As a child I thought I wanted to be the president of a bank, but life never goes quite as planned. My first job was at NCR and later on the federal side of IBM. I guess you could say I inherited my career. My father worked in the aerospace/defense industry for 36 years. I was intrigued by the “mission,” and the patriotic nature of the work resonated with me since I grew up with it.

I was never a shoe-in though. When I started out, it was common for me to be the only woman (and non-engineer) in a room full of 30 men. I had to prove myself by being knowledgeable and giving more than the others. Once I did, I was given an opportunity to do more. I learned from my mentors and peers, and they helped me launch a successful career. The lesson: take time to learn from those in disciplines other than your own (the engineering whizzes you respect)—listen and gain perspective. Also, seek out different assignments, especially ones requiring geographic moves, to help accelerate your career by more rapidly gaining the expertise needed to take that next step. And when you’re stepping, don’t do it blindly—have a plan.

When I mentor I ask, what would you be proud to retire as? Once you know that, work backwards and make a plan, and take active steps to achieve it. While the first step is earning a college degree, I’ve found that the best education is what you learn throughout your career experience. When you look at a prospective position, it may not be ideal or fit your view of your current skills, but consider if it broadens you. If you do the same thing for too long, you’re not honing new skills. It’s like exercise. After a while you have to mix it up because your muscles get used to it. Seek out ways to educate yourself. Also, I prefer to hire the B+ student with a strong work ethic and high emotional intelligence than the A student who has no insight to offer.

My parents set high bars, but no limitations, so it never crossed my mind that I could not enter a previously male-dominated profession. Work hard, take calculated risks, and allow yourself to accelerate. Invest in the knowledge and understanding required to earn a legitimate seat at the table. No one is entitled to it. And remember that winning is rarely based on individual performance, it’s about selecting the right team to be a part of.