5 Ways to Navigate the Winding Path
Back before I really knew better, I envisioned my career like a single, long, straight path that I would run as hard as I could. I expected to get a great education, land an amazing job, and GO. I would put faith first, and family too when the time came, but at work I would always be running to win.
Or so I thought.
The first phase of my life went pretty-much according to plan. I did well in school, worked a few years, and got into a great business school. But as graduation approached, I had a problem.
My classmates were accepting flashy jobs at big companies in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles, but my husband was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The best job I could find in Tulsa was an entry-level consulting job at Arthur Young. Not flashy, not exciting, not impressive. Definitely not what people at Harvard Business School are expected to answer when asked about their post-graduation plans. But I had made a commitment to my husband to be in Tulsa, so I swallowed my pride and took the job.
I worked hard, but it was pretty obvious that the job and the company were not the right fit for me. So when an opportunity presented itself at Hillcrest Healthcare System, I moved on. And then shortly thereafter I did it again. Careers can be messy that way, especially when you are just starting out.
Job number three with Trammell Crow Company stuck, and I stayed in the industry for decades, working my way up to the global executive teams of two Fortune 500 and one Fortune 1000 companies. But life can be messy too, and by the time I was really settling in to my career in commercial real estate, my marriage was ending, and I was looking at work in a whole new way. As a single mom, I wasn’t just working to “win” anymore; now I was working to survive.
My job took me to Dallas, where I threw myself into stabilizing my children and my career path. And I did, for a while, until things got messy again. This is just the course of life and work: there are starts and stops and ebbs and flows, and you can’t cling rigidly to any one path or pace. There are times when it makes sense to push hard at work, to lean into that next promotion or project, and other times to hold steady at work in order to focus more energy and attention elsewhere.
To further complicate matters, as my career has progressed, I’ve found myself led in totally new and unexpected directions. Leaving day-to-day corporate work at the age of 55 was not a part of my original plan. But here I am, moving into a whole new phase of life and work. In many ways, I feel like I’m just getting started!
If you can, take one leap at a time.
You won’t always have a choice in the matter, but to the extent that you do, try to tackle just one big change at a time. There is a time and season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I waited to have my kids until I felt a certain level of comfort in my job. Not that I had achieved all of my professional goals, but I was at a place where I understood the job and what it required, and I had established solid relationships with my boss and coworkers. Sometimes, this presents a dilemma, because typically when people reach that “comfortable” space I’m talking about, that’s also time for their next career move. Many women worry that if they don’t capitalize on opportunities for advancement, they will be pigeon-holed. And that is a real risk, but I think it’s one worth taking. Starting a family (or undertaking any big change in your personal life) brings countless new challenges and adjustments. It’s not impossible to do while you’re starting a new job or role, but it is a lot harder. Of course, you don’t always get to be in control of such decisions!
While my path has been winding, it’s been far from unusual. As Sheryl Sandberg has noted, most careers look more like jungle gyms than ladders, and any one person’s path can and likely will wind considerably. If you hope to navigate successfully, you’ll need to start with a healthy perspective on what work is (and is not), and then approach it with flexibility, humility, and courage.
Work hard, but hold it loosely.
Because we put so much effort and energy into work, it can easily become an idol. We are called to work, and to work excellently, but not to be enamored with the results of our efforts. At the end of the day, work is still just work. Our God, on the other hand, is the God of the Universe.
In our culture, we are defined by our work, whether at home or in the marketplace, part time or full time, professional or vocational. It’s the first thing new people want to know about you: “It’s nice to meet you, what do you do?” As Christians, we are not locked into that culture. We don’t have to fit in, and in many ways we shouldn’t.
The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
This verse from Ecclesiastes 9:11 is a great “keep it real” reminder not to put too much faith in human power or ability. In this broken world, the very best things people have to offer can all too easily come to nothing. That’s why we work for something and someone greater.
Flexibility & humility.
I’m a goal-setter by nature. I love working towards something and tracking my progress along the way. But in navigating the many seasons of life and work, I’ve learned to retain a certain amount of flexibility. If you are too locked into one goal or path, you won’t be able to adjust course when necessary.
Pride, and the weight of expectations, can also get in the way. We all have an innate desire to be well thought of. It feels good to get recognition for hard work. And many working women—myself included—feel special pressure to prove ourselves and our commitment at work, not just once but over and over again. If you find yourself clinging to a particular job or job path primarily because of how it looks or what other people would say, then it may be time to take a step back and reassess your motives.
When my oldest son was in high school, we went through several very rough years together. At first, it seemed like pretty normal grumpy teenage rebellion. And then came the day when he got arrested. Getting that phone call rocked my faithful Christian, professionally-successful world. My career was blooming, I had established myself as a leader in my company, I was serving in an executive role, and our business was growing fast. From a professional standpoint, it was time to push forward. But after some prayerful, tearful nights, I did the opposite. I went to my boss Mike Lafitte at CBRE and explained what was happening with my son. Then I asked for something crazy: “I need to leave at 2:00 every day in order to pick my son up from school and be with him at home. I need to do that for at least six months, and for as long as it takes to get him back on track.”
As your career and life shift from one busy stage to the next, it can be easy to lose touch with people, even dear friends. Choose to stay connected. Invest real time and effort in the people that God has brought into your life. If for no other reason, do it out of obedience to God. Vibrant relationships enrich your life in so many ways, and God uses them to minister to us and to guide our lives.
One of the first (and best) things I did at business school was to seek out authentic community with other believers through the HBS Christian Fellowship, a group I’m still involved with today. At the time, I just wanted something to keep me grounded in God’s truth while I was in school. I didn’t anticipate how God would use the Fellowship and the people in it to impact my life over and over. Some of the same people I learned with and prayed with back then have been the source of life-sustaining connection, counsel, and support in decade after decade since.
In 1999, Vaughn Brock introduced me to my husband, Chris, for which I am eternally grateful. In 2009, I had the opportunity to serve with Joel Manby on the Salvation Army National Advisory Board. Vaughn and Joel became financially invested in 4word, as well. In 2010, Marissa Peterson and Dougal Cameron both encouraged me to start 4word and continue to support it. Marissa serves on our Advisory Board. In 2012, I saw Kevin Jenkins help my mentee Lopez Lomong to build Team World Vision 4 South Sudan, a movement towards peace and prosperity in South Sudan.
Courage (and freedom) to take a different path.
In that moment, in my boss’s office, I knew full well that I was putting my career on the line. Our conversation could easily have led to my resignation, but it didn’t. My boss backed me up, and I started leaving the office at 2:00, working from home part time, and pouring into my son. When summer came, I took a full-on ten week sabbatical. Today, we cheerfully refer to that time as “Mom’s boot camp.”
You could lose your job tomorrow. Or suddenly feel God calling you to be home with your kids. Or be unexpectedly led to write a book and start a nonprofit. Or get a phone call from a competitor offering you a position that you and your family can’t afford to pass up. Have the courage to take risks and step out in faith. The joyous and sometimes terrifying truth of setting your eyes on God’s glory, rather than your own, is that He can take you anywhere. God’s plans go far beyond your wildest dreams or fears.