Three Career Learnings from 20 Years in Business

Three Career Learnings from 20 Years in Business

August 13, 2020 | 4:25 am

In this, my twentieth year in business, I thank so many for being part of my community. By collaborating with wise and dynamic people and organizations, I have had the privilege of assisting hundreds of organizations in solving their operational pain points. Working together, we have shaped organizational cultures for the better and have equipped organizations to fulfill their mission and serve their constituents effectively. Thank you.

In today’s blog, I am reflecting on that journey and sharing a few important learnings.

The Journey

Twenty years ago this month, I was at a crossroads. I was burned out from a project director role and an accounting manager role and was out of work due to job elimination. Job elimination took me by surprise. Exhaustion did not. After catching up on my sleep and rebuilding my energy for a month, I naively decided I would do “consulting.” I had no idea what that meant, nor did I have a plan for how to succeed on that path. Yet I jumped in and promptly began both a new career and a new organization. That was the start of my real learnings about how to be successful in any career.

Learning 1: Go with Your Passion

We all have skills in multiple areas, and how we choose to invest those skills is a personal decision. In my case, I was thankful for my previous experience with Cargill Inc. and American Express (later American Express Financial Advisors), both Forbes Top 100 companies. As I started my consulting journey, I was asked in interviews with potential clients, “What do you do?” I regularly replied, “Anything you need.”

The school of hard knocks soon taught me that when I tried to do everything, some things went well and others did not. If I lacked passion or relevant experience for a given consulting role, I became stressed, unfulfilled and disappointed that I failed to produce strong results for the client. In contrast, when I was both passionate about the task at hand and good at it, I was happy and my clients were pleased to recommend me to others because of the measurable improvements they experienced.

Skill is important. Yet passion is a priceless intangible. Passion fills a person with energy and drive—it’s the spark that engages others. Passion makes a person believable.

My early consulting forays taught me that my passion was achieving process improvement results. I came to believe that the only people who can improve how work is done are the employees who do those steps. I also observed that most employees do not yet have the process improvement skills they need to approach their work in the most effective and efficient manner. Few employees are familiar enough with the science behind quality management, lean operations, and human-centered design to attain process improvement results. ProSci, a change-management organization, published a survey saying that the majority of process improvement projects fail, with lack of skill being a primary reason. Embracing my role as a process improvement trainer and coach has fueled my business and services for many years. And I thank my first client, John Ahlfs, for taking a chance on me 20 years ago and launching me on my journey.

When I am talking to teams from around the country about how they can recapture time and deliver better results to their community, I get excited. And teams that engage me get inspired. They believe.

I periodically get asked to provide career guidance, which I do whenever possible. My time-tested career advice is to follow your passion, because being excited about what you do is the surest way to achieve success.

Learning 2: Listen First

When I decided to go into consulting, I thought people would automatically listen to me. I was the expert, right? But after watching my advice go sideways several times, I learned there was more to my service to others than teaching about what I knew.

I found a book on consultative consulting, which suggested listening before providing insights. This made perfect sense, because how can a consultant help anyone without understanding where the organization or its employees are coming from? Even a person who is paid to give advice must earn the right to give it.

That is when I started really listening well to my prospects, clients, friends, and family. Once I learned to ask the right questions and listen attentively to the answers, I was able to provide a meaningful, well-rounded perspective. Understanding others’ views, drivers, and goals now has become second nature to me and has become an essential element of my success.

Learning 3: It Takes a Community to Create Career or Business Success

Initially I was going to show everyone just how to get consulting done. I thought I was smart and skilled and could simply prescribe the changes that needed to be made. I missed so much while I acted under that do-it-myself mindset. I missed how others saw things. I missed wrinkles and texture about situations. I missed building relationships with the people who would help me.

Since that time, I have built a community that supports my business. I have vendors who have been with me most of these 20 years, learning about my business and providing exactly what was needed again and again. I have had employees who have learned my company’s values and have applied them so well. I am also lucky enough to have supporters who provide wise counsel, share important information, and speak well of my work to potential clients. I believe I have earned their trust by listening to their needs and being committed to their success. And I have clients who trusted me to listen and meet their needs. These same clients are consistently available to provide a reference and a view into their work with my team.

I have learned that it takes a community to make a business or career successful. I am so thankful to you and others who have trusted and helped me during the past twenty years. Here’s to the next decade!

Contact Lee today to discuss your challenge.