Today, I spoke to Ella Bell, who is an associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, and author of Career GPS. In this interview, Ella talks about the new corporate ladder, the challenges people have as they try to climb the corporate ladder, whether you should quit a job you’re not passionate about, and the discusses some important career lessons.
What is the new corporate landscape? How is it different than ten years ago?
The new corporate landscape is shaped by several major features. Compared to 10 years ago, we now live in a global era. Given the multinational reality most corporations face, they have had to become more global. We are working on a global field and executing across geographic borders. Corporate executives must now possess cross cultural savvy to build their business relationships and grow their business. Corporations must now know how to develop employees from very diverse backgrounds because they simply don’t fit neatly into the stereotypical white male box.
Technology, another aspect of the new corporate landscape, helps to move us across international time zones, puts us in instant communication, and allows us to do business anywhere and everywhere in the world. Technology has also created a 24/7 work life with our professional obligations running over into our personal spaces. Still another dimension of this landscape is a strong team orientation. We no longer work in silos concentrating on one function of the company. Instead, we must now think cross functionally. Having a variety of functional skills in your tool box is definitely an asset in this new reality.
I want to go back to the matter of diversity. Women are increasing in numbers to the point that they are less than a percentage point away from making up the majority in the labor force. While this will create new opportunities for women, corporations are going to have to take seriously policies concerning work life balance, retention and advancing women, and pay equity.
Finally, given the present historical moment matters regarding ethics, strategic visioning and leadership are moving to the forefront of this new landscape. It’s just not good enough to have a strategic plan, creative visioning of future needs must be a part of the process. Corporations are going to have to think strongly about their best asset: their workforce. To effectively compete and to hold on to their employees, corporations are going to have to develop their people to be good leaders as well as followers. In the new corporate landscape, leadership must cascade throughout the company on all levels, just not on the executive level.
In order to succeed in the often brutal world of corporate America, women need male allies to share information, strategies, and to provide constructive feedback. Reading Career GPS will give men a better understanding of what it takes for women to advance in today’s workplace. Male managers will glean insights from reading the book on how to develop their female employees. Men who mentor women will find nuggets of wisdom to share with their female mentees. Husbands, fathers, and brothers will learn how to support professionally the women in their lives.
Beyond learning how to be supportive of women, Career GPS offers the same valuable career lessons for men as it does for women. After all, men need to know how to cultivate meaningful relationships if they are to build successful careers. They too must think about the best career path to meet their professional goals. Men as well as women have to learn to be authentic leaders, embracing all of who they are, if they are to motivate and to energize their employees to be their best. Authenticity enables trust.
So, men should read Career GPS.
It never ceases to amaze me how my MBA students at Tuck share their stories of the ways they were mismanaged in the corporate world. Their tales range from managers who abused their authority, managers who micromanaged them, managers who lacked integrity, managers who were totally self-absorbed, and managers who refused to share their knowledge. I believe most people endure being mismanaged somewhere along in their career. Being mismanaged can quickly slow you down while climbing the corporate ladder.
Another challenge is getting that one assignment that will put you on the radar screen of senior executives. It is important to get an assignment that makes you visible. Of course, everyone wants to get that one plum assignment, so the competition can be fierce. The playing field for getting these plum assignments isn’t always level, causing a lot of frustration.
Now a days I think economic uncertainty and working with less resources are big challenges for people working their way up the corporate ladder. The ambiguity of not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow at work creates a lot of stress and causes you to lose your motivation to do your best work.
Trying to manage your work life with the other dimensions of your life is perhaps the greatest challenge. Advancing in corporate America requires long hours, working at home, working on weekends, and often days away from home. Your life gets snuffed out. While companies talk about policies for work life balance, too often it is simply lip service. It is often assumed that we should put our personal lives on hold if we truly want to advance at work. Too many corporations demand that people put in hours of face time, instead of encouraging their people to work smart. Some people decide that advancing in their careers just isn’t worth it.
Should you quit your job even if you are paid well if it doesn’t align with who you really are (your brand)?
No, not at all! Perhaps I think about the way you build your brand in a different way. I believe it’s the cumulative work experiences that contribute to your brand. So, even if your current job isn’t aligned with your brand you are still adding skills to your tool box. You’re still gaining knowledge and building your network. It can take years to get your dream job, the one with your brand written all over it. In the meantime there is still much to be learned. Besides, in this economy it may be wise to hold onto your job, build up your cash, establish good contacts that are aligned to your brand, and then go for it when the economy is stronger.
What have you learned in your own career that can inspire others?
I am an African American woman who grew up in the South Bronx where far few people succeed in their lives. My mother had a seventh grade education and my father completed eighth grade. I completed high school with a commercial diploma, not academic. If someone had told me when I was sixteen that I would be a professor and would teach in some of the top business schools in the world such as the Sloan School of Management, Yale’s School of Organization and Management, and The Tuck School of Business, I would have died laughing. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had a clue about what he was talking about.
I remember when I was offered my first academic position at Yale. I told my mother who was 81 at the time. She was very nonchalant and not very interested. I was crushed because going to Yale was a very big deal for both my family and me. The next day my mother, still living in The Bronx, phoned to inform me that she had gone to the library. She went to ask the librarian about Yale, because she didn’t know anything about the school. She wanted to know. At that point it really hit home how far I had come. I was humbled.
Here’s what I have learned from my own career:
- Have the courage to dream big even if you don’t yet possess the pedigree, the education or the social network.
- There is nothing you can’t achieve without determination, hard work, and lots of faith.
- Never stop developing your knowledge, your emotional intelligence, and your spiritual life.
- Remember you don’t build a career all by yourself. I will always be indebted to my parents, teachers, professors, and mentors. They made me who I am today.
- Follow your heart and stay faithful to your calling.
- When a door to a new opportunity opens do not be afraid to walk through it.
Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D. is an associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, and she is the coauthor of the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. She has written for Essence magazine, including the monthly Working Smart column. Dr. Bell has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, Working Mother, and Fast Company, among many other publications. Her latest book is called Career GPS (HarperCollins). She is the founder and president of ASCENT‐Leading Multicultural Women to the Top. PepsiCo, American Express, Intel, Goldman Sachs, Booze Allen Hamilton, U.S. Department of Labor are among her clients. She splits her time between Hanover, New Hampshire, and Charlotte, North Carolina.