The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “What’s one thing every woman should know about climbing the corporate ladder?” is written by Diane Davis, president of Farmers New World Life at Farmers Insurance.
I’ve been very lucky to spend much of my working life surrounded by strong women role models. In a work environment where more than 50% of my colleagues are female, I’ve had many opportunities to see how women with different types of personalities can succeed in a corporate environment while remaining true to themselves.
The lessons I drew from these women helped me figure out my own career path, one that’s taken me far from my original expectations. Colleagues are often surprised when they learn that I started my career as an actuary, since my communication skills, demeanor, and humor don’t necessarily fit with the stereotype of someone in risk management. Despite the fact that I was drawn to the linear, disciplined path of an actuary, it didn’t take long for me to discover that I preferred working along a less precise, and frankly, sometimes unpredictable journey associated with product implementations and cross-disciplinary teams.
I worried, though, that my introverted, non-confrontational style, which worked well for me as an actuary, might work against me in other roles. If only I had known in those years that my temperament could indeed bring value to a variety of different positions, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time fighting my nature. But it wasn’t until the mid-point of my career that I learned the actual workplace value of this kind of authenticity.
Here are some other lessons I’ve learned about climbing the corporate ladder:
- Remember that opportunities come when you don’t expect them
There are all kinds of opportunities that hover right at the edges of our attention, but they often look hard, scary, or in some cases, “wrong.” Keep your eyes open and pay attention to those opportunities. Then, when something comes along that tugs at your interests, raise your hand and ask for it. Step up and say, “I’d like to try that.” Even if you aren’t chosen for that particular opportunity, by virtue of raising your hand, you telegraph to others that you are interested in stepping beyond your current role.
- Spend time out in the field
Regardless of what industry you’re in, you need to know what it’s like to work on the front lines. As an insurance professional, I decided to spend time working with agents and customers—an unexpected and challenging role for an actuary. But it turned out to be an invaluable experience long after I left that role. Understanding firsthand how our decisions in the “back office” can support our agents’ ability to help customers is an insight that I continue to apply today. But if one choice doesn’t work out, I’ve learned to remind myself that no decision is irreversible—something else will come along that makes more sense.
- Never miss the opportunity to connect with people
I’ve found that the best leaders have the strength to show people that they care about them, whether they’re addressing someone just starting out or one of their direct reports. And when you ask people to do something, always spend time on the “Why?” You don’t have to provide an elaborate explanation, but you’re far more likely to get buy-in if you give people—especially smart people—some of the back story.
- Cultivate self-awareness
This is perhaps the most important tool for finding the right career path. You need to develop insights into how you work best, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Let this self-awareness transform to self-acceptance: Don’t fight against your nature, but rather, express it in a positive way. You’ll then be more likely to make decisions that move you closer to a successful career.
Working with so many amazing women allowed me to see that everyone’s ladder of success is different. Once you figure out what really interests you and what you need in order to work at your best, you can unleash tremendous energy. Chances are that you’ll then discover that you’re on your own unique ladder of success.