My father died suddenly when I was 11 years old. 18 months later, my family picked up and moved from a suburb on Long Island to a new city, Washington, DC. It was 1979. There were no cell phones, no Facetime, no email, and long-distance calls were still too expensive to use as a regular way to keep up with my friends. So, that was basically that.
My mom worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for a Member of the House of Representatives. This required long hours. My brother was in high school. We all had uncharted territory to deal with. And pretty much, we each had to learn to do it on our own. It was against this backdrop that I, clumsily, and over the course of years, learned to advocate for myself.
Why do I mention this personal childhood experience in the context of business? Because I think you can’t truly separate the two. We are the product of our history, and we bring all of our experiences with us to each new thing we do.
I became very independent and self-sufficient. What I did not learn was how to ask for support, or how to engage a mentor.
Years later, in my mid-20’s, I was far from home and living in Los Angeles. I had a very exciting job working for one of the very first internet start-ups. There were few rules. Everyone in the company was young, smart and ambitious. My job was to be on the road with a small team opening new markets. I was the operations person, which meant I dealt with all of the logistics of opening the office. I liked it, but the job was easy for me. I soon became enamored with the idea of being the leader of the team, which we called the general manager. This person was out there in the community, building relationships. I told people in the company that this is what I wanted.
About a year later I got my wish. I was promoted to the role of general manager, was assigned a team, and landed in a new city. I was paralyzed. I went from being an “inside” person to an “outside” person overnight. Have I mentioned that I’m kind of an introvert? I had no idea what to do. And I had no idea how to ask for help. I failed at that job. Luckily for me, not long after our arrival the company changed strategy and called us back. I had an opportunity to do a reset.
What I’ve learned in the many years since then is that advocating for yourself is important. And it’s also important to have a support system you can turn to when facing a challenge that pushes you beyond your comfort zone. It turns out that both parts are critical to success.