One of my goals this year was to put some more time into developing my career so I could set myself up for long term success. To help achieve that goal, I joined my company’s Mentorship Program last winter. All the great conversations I’ve had with my mentor have inspired me to reach out to the other successful people in my life about how they’ve gotten to where they are today and what advice they would give their younger selves. I’ve already learned so much more then I hoped for, and I wanted to share some of the great advice I’ve received during these conversations.
Allison Read is my aunt/cousin/friend/sister and has been management consulting for 18 years. She worked in Toronto with KPMG for 12 years, before moving to Edmonton in 2010. She joined Telus Health in 2012, but then took an opportunity with a small consulting firm just to give it a try. She is currently with EY and focuses on project management, change management, strategy operations design, and process design for governments and other public sector services such as healthcare.
What made you want to go into that area?
I fell into it, I was certainly never planning on it. I did my MBA and went into a Co-op program at University Health Network doing process design and project management in IT. I went to a conference and met some people who were doing consulting and they actually presented doing finance in an IT/hospital environment. It sounded like what they were doing was really interested and different. They were doing a lot of different projects and it sounded like they had some cool things on the go I approached them about the possibility of working with them and that’s how I ended up in consulting. I really liked it, I liked the people I worked with, I liked the organization I was working with at the time, I liked the projects I was working on and so I got out of operations all at once.
What used to be your biggest weakness? How did you overcome it?
There are a couple I would say and I’m not sure I’ve overcome them, I just keep working on them and know that they are still there. One is being more detail oriented in terms of some of the work. You see it so many times that your mind just reads what’s supposed to be there and taking that extra time to really see it. You know, did I use the right word? Did I spell it correctly?…Really taking that sober second look and continually reminding myself that that needs to be done. Being aware that that is something I need to work on at all times and just focusing on that.
The other one would be…I’m not assertive. There’s a difference between being aggressive and assertive. Aggressive is not where I want to go but at the same time I want to be assertive and stand my ground. I’m more of a thinker, so I will think about the process. If somebody challenges me I need time to process and think it through. I typically won’t stand up for myself in the moment. I’m getting better at that, I think it comes with confidence. Knowing that you do have a brain, that you do have an opinion that’s based on some sort of fact or something that you can back up. It’s not just a gut feel. And then learning to stand up for myself.
So in those situations where you need more time to process, what do you do? Is is acceptable to say “I need time to think about this?”
Yup! I think people always feel like they have to say something but you could say “I don’t know the answer right now, I need some time to think about it, can you email me the material?” Sometimes if I’m going into a meeting I try to get the material ahead of time so that I can look at it and understand it and know whats going on. Sometimes that’s not possible, you have to take things as they show up…but you could go back and say “You know I’ve thought about this a little but more and this makes sense or this doesn’t make sense. Can we talk about this?” I think people think that saying “I don’t know” is a failure, but it’s not. It’s better to say you don’t know and then come back with a well thought out answer as opposed to making it up.
What was one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? What was the end result?
Moving to Edmonton was a big challenge. I moved with the company, so at least there was some familiarity and support there. But moving to a city where I didn’t actually know anybody at all, and the ones I did know where 2 hours away. That was definitely a challenge. Just trying to get to know people in the city and recognize you need to build up friends again and a routine again. Part of the challenge on that one was living out of a hotel for 9 months. You don’t get a chance to put down permanent roots or blend in right away and I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay. I probably did some different things I might not have done if I had stayed in Mississauga in terms of a career path. I likely would have stayed within the same company in Toronto just given the people that I worked with and the culture that it was, I enjoyed it. But coming out here gave me a chance to go into a more focused healthcare/IT field. It also gave me a chance to go to a smaller consulting company and try that out before going back to a big one.
How long did it take you to settle into the new job after moving to Edmonton?
