My first post in this series was about what we can do to prepare for and sustain a long, productive and satisfying career. In this post, I’d like to give credit — and there’s a lot to give — to the people who helped shaped the professional I became. We should all be so lucky as to have career heroes, to have specific people who, at critical junctures in our lives, have helped us choose our direction and/or master the KSAOCs needed to pursue successfully the direction we chose. There have been many such people in my life, some I actually knew and others I didn’t. Some were even fictional characters from the books of my childhood. But each of these inspired me, showed me the way, supported me when the going got rough, and/or cheered me across the many finish lines I’ve encountered along the way. I can’t begin to describe all of them here — yes, it really does take a village — but I thought I’d highlight five to represent the many:
- Nancy Drew — was the fictional heroine in a long series of children’s books, written by a committee of writers from 1930 on. A never-aging Ms. Drew, with her signature frocks and coupe (all this before what I felt was a disastrous modernization of the series that began in 1959), solved all manner of mysteries, overcame a wide range of villains, demonstrated more KSAOCs than you can imagine, and lived larger most women of the time. The best part of these books, and the reason they so influenced me, was that they provided my first exposure to a young woman who wasn’t bound by the conventions of the era. Having learned to read very young (taught by my older sister who thought this would keep me from bothering her — and she was so right), the Nancy Drew mysteries were and continue to be favorites. Nancy could do anything, and so I decided could I.
- Annie McPhee — was my first manager at my first professional job, just out of UPenn, as a programmer trainee at the then John Hancock Life Insurance Company. I was going nights for my MBA, working a part-time job to help pay my tuition, working long hour at my day job, and really burning the candle at three ends. I was just barely getting by at both work and grad school, and Annie called me on it. A high school grad plucked from the tabulator ranks when the first business computers arrived, Annie was the last of a her breed in terms of being loyal to the company first and to herself a distant second. I realized through working for Annie that my first professional loyalty was to myself, followed very quickly by wanting to meet real customer needs even as any loyalty to my employer depended on its putting those customers pretty close to first place. It also became clear in this first job that I was more interested in learning and rethinking the business given the possibilities that computers brought rather than slavishly copying the existing procedures into computer programs. I was in trouble a good bit with Annie, and I quickly learned that a corporate career was probably not in my future.
- Larry Seidel — was my long-suffering boss for most of my nine years at American Management Systems. A brilliant and intensely analytical man, from Larry I learned the essence of management consulting, putting the clients’ interests first, general systems thinking, turning good ideas into rigorous methodologies, turning sound analysis into “take a leap” recommendations, and turning good into great business writing. I also learned how to live on the road without the road becoming home, to manage complex interconnected projects, to start and run a consulting practice, and so much more. Larry and I remained great friends until his far too early death at the end of 2007, and I still ask myself “what would Larry do” on nearly every client project.
- Grace Hopper — was the early computer scientist who is credited with much of the theoretically work that led to the COBOL language, but she was so much more. She had a brilliant academic career in physics and mathematics, to include a PhD in mathematics, before there were many such women; she was a Naval officer of high rank who retired as a Rear Admiral; she married then divorced her husband at a time when divorce was supposed to be the kiss of death for any woman; and Grace spent her long professional life proving that there really wasn’t anything a woman couldn’t do. Grace Hopper was everything I wanted to be, except divorced. Her famously quoted “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission” rings constantly in my mind when there are tough choices to be made. I never met Grace, but I followed her career closely, and I so wish I had known her personally.
- Bubbi Bloom — Anne Bloom was my maternal grandmother. Am immigrant from the shtetls of Lithuania (then under the Czar), she taught me everything I know about perseverance, diplomacy, the power of the personal network, how to go forward when there’s no going back, respect for and learning from the past as a foundation for inventing the future, courage, and that there’s no such word as can’t. I lived with my grandmother a good bit growing up, and I loved the stories she told of the old country and the new. But mostly I remember her telling me that I could be and do anything to which I set my mind and my efforts. And I remember her telling not just me but everyone she knew that voting in her new country wasn’t just a privilege but an obligation, an obligation on the same level as tzedaka, the obligatory philanthropy of Judaism that is an absolute commandment.
There are many more people, much closer to my current career and whose names are familiar to many of you, who continue to inspire me every day. I benefit from younger colleagues from whom I’ve learned so much, clients who challenge me and give me the opportunity to do my best work, industry leaders who keep pushing back the boundaries of what’s possible, and friends who no longer ask me “when will you retire?” Social technology has so extended the reach of my own voice even as it’s brought many new voices to my attention, and my heroes now include many more people that I “know” but have never met. I don’t know this for sure, but I think that building and sustaining a successful career over a very long period of time takes more than any one person can muster. It really does take a village.