The Fortune 500 Insider Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Derica Rice, CFO and executive vice president of global services at Eli Lilly, has answered the question: Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self about career development?
If I could somehow hop into the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine and travel back to 1988 for my college graduation, I’d grab the younger me and offer a little unsolicited advice.
First, I’d ask, “What were you thinking with that tie and haircut?” And then we’d get down to business.
Here are three pieces of career advice that I would tuck right next to that shiny new Bachelor’s degree I earned from Kettering University 27 years ago:
Run your own race
Success is not a “one size fits all” proposition, so don’t let the paths and plans sought by advisers, classmates or colleagues close you off from other possibilities. Set career goals and formulate plans that are true to you, and recognize that those original plans may change. Be open to serendipity, too.
Somehow, I had figured that one out on my own, even during my college days in Flint, Mich. I was talking with a roommate one day who mentioned that I might consider getting an MBA. As an engineering major, that wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. Actually, to be truthful, I had no idea what an MBA was. But the more we talked, the more I agreed it was the way to go. After all, I had always been interested in business, and an MBA would put food on the table.
Long story short: I ended up getting my MBA at Indiana University and now work as the CFO at Eli Lilly and Co. That’s a path I never would have explored had I stayed locked into my engineering plans and dismissed every alternative out of hand.
Not every idea is a great one, of course, but you owe it to yourself to stay open to new possibilities and to explore those that appeal to you. Once you find your path, pursue it with vigor.
Don’t fear mistakes
The pursuit of perfection can lead to taking no risks at all. That’s not good.
Making mistakes, or trial and error, is a natural byproduct of growth. When trying new things for the first time, the goal is not perfection. The proper balance is to be right more times than wrong.
Just as important, though, is admitting mistakes. When I first started out, I thought the key to success was staying mistake-free. So, when I inevitably messed something up, I kept it to myself and learned nothing.
Over time, though, I learned that acknowledging my shortcomings, discussing them, and learning how I could have done better leads to new ideas, new competencies, new opportunities, and most importantly, personal growth.
Here’s an example: Early in my career, we made the decision to spin off a medical device unit. On paper, the plan worked perfectly. But in reality, I underestimated the people impact. I didn’t take enough time to explain what was happening and why. I learned this: The best plan won’t succeed if you’re not able to bring your people along the journey with you.
In that case, I was wrong. To master the art of being right more than wrong, you need to try new things, make some mistakes, and learn from them.
Write your eulogy
On the first day of a business strategy class at Indiana University, the professor handed out blank sheets of paper and asked each of us to write a eulogy that we hoped a friend or loved one would read at our funerals far into the future.
When the professor read the papers aloud to the class, we found they all had one thing in common: Not one of them mentioned a career or business milestone. They all mentioned accomplishments as a parent, spouse, son, daughter, friend or humanitarian. With that simple little exercise, the professor helped each of us realize what was important. That day, we wrote our own End Games.
For me, that has meant having no regrets in my personal life. So, when deciding how to use my time and energy, I start with life and end with work.
Early on, my wife Robin and I agreed that it’s easier to find a new career than a new soul mate, so we’ve ordered our priorities accordingly. And when we recently dropped our son off at college, we had no regrets that we’d missed important parts of his childhood — only that it had flown by too fast.
Remember that there’s no magic algorithm for success. Stay open to new experiences and use them to shape your plans as they change. You might be surprised what you discover about your career — and yourself. For me, my true calling is here at Lilly, helping patients live longer, healthier lives. I can’t think of a more noble pursuit than that.
Read all responses to the Fortune 500 Insider question: Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self about career development?
What a low-paying job can do for your career by James E. Lillie, CEO of Jarden.
Here’s what you can do now to have a more successful career by Frans Hijkoop, chief human resources officer at MetLife.