Probably 6-9 months because of the moving and figuring things out, knowing where things where and how the office works because every office is different. The culture is different. It’s the same company, it’s a global company, so there are some standards in terms of how you treat people or how you work with people but how that translates onto the floor is different. How people interact is different. So probably 6-9 months to figure out how everything worked and where I fit in it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t say no to an opportunity. You don’t know what that opportunity is going to do for you. It might be really out of your comfort zone but it will stretch you and teach you something different. You might end up in Edmonton from Toronto. I mean I’ve worked in New York, I’ve worked in New Jersey, just to take an opportunity I worked in Ottawa. And if some things aren’t working out in your role just take an opportunity. If you have most of your bases covered you should land ok but if you don’t you’ll probably figure that out pretty quickly. Just have faith in yourself that you’ll be able to get yourself out of it. You might not know where you’re supposed to end up, but just don’t say no to an opportunity.
That’s great advice! So have you ever turned down an opportunity that you regret turning down? Or do you think it was the right decision turning it down?
Yup! I think it was the right decision. Do I regret it? At times, yes. So, I had an opportunity to go work with a partner in the US. I would have been based in Canada, so I would not have moved to the States which would have meant travelling Monday to Thursday, fifty-two weeks a year. It would have been an amazing opportunity, I still follow that person on LinkedIn and keep in touch. She was an amazing partner and I would have learned a lot but for myself at the time, travelling that much was not what I was looking for. So I said no to the opportunity. I think it worked out, I just took a different path. And who knows where my path might end up. Right now, I’m certainly not doing anything I’ve ever done before. So I’m learning and stretching and having fun doing it.
What do you wish you knew at an junior/intermediate stage or my stage?
Everything! But it’s the opportunity piece. Don’t say no. People used to start working after university and they would retire with the same company. I defiantly don’t think that’s a common thing any more, people are moving around. You never know where your path might take you. Obviously always have a bit of a goal in mind of where you would like to go and work towards that but if things take you somewhere else and that’s another interesting way, that’s fine. It will work it self out. You’ll do something else and it might not be where you thought you would end up, I can defiantly tell you I certainly didn’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now in university. I didn’t even know what this was in university. But just run with it. And if it isn’t something you enjoy, get out. Because it’s easier to get out and move on then to stay in that and let it ruin your personal life.
How do you keep your feelings from clouding your decision making?
It’s hard, I know. If it’s a major decision you have to take your feelings out as much as you can. You know, pros and cons lists, write things down, facts list, do your research. Talk to people to understand, not necessarily family or friends, but mentors in your field if that helps. I think that mentors have a vested interest of where you end up but they aren’t closely related. They’ve also likely already gone through some of the same challenges so you can learn from them. I don’t think you can always stop your feelings from clouding your decision making and I don’t think you should. There are sometimes where you just don’t feel it…that’s your body is trying to tell you that that’s not the right decision. Trust your gut sometimes. Obviously try not to make a decision when your highly emotional but if there’s something that’s just kind of sitting in the pit of your stomach, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say “Everything looks great, but this doesn’t feel right.” Otherwise try to take it as black and white as you can make it.
You mentioned a mentor, do you have a mentor that you keep in touch with on a regular basis or do you just have people that you reach out to on an as needed basis?
It’s not a formal mentorship, but there are a couple people that I’ll reach out to if I have questions and I keep in touch with them on a regular basis just so that it’s not out of the blue. But there are also people that I haven’t talked to in a few years, but I respect their opinion so if I’ve got an issue that I’m working through I’ll reach out and ask how they would handle it. It’s mostly individuals that I’ve met since starting consulting that I’ll reach out to for advice.
How do you maintain a balanced life?
It can be a challenge, obviously it depends on the projects your working on, the company that you work for and if they value work life balance. And I think sometimes that’s a bit of a misnomer in terms of is it a 9-5 thing because sometimes our projects are longer and you work longer hours but if you enjoy it, it doesn’t feel like work. I try to schedule things in for myself, so a swim, or a run…you know, down time, date night, movie night…and a lot of times it’s making a conscious decision of the company I work for and that they respect that and that the people I work with also respect that as well.
When it comes to getting your work done, do you have a system for prioritizing your work?
The project I’m on right now, it’s kind of as things happen. We do have work that we need to do, but a lot of times we get things thrown at us that day and it’s like this needs to be done yesterday but it just came up. I have a good team that I work with, so we’re able to at least pass off some stuff. For the last few weeks we’ve been trying to protect certain individuals time. There was a big piece of the project that had to get done so we had to divide things up and say “You’re going to work on this because I need to focus on this project. I can’t work on these one off things that keep coming in because if they show up I can’t deal with what I need to get done”. So having a good team that you can trust really helps.
Have you ever made a big mistake? What did you do about it?
I’m sure I have…I would have owned up to it and learned from it. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in front of a client that wouldn’t fly. But I’ve probably done or sent something that didn’t meet the mark of what people were expecting. So it was learning to ask more questions at the beginning to understand and really clarify what was needed. Last fall we were working on a project and whatever we were putting through our partner was not meeting his expectations. So it was a matter of finally sitting down with him and trying to understand what he was looking for. He was so focused on what it looked like and he wasn’t even looking at the content. We were trying to get the material done quickly, so we were just focusing on the content. If we would have taken the extra hour or two to focus on the formatting, he would have actually focused on the content…It’s not really a big mistake, but it was a situation where we needed to sit down and really understand what he was looking for and why we were not meeting his expectations. Had we done that, we probably would have saved a lot of time in the long run.
What do you think makes a good leader?
We’ve been talking about this at work actually! I think somebody who has the dynamic and has the ability to really pull people in the way that they want but who can also support their team…and someone who, like the ego piece is not there. Their not looking for the glory, they are just looking for their team to succeed and really support and understand what their team needs. But also somebody who has a good vision of where things should go and a positive vision. I always think Hitler was a good leader. He had the ability to draw people into his message and to pull them along, whether you agreed with the message or not. And maybe he was more of a movement building…you know when you think of Trump or Obama it’s more building a movement and trying to get people to follow the individual. But I think that leader really embraces the people on the team, makes them feel part of the team. They have to make them feel it’s not about me, it’s about the group and I think then people will follow. There’s a cute little YouTube video by Derek Sivers called Inspiring a Movement and it talks about how you have to be a leader, but you really have to embrace those first few followers and make them feel part of the team and then people will follow.
Have you ever been in a leadership position?
Yup! But I prefer not to lead, it comes back to my struggle with assertiveness and how I work and thinking in the moment but I try to support my team and understand what they need to stand out…I’m always pushing to say a leader does not equate with hierarchy, that’s a manager. Anybody can be a good leader at any level but just because your a manager doesn’t mean your a good leader. A lot of people say management is the same as leadership, but it’s not, that’s executive. It’s not leadership. They like to think of themselves as leaders at the executive level but that’s different. You can get to that level by managing people but I think being a true leader is a different skill set.
For someone starting their career, what is the best way to gain respect and be taken seriously?
I think it’s recognizing that if you are just starting your career you have a lot to learn. Coming out of school is great, you may know the latest thing on something because you just learned it in school, but there are people who are living this daily. So you do have a lot to learn and respect that the people you are working with can provide you with that learning and knowledge. Check you ego at the door, but also provide good work. Take that extra time to make sure your work looks detailed and google something if you don’t understand it. Put some research into it, put some common sense into it, put some critical thinking into it. The content might be completely off the mark, but if you put some time into it and ask questions that’s completely fine. I’d rather you say upfront “Can we just clarify what your looking for? This is my understanding, is that correct?” I think people will give you more leeway that way….Really just respect that the people you work with have some knowledge, learn from them, try to support them, and really do some critical thinking. If you don’t do the critical thinking, you’re not going to be taken seriously.