Leaving the world of education with a promise to someday return, I had entered the world of business.
I wanted to connect with people outside the realm of education and learn how people decided to become whatever role they were playing in life, be it a doctor, general contractor, architect, or rocket scientist. How did they figure it out? How did their education prepare them for the life they were now living? What, if anything, did they feel was missing despite all of that education?
Out the gate, I was hired to be the first woman business development person in the builder’s supply division for a major corporation. What were my qualifications, you ask? I was a woman from Toledo, Ohio—glass capital of the world and home to their corporate office—in the era of Affirmative Action when more women were being recruited to bring a sense of balance to a workplace dominated by men. It probably also helped that I could communicate well, had a pleasing personality, and was attractive.
For the six years prior, my primary customers had been students who were learning to write, speak, and appreciate literature; and I suddenly found myself in a profession where it doesn’t do anyone any favors to be a polished speaker with correct sentence structure. In fact, communication didn’t seem to be a priority at all. In the six weeks of training and following internship, no one ever mentioned that I would be calling on disgruntled contractors and lumber yards that had been put on allocation for fiberglass building insulation due to the oil crisis.
What a surprise to be thrown out of places where people accused me of taking a job away from a man, and said they would not be placated or seduced into buying because the company had not been there for them for a full two years.
The training I received for the job was not sufficient for the job I had to do in more ways than that. In order to survive and eventually succeed in that environment, I had to dig deep into my problem-solving and relationship-building capacities, neither of which had been developed by my schooling. In fact, had it not been for my natural ability to read a situation, confront conflict, and navigate difficult relationships developed during my childhood, I think I would have been in big trouble.
I picked myself up, brushed myself off, and went back into those places. I asked questions and listened to these customers to find out what was really going on. I heard their complaints and wrote down the never-ending questions they’d wanted our company to answer, and I promised to deliver the message to the upper management of the company so we could make amends. I knew I was getting close to the root cause of the problem.
Next, I had to get the company to listen to what our key customers were asking for, or we would lose the business to our competitors. I had to get buy-in from both sides, and I worked humbly and resiliently to plant and grow seeds of trust between my company and my customers.
Despite the fact that I was not the right gender in the eyes of many, I earned their respect. I also affirmed for myself that without relationship, there is no learning, breakthrough, or long-term profit.
I took this learning with me into all of my future business endeavors, and I know it is what made me successful in every industry I engaged: real estate, financial services, healthcare/wellness products and services, technology hardware solutions and software, public relations, marketing, executive coaching, consulting or executive search, and non-profit-development. My capacity to communicate, listen, build rapport, collaborate, and solve problems immediately engendered trust and relationships that grew into very profitable partnerships.
And yet, I repeat, I learned none of this in school––at any level of education––unless you count the “School of Hard Knocks.”
With every problem, opportunity, relationship, and challenge, I had to dig deep for my own resources or find a mentor to develop and refine my soft skills to work and succeed within the systems.