Grad Swaps Reaction For Proaction

by Eileen Walsh Duncan '83

Multiple career changes will be increasingly essential. Consider this fact: All the jobs I’ve held over the past eight years in the technology industry didn’t exist 12 years ago, let alone when I graduated from Scripps. Over the past 20 years, I’ve made multiple career changes. Each was for different reasons—some were imposed on me and some were initiated by me. Some changes were to a different company, and some were to a different discipline within the same company. Each change involved risk and struggle, but each paid off, either immediately or later on.

Here’s a sampling of the changes, and the current change I’m undergoing.

Change imposed on me when I should have initiated the change.

A year after I graduated, I was successfully ensconced as a research and development assistant, bringing accounting systems online at a major retail company. Suits were the uniform and morning coffee with management was the protocol. One morning at coffee, the head of accounting was reading aloud with amusement an article about Asian mail-order brides: “The appeal of this arrangement is the belief that Asian women are not only beautiful; they are also very accommodating, catering to the needs of their husbands, and are raised by their culture to be very obedient.”

The men at the table were laughing and commenting on how wonderful it would be to have an Asian wife. I looked at the only other woman at the table. She scowled and looked intently down into her coffee cup. I said breezily and with a big grin, “Well, you don’t have to go all the way to Asia if that’s what you want. Just drive on over to the Humane Society and get yourself a dog.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then laughter from the company comptroller. “Touché!” he said. But my career never recovered. My next performance review was abysmal; the reason listed was my “poor attitude,” and I scooted quickly to another position within the company.

What should I have done differently? I should have recognized that the culture and philosophy of the company was inherently different from mine. The large retail company was fairly set and not open to change. Much as I was justified in challenging that type of conversation, my comment was perceived as insubordinate and threatening, and thus I could not remain part of the team. Do I regret the comment, undiplomatic and career-limiting as it was? No. It accelerated a change that was bound to happen.

Change initiated by me, then another by the company.

I took two years off work after having my first child. When returning to work, I chose a purely editorial career. This required a cut in pay, but was one of the happiest times of my life; working in a small, creative advertising department. Then the company decided to outsource all the advertising and reengineer their merchandising organizations. My much-loved career was suddenly de-professionalized, and I needed to find something new. However, I hung in there for another year, which was not the best thing to do. Simply move on when your gut tells you the big picture is changing and you hear fervid yet vague pronouncements of change from upper management. I chose not to look for exactly the same type of position because it would also likely disappear given market demands. I decided to use my editorial skills to help people with those increasingly present and frequently frustrating things called computers.

Core passions let you change with the industry.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received is: “Identify your core passions. Then list all the types of jobs that require those interests. Then do a skill-set inventory, before deciding which specific positions and companies to pursue.”

My core passions: helping people; working with words; identifying customer needs and fulfilling them; product design: designing information and user interfaces that meet customer needs.

A multitude of careers require these passions. That’s why so many careers appeal to me! Just take on one at a time and keep in mind the next three you can pivot to. Try listing your own and develop a tree diagram of options that branch out from them.

Here is how rapidly the industry and your position or career can change. In eight and a half years at one software company, I’ve held six different positions—if you measure by how my job description has changed. But I’ve been in only three different organizations. While I stayed in one place, the industry and thus the career changed for me! I suspect this will become increasingly common, as companies morph to more rapidly changing markets in order to survive.

Today, I am initiating another change, driven by me and by external circumstances. I want to try something new, and I need to build another skill set that will make me more valuable to the company. My current position requires more in-depth knowledge of marketing tactics than it did a year ago (an expansion of the role); yet as web management becomes more complex, teams become larger and each position becomes more specialized (a contraction of the role). I see the signs of change, so am looking to create a new role that will be best for both me and the company.

When driving your own change, determine whether your company will change, and if you need to find another company for the best fit. Ultimately, can it work both ways—are you able to effect change at the company? I want to change the company by doing what I can to make it more diverse and thus stronger. There are opportunities to do this, which gives me a sense of well-being and commitment. This is a great place to be. If you’re in this situation, use your power to change things for the better—for yourself and for your company.