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Linda Tarr-Whelan's picture

Lately I’ve seen a raft of new books aimed at helping women achieve success, which include lists of “secrets,” often contradictory. Looking back over my experience, here’s an alternative: be open to constant learning and risk-taking, live a full life and have a great career.

Several years ago my book “Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World” was published, and I began a cross-country tour to speak about the “30 Percent Solution,” which describes why and how having a critical mass of women at every power table is essential to a robust future. Virtually everywhere – whether at universities, major corporations, women’s organizations or young women’s groups I was asked, “How did you get where you did?”

I’m usually tongue-tied when answering this simple question. My family was all about making a difference for a better world, valuing family and standing up for what you believe. Those values were the underpinning, not a career plan. As my confidence grew, I rejected the magical thinking that opportunities were due to “just luck” (that self-denigrating phrase many women use). Behind me wasn’t wealth, brilliance at academics or a prestigious university, and nursing degrees aren’t highly valued in our society. But I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Here’s the snapshot: My lengthy career began with nursing.  I was a head nurse and faculty member in schools of nursing. Next I served as a state and national union leader creating a health policy shop and running a statewide union, and much later I served as acting chief lobbyist to Congress. I held state and federal governmental positions, including administering a large state agency and serving as deputy assistant to President Carter in the White House and Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. For many years, I led and grew a national progressive policy center. My husband and I started a successful international management consultancy where I served as managing partner. In recent years I’ve been a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a progressive a think-tank, an independent consultant and author. The common thread is activism with deep engagement in trying to create better systems and policies.

It wouldn’t have happened without a 40-year partnership with my husband. We are a team living our work lives and home life as an integrated whole. We are proud to have raised two great kids, now adults with fine careers and parents of our four special grandchildren. Like for most women, my life hasn’t always been a bed of roses: I’ve been a single mom; we’ve been caregivers to our aging mothers; and I’ve faced health issues as a colon cancer survivor.

Here’s what I believe supported my success. I did my homework, worked hard and shared credit for positive outcomes while owning failure myself, asked for help, read widely, traveled as much as possible to learn from people different from me and looked over the horizon at systemic implications of the work. Mentoring younger women and watching them move into positions of increasing authority and impact has brought me great satisfaction. Being mission-directed and keeping an optimistic attitude that most problems can be solved were the keys to motivating myself and others. “No whining” was the watchword, and I got busy trying to change what was wrong. If that was impossible, I moved on.

There were bumps in the road: I lost my first job as a registered nurse on the first day for failing to stand up for a doctor. Like everyone, I’ve had good bosses and awful ones. Building the confidence to be a leader has taken many a hit and needed to be rebuilt. I’ve left positions because they were untenable morally or in human terms. While I have pride in my career path, as a person I am not just an amalgam of titles, but rather someone who has approached her work with integrity and has accomplished goals through building teams that help to make the world a better place. We live comfortably but not extravagantly, sharing great times with family and friends.

At the core of how and why is curiosity, a thirst to learn more, liking people, wanting to be flexible and expanding narrow horizons to create meaningful change. I learned to trust myself to make decisions after seeking other ideas beyond what I know. My first lesson was as a young nursing student when the nurses’ aides on the floor were far more knowledgeable. Teamwork and collaboration brought far better results. I extended that understanding and built intentionally diverse teams wherever I went.

If this sounds like a future you would like, think about developing a set of transferable generalist skills rather than an ambition for a career ladder to be a partner or CEO in your firm. Opportunities can then be open in all sectors and along various professional ladders as you pursue your passion. My set of tools includes negotiating, financial knowledge to “follow the money” and communications skills to raise my voice and the voices of others through speaking and writing.

For example, gaining a reputation as a negotiator/moderator gave me a place at the table for union contract negotiations, fundraising to deepen and expand a policy center, lobbying the Congress, serving as a diplomat and, recently, moderating a Deloitte Global Webinar for International Women’s Day. I learned initially by being thrown in over my head. When I was a 30-something and one of the founders of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, we faced a very difficult, politically charged and rambunctious all-night session of the 3,400 delegates to determine the policies of the new group. Not really relishing the chance for turmoil, the older and wiser women thought I could chair the session instead and, to my surprise, I could.

It brought to mind my mother’s excellent advice: “When the door opens, go through. Someone sees something in you that you might not see in yourself.” She went on to say that if you give your best and fail it’s not the end of the world as long as you learn from the experience. As an Ambassador, I met with the then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on behalf of our country to urge him to appoint more women in top positions. He was a strong supporter of gender equality but wondered if I could answer a conundrum for him. As an international civil servant he had often suggested that various staffers apply for promotions and invariably women said, “I’m not ready” or “I need more education.” No man had ever turned him down.

If this fits you, follow my mother’s advice and my experience. Be ready when opportunity knocks, go through to an unplanned and personally satisfying career path.

Former Ambassador Linda Tarr-Whelan is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos and author of “Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping up to Leadership and Changing the World.” Tarr-Whelan served as ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in the Clinton Administration and as deputy assistant to President Jimmy Carter for Women’s Concerns in the White House. She currently chairs the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles Leadership Group and the Pax World Resources Women’s Advisory Council, co-chairs the CEDAW Education Initiative and is on the Women’s Leadership Council of United Way Worldwide.

Career crossword image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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