields but were united in the same mission of advancing the organization. Dr. Ross was secure in his position and loved hearing a variety of perspectives. We all learned from our leader and from each other.
I like to think that my management style is a reflection of both and much of what I learned along the way.
Dress the part, act the part and get the part. If you are a professional, it is important that you present yourself as one in your attire and your actions and in all of your communications. Model the behavior you want to see in others and that you have witnessed yourself in the leaders who have succeeded.
First impressions matter and how you present yourself in the professional arena makes a difference, it is worth the effort.
- Building Your Sphere of Influence
A large supportive network of people that believe in you might just be your greatest asset. It is so important to build your sphere of influence. Remember the people that opened a door for you and helped you to be successful. Make them proud and stay connected to them.
Without supportive people and “references” it is almost impossible to gain traction in your profession. The network that I created in business and in my real estate career were paramount in my success as many followed me into my transition into non-profit work.
For about six years I worked for a “mentoring” organization that served youth and young adults. It was there where I learned the importance of mentoring and teaching young people. First by modeling professional behavior and then by engaging interns that would gain career knowledge and experience by working along the side of a professional.
My first true intern came from Loyola University and was a young girl from Chicago, she was a dream come true. She needed college credits and hours and I received much than I can ever express. She was great at marketing, business and writing and computer savvy. I could bring her into a committee of established professionals, and she held her own. We did much together from shopping at big box stores to hosting a black-tie gala successfully. It was hard to see her go. For many years I served as her reference and I was always delighted to help her move forward on your career path.
To this day I enjoy entertaining interns and helping them learn more about development and fundraising. And in all honesty if it was not for young people and many interns, I would never have gained the first-hand knowledge of social media and many tech related apps and computer related programs and technology. Mentoring is a definite win-win!
Give back and volunteer! I started volunteering at just 13 years of age, first as a Candy-Striper in our local Catholic hospital where my parents worked and later as a C.I.T. (Counselor in Training) for a day camp and 2-week resident camp during several summers. It was so fun working in the hospital and taking patients their mail and flowers. My “pay” was lunch in the hospital cafeteria and I loved it! I learned CPR and how to make beds with “hospital corners” and I learned the value of commitment and my confidence grew knowing that I was contributing and had value.
My camp experience was wonderful and still after 40 years I am friends with another C.I.T. that I came up with and worked together at both the day camp and resident camp for many years. Memories were made and many skills were developed.
Today many organizations insist on age 18 but when I was coming up it was the most natural thing to do as soon as you became a teenager.
There are always volunteer opportunities within most organizations, using your skills and giving back as a volunteer is meaningful work and benefits both the volunteer and the organization. A volunteer experience can last a day, a week, month or become ongoing. If you are talented in your field most organizations will want to engage you and welcome you with open arms.
- Skill Sets That Transfer
Most of the skills I acquired in the business world were easily transferable to the nonprofit arena. In my mind my own personal mantra has always been “if you are out of money you are out of business” it didn’t matter if it was a for-profit organization or a nonprofit organization.
We have all had those “starter” jobs in retail or in restaurants and these are the jobs that teach us customer service, and how to work with others. Skills learned in “starter” jobs are skills that we take with us during our entire career. No one is spinning more plates and organized and prioritizes like that of a good waitress or bartender.
Every group every job and every work-related experience taught me lessons that I carried forward, the way I responded as an employee was not the same way I responded as a business owner or as a manager, however as I grew in my profession the stepping- stones is where I gained much knowledge that allowed me to be an even better executive officer and director.
- It is Your Career Path
Every person has their own unique career path, some will have a variety of jobs and opportunities others may settle down with very few jobs and be equally as successful. There have been positions I wanted or thought I did that never materialized, others that fell in my lap and some I all out went after. Positions came to me without me asking for them, and I have even accepted positions that I almost immediately left because once inside I knew it just was not for me. It is okay to try and then make another decision and turn around and say, thanks but no thanks.
Taking classes are important but so is on the job learning and every class and every position held brings about opportunities for learning and networking.
Not every job is for every person, the culture and the environment must fit on both sides to truly be successful. Only you know what is right for you, believe in yourself and go after what you want and make it happen.
Be open and willing to learn and adjust and adapt as your career path deems fit and always do what is right for you!
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