I have made many mistakes in my career. This is the first post in a two-part series. In this article, I will chronicle my biggest mistakes, then next Monday, I will write about how I recovered and what I learned from these experiences.
I Was Seduced by a Former Manager
In the late 1990s, I was working for IBM in a briefing center. I gave confidential product disclosures to IBM’s leading customers. I had been in this job for seven years.
- It was an easy job. I had six or seven presentations that I knew in my sleep. These were deeply technical presentations, but for me, they were easy.
- It was highly visible to upper management. All of the upper management in our division knew who I was. I got to present at leading conferences.
- It had a lot of perks. I received jackets, shirts, hats, bags, etc…everything to dress myself except underwear, slacks, shoes, and socks.
Despite all of that, I was bored with it.
My manager (who was great) had left the previous year to work for IBM Global Services, the IBM consulting arm. She knew I was bored and worked on me to join her group. I thought about this for six months. She painted a very rosy picture, so I made the leap.
This is one of my biggest career mistakes ever. I allowed myself to be seduced.
I did not do my homework. I believed her. I do not believe she intentionally seduced me, but I was, nonetheless. She had brought over several other colleagues who had lengthy consulting backgrounds in their past.
What I discovered was the following:
- I did not have the attention span to sit for long hours developing technical proposals.
- I worked with unhappy single people, unhappily divorced people and unhappy married people. The vast majority of the people I worked with had traveled too much in their careers and had poor personal relationships in their lives. I missed my team in the briefing center.
- I sucked at writing technical proposals. My first set of proposals were lambasted—not for the technical content, but for my poor writing skills.
- I could not work on projects for just anyone. I was put on a project developing a point of sale solution for one of the national short-term loan companies (pawn shops). The more I learned about the business, the more I wanted out of there. Loaning money to the poor at 20% a month (not 20% a year like your credit card providers) made me ill.
I only lasted six months. After my young project manager attempted to publicly humiliate me in front of the team for my poor writing skills, I quit. I quit the project and I quit being a consultant.
It took me two months to find a position within the marketing division of IBM. I knew this was a holding place. Less than a year later, I left IBM after 22 years to go to work for a successful semiconductor startup.
The next of my career mistakes was to take a dream job. These are the jobs that people fantasize about. These are jobs that are romanticized in the movies. I went to teach high school math in an inner-city school.
On July 11th of 2002, I had a near fatal bicycle accident where I hit a car head-on and our combined speeds exceeded 50 miles per hour. You can read all about what happened and what I learned here.
I had been developing curriculum and teaching engineers on and off for 20 plus years. I had done this in approximately 35 different countries. Heck, if I could train engineers in the People’s Republic of China, I was sure I could teach Algebra I and II to teenagers.
I was correct. However, I did not take into account the physical and emotional toll it would take on me. I lasted less than two years in this role.
I ignored every sign that this was not for me. No one told me that the average math teacher in Texas leaves the profession in less than 5 years. When I talked to teachers, they sugar coated their answers. No one could explain the hiring process for new teachers. My gut feeling while going through the alternative certification process at my local community college told me I was not going to be prepared.
I was hired the week before school started at a school where 70% of the students were labeled economically disadvantaged (this means they were eligible for free or reduced breakfast and lunch). I was going to teach regular Algebra, which meant 90% of my students met this criteria.
I had to learn an entirely new culture…a culture of poverty.
Although I was incredibly successful, it tore me up. In hindsight, I should have quit at the end of my first year. As a typical baby boomer, I was taught not to quit. Gut it up. Persevere. Power your way through it.
I quit at the end of the fall semester of my second year, emotionally and physically exhausted.
I have a lot of stories. I am glad I did it. I touched a lot of lives, but…
I learned an immense amount about how our educational system works and why it is so broken. I could not be a high school math teacher for very long. Oh, by the way, most of the people reading this post would not have lasted any longer than I did. It is a meat grinder!
I was often approached by former colleagues telling me that they planned to follow in my footsteps when they retired.
Most dream jobs are mistakes waiting to happen.
I Can Make This Work
The next of my mistakes was to take a job that was not optimal, but I told myself “I can make this work.”
When I left teaching, I decided I would pursue working in a non-profit environment. I had spent a considerable amount of my previous 15 years in sales support, therefore, I pursued a fundraising position with a non-profit in Austin, Texas. By the way—we have way too many non-profits, most of whom have either no or very few salaried positions.
I pursued jobs at organizations where their missions aligned with my own values. But I got nowhere. I broadened my search to include non-profits that were close enough.
I told myself, “I can make this work.”
Soon, I interviewed and was hired by the local Jewish community center to build a corporate giving program.
To put it bluntly, being a non-Jew as the face for a Jewish organization is…interesting!
There are lots of stories here, but I realized within six months that there was no way I could be successful. Unlike many other Jewish communities (outside of Michael Dell and the Dell Corporation), Austin had very few Jewish-owned businesses. Austin did not even have a Jewish owned car dealer.
At the same time, I was rapidly figuring out that I could not tolerate the dysfunctional behavior of non-profits. I was used to getting things done. Well, that is not how things typically work in non-profits.
Since then, I have served on many non-profit boards. I can support a non-profit when I am aligned with their mission. I cannot work for just any non-profit. I previously discussed what you need to know about non-profits in my post 5 Questions to Ask Before Going from For-Profit to Non-Profit.
After six months, I decided I would leave right after the big fall gala. I would take a vacation and then turn in my resignation. I lasted a year, but I made the decision pretty early on that this was not for me.
I could not make it work, despite what I had told myself.
I am happy I took all three jobs.
I learned a tremendous amount about consulting, public education and non-profits.
I learned a lot about myself. I learned:
- My team is really important
- I do not have unlimited energy to muscle through difficult situations
- The mission is really important to me
In my post next week, I will discuss how I recovered from each of these mistakes. In addition, I will discuss how each prepared me for what I am doing today running Career Pivot.
Have you made career mistakes similar to mine? Please share below so we all can learn from our mistakes.
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