Reinvent yourself! – self-improvement strategies to enhance career advancement

Reinvent yourself! – self-improvement strategies to enhance career advancement – Cover Story

Caroline V. Clarke

“GRIM” BARELY BEGINS TO DESCRIBE the workplace news of the past year. As layoff and unemployment numbers mounted, fear stalked the corridors of corporate America. No one was immune–not even blue-chip CEO’s. Once secure middle managers scrambled to prove their viability. Legions of loyal forty something careerists faced the jolt of early retirement. And eager college grads sent out their resumes, resigned to the fact that their budding careers would not get the same enthusiastic jump-start as their parents’, or even their older siblings’.

If, like those new graduates, you’ve come to believe that many of the old rules and rites of career-building no longer apply, you’re right. But, if you’ve decided that means you can’t have the dynamic, fruitful career of your dreams, think again. There is a way to rise above the fray. But it involves revamping your outdated notions of a successful career and how to build one; reshaping your goals and expectations; and embracing the idea that the path to success is neither straight, narrow, smooth nor clearly mapped out. Today, you must take an entrepreneurial approach to your professional future and be willing–and prepared–to reinvent yourself again and again.

What does that mean exactly? It means taking a hard look at yourself and breaking with outmoded notions of who you are and what you’re capable of, says Melvin T. Williams Jr., president of Delphi Consulting Group Inc. in White Plains, N.Y. “Just because you went to school to be an accountant doesn’t mean accounting is all that you can, should or will be allowed to do” in coming years, he explains, adding that “skills are far more transferable than most people think.” To make those changes, you’ll have to “get out of your box and into situations that are potentially opportune.” That may mean looking for employment in places you might never have considered before.

The days of making a career in the same field, company or industry, choosing a mentor, finding the ladder and climbing step by step up to the executive penthouse–are gone. The new reality is that to keep moving forward you may need to drop back a few steps, accept lower pay, work on contract, start your own business or return to school.

In the course of all this, expect to change careers–not just jobs–several times. Vocational guru Caroline Bird, who is based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says that 10 years ago a person could expect to go through three to five career switches. Today, expect four to six, she says, including full- and part-time stints at entrepreneurial ventures. Flexible career paths offer multiple chances to hone new skills and tackle a variety of assignments and responsibilities–opportunities that are rare if you’ve spent the bulk of a lifetime working in one field for only one, or even a handful of, employers.

As far back as the late 1970s, Bird was one of the first to declare that the one-career life span was more fairy tale than fact. “The idea that college grads will work for one company for 30 years and retire with full pension and benefits and a gold watch was always a mirage,” Bird says, adding dryly, “especially for black people.”

The break up of large and once-stable organizations is proving her accuracy. What that means for careerists, Bird insists, is that “if you have a skill, you need the wherewithal to take that skill from a dying industry to a growing one, from a big-but-rocky company to a small, stable one. If you don’t have a skill, perhaps you have a hobby that you can parlay into a new career. If you have neither, you need to get some training–fast.”

A Twisting Path To The Perfect Post

Christina Dunbar, 33, mastered the reinvention game early. It shows in her resume, which winds through her accomplishments in wildly divergent industries (banking and baked goods), a mid-career hike through Harvard Business School and a two-year pursuit of an ambitious entrepreneurial endeavor. That led to her current role as senior vice president for New Rochelle, N.Y.-based The Levmark Corporation, a black-owned investment firm whose combined holdings grossed between $30 million and $40 million last year.

Throughout her various incarnations, Dunbar has held firmly to two constants. She has always kept an ear to the ground for interesting opportunities and people who could help her snag them–something experts insist is important now more than ever before. And, she never lost sight of the somewhat sketchy goal she had as a senior at Wellesley College: to find a job “working with interesting and dynamic people that involved travel.” But the economics and political science major knew even then that she “could never buy into the big corporate lifestyle” that lured so many of her peers at the prestigious all-women’s school.

Career experts such as Williams exhort professionals to continually assess their goals and desires as they move along. Dunbar is naturally analytical and introspective, so she constantly evaluates how her professional and personal objectives are being met. She is also a risk-taker, something experts agree you have to be to thrive in today’s job market. A tip from Williams: If you begin from the perspective that there’s very little security these days for anyone anywhere, taking risks becomes easier to do.

Dunbar took her first big leap five years out of college. She was in line to become the youngest assistant vice president in the operations division of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. in New York when she left not just the bank but the working world altogether. “I felt pigeonholed,” she explains. “I was 26 years old and felt like my career and my life were being defined too quickly.” Believing that business school would open up new options for her, Dunbar enrolled full-time at Harvard.

Running counter to her peers, most of whom were vying for megabuck moves onto Wall Street, she set her sights on public relations, but without success. “People tell you Harvard B-School will enable you to get out and do anything you want. The reality is you get out and people want you to continue doing what you were doing before. ” But a Harvard connection helped Dunbar break out of that mold by introducing her to a company head in an industry in which she had no experience: baking.

Pitching herself as someone who would relish the entrepreneurial appeal of running an operation without the financial risk of ownership, she snagged the $50,000-a-year job as vice president and general manager of The Natural Source Baking Corp., a $2 million New York company. But two years later, even given the start of the recession, Dunbar wanted the risk as well. In 1990, from her home in the Bronx, she launched Marketing Mix Inc., a marketing and sales consulting firm. Although she snagged some impressive clients–Entenmann’s and McGraw-Hill Bookstores among them–her enterprise proved disappointing, grossing about $40,000 while demanding boundless energy and emotional resiliency.

“If the economy had been on an upswing, I think it would have done better,” Dunbar reflects. “But I was not at all impressed with the commitment of Fortune 500 companies to working with a minority-owned business.”

In August 1992, Dunbar began circulating her resume, unsure of where she’d fit in. In business and social circles, she’d heard a lot about a dynamic African-American investor in New Rochelle who was cutting impressive deals while investing in inner-city companies. In October 1992, she sent him a resume with a letter pitching Marketing Mix’s services. Leon Wright, Levmark’s chairman, responded with an invitation to meet. At that–their first meeting-Wright offered Dunbar a job as his assistant, working on business planning and, to her delight, public relations.

Today, as part of the company’s core management team, Dunbar acts as liaison between Levmark and its operating companies, among

them Atlanta-based New Day Investment Corp., the largest African-American franchise group in Blockbuster Video. The job requires Dunbar, who is single, to split her time between two cities, while juggling her abilities