The happiest and most successful people I know see their careers not as a ladder or a mountain to be climbed, but as a river to be traveled. Rivers take unexpected turns, get caught in bends, and sometimes loop back upon themselves. They start small and the further they flow, the larger and more connected they become. The mouth of the river, just like the peak of a career, is usually the most connected place you could be—where cities and people, commerce and trade all come together. I hate the mountain as a metaphor for a career. The top of the mountain is cold, windy, and lonely! When I started my career as a teller at Wells Fargo Bank in 1973, I never expected nor aspired to lead a major business like Citi’s consumer Bank—nor did I know I was beginning such a dynamic and rewarding journey. And now I truly do feel like I’m living at the mouth of the river, the most connected place of all.
Early on I was fortunate to have challenging roles, which required creativity, judgment, and decision-making. I got to practice on small problems and opportunities. I had early, sharp, leadership experiences. I am grateful I had the opportunity to lead small groups early in my career—I made loads of mistakes, but my audience wasn’t too big!
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful mentors who fostered my professional development. My most powerful mentoring relationships didn’t result from structured programs. Instead, my mentors were leaders who took a personal interest and found it natural to be an active part of my career. They were not consciously mentoring me, and, in fact, I suspect they would be surprised to hear me refer to them as mentors. They gave me some very direct feedback, fortunately sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine. Of course, I learned even more from observing them as leaders, both what worked and what didn’t, and also what worked for them but wouldn’t for me. For most of us, self-awareness takes a conscious effort.
The best advice I can give is to pursue accountability early on, get early, sharp, leadership experiences, be consciously aware of your leaders and learn from them, and build relationships with those with whom you share an affinity, as they may become your mentors. and remember the river, and all those points of connection. It’s the journey that matters.