This is the last of my six columns for The Baltimore Sun. I thank the editors for the scary, yet fun, opportunity to find my "voice" and share my thoughts on women and business. Publicly expressing my opinions has strengthened my views that diversity is essential, careers are long and varied, and challenges arise in strange shapes and times. It has also reinforced my belief that women must be confident and not fear failure.
Years ago I was offered a fabulous job but was concerned I wasn't qualified. I talked to a male friend, thinking he would bolster my confidence by saying, "Of course you're qualified. You'd be great." Instead he told me, "Never turn down a good job you are not qualified for. A guy would never do that." I was astounded, but it made me realistically assess my chances of success.
I was qualified for that job, and I took it. I worked hard, did well and advanced. As a result I have enjoyed 12 great years at Legg Mason — and counting. Still, my career has been more of a twist-and-turn progression, not that I am alone. I don't know anyone — male or female — who can say, "My career has been one triumphant success after another."
Magazines are full of flashy articles about women reinventing themselves. Stories of painting in Mexico or opening a tea shop in Taos imply the way to fulfillment is to chuck our original education, training and expertise and follow some wild dream. Just chuck it all? No. Most of us find joy and fulfillment in our chosen careers, however they may meander. Take it from someone who assesses risk for a living: There is nothing wrong with being practical in your ambitions. The best dreams are reachable.
The magazines scream with advice for women in college ("Get that internship!"), starting careers ("Set your goals!"), trying to move up ("Find your mentor!") and new mothers ("Secrets of achieving work/life balance!"). The essential truth they gloss over is a career lasts decades. Women often value work differently as they take responsibility for family and home, checking in and out. Getting off to a good start is important, but everyone has a mid- and late career too.
I discussed this with some of the wisest and most accomplished women I know. Their insights and stories would make for a riveting book, even if sales might not rival "Lean In." (Sheryl Sandberg and her friends are a lot more famous than me and mine.) Their chief concerns: keeping a career fresh so they remain interested and finding ways to ensure their work is important and more than just a paycheck. No matter who we are, what we do or whom we support at home, women must seek satisfaction in our jobs for ourselves. Organizations grow, regulations change, new products are developed. Even if you don't intend to learn new skills, you will be forced to. The path to growth may be in or outside the office: I have developed skills and made invaluable connections through volunteer positions, as much as from some paying jobs.
When you see something you want, say something. Ask for opportunities that interest you; don't wait for someone to present them. Offers don't happen as often as women would like. What can we lose by asking, in any job, at any age? Be willing to craft your perfect role and propose it. A colleague has done that, twice. Had she realized earlier in her career it was possible, she would have done it more often. How many of us can say that?
Try volunteering for assignments that go beyond your normal day-to-day responsibilities. They may look thankless but can be opportunities in disguise. Savvy women (and men) use these seemingly unpopular projects to gain exposure to different parts of the company, learn new skills, demonstrate energy and enthusiasm and prove they can be relied on. That attracts notice, and rewards.
Beyond that, many women go home and ask their children, "What did you learn today?" How wonderful is it to tell your family you learned something, and pushed yourself that day too?
Life has many phases and offers rich experiences: education, relationships, family and career. Choose your path, set your pace, be prepared to adjust — and enjoy the journey. Accept the opportunity to take a risk. Try something new. Move out of your comfort zone. I'm glad I did. Thank you for reading.
Stephanie Beran is managing director of Enterprise Risk Management at Legg Mason & Co., LLC. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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