If I’ve learned anything in the 35 years since I ran away from home, dropped out of high school and built a career in the Army and the private sector, it’s that no matter how many challenges we may face and no matter how many obstacles get in our way, success really is within reach for those who seek change, welcome it and embrace it. That goes for men and women – from all economic and social backgrounds.
So it was heartening to learn from a recent survey by Accenture that the vast majority of professionals we polled in 32 countries – 91 percent – believe the most successful employees will be those who can adapt to the changing workplace. Nearly as many – 89 percent – say they thrive on or don’t mind change. And, 75 percent believe they are equipped for the future, which makes me optimistic that today’s workers are taking the right steps toward advancing their careers.
The first big change I ever made was in 1981, when I stopped by an Army National Guard recruiting booth at a mall in Frederick, Maryland – the same mall where I was working at a pretzel stand and where I often slept at night because I was homeless. A chance meeting with a recruiter that day altered the course of my life. I enlisted in the Army National Guard, which set in motion a whole series of events that gave me the grounding I needed to build not one, but two extremely fulfilling careers: As a soldier and as a management consultant at Accenture, where I have worked for the past 18 years. Along the way, I completed my undergraduate and graduate education at the Army War College, rose through the ranks of the Army to Brigadier General, became head of the Maryland Army National Guard and worked across many departments of both government and the private sector.
My experience in overcoming what seemed to be overwhelming odds gives me hope that career success is possible for those willing to invest the time and effort to build their “career capital” – the skills that differentiate, define and advance our careers. I was fortunate that the Army and Accenture provided so much training in leadership, management, operations and technology, and it’s encouraging to see that many more employers are helping their people develop career capital.
Innovative training and development programs energize and inspire employees, challenge them and provide them with the skills and confidence they need to define and advance their careers. In fact, nearly all of those surveyed by Accenture – 89 percent – believe that building career capital is essential to their success in the workplace, and 84 percent say they are working to increase their career capital in order to enjoy more growth opportunities.
Employer-provided skills training is terrific, but those who really want to get ahead must take the initiative to stretch beyond their normal roles, ask lots of questions, improve their analytical and problem-solving skills, learn from the more experienced people around them and do all they can to increase their knowledge base. The arc of my own career, which has taken me where few African-American women have gone, has allowed me to work with people at every stage of their work lives and in every rung of society. It has taught me that a good career path is filled with what I call branches– and many attendant risks. Those who sincerely aim to improve their lives and careers must continually test new branches – even those they believe may not be strong enough to support their weight. Although success may not be waiting on each branch, it’s critical to set goals, keep striving and adapt to change and new challenges, even in the face of real or perceived failure.
I’ve learned that building strong relationships over the course of a lifetime and seeking out mentors can play a huge role in our ability to succeed. I am fortunate to have had many wonderful mentors in both the Army and in my civilian life – from a sergeant who helped me improve my work-life balance to a great high school basketball coach and a substitute teacher who not only taught me and prayed with me, but gave me all the support a mom would have given her own child.
So it should come as no surprise that I’m a tremendous advocate of mentoring. I’ve mentored people at all levels, but most recently I’ve been mentoring a group of young African-American and Hispanic analysts at Accenture. As I’ve worked with these young professionals over the past 13 months it’s been encouraging to see how their on-the-job experience is transforming the way they solve problems. The main reason they’re able to succeed is their willingness to adapt – to change their approach to problem solving and continue testing the branches that lie before them, even if they’re not sure those branches will be able to hold them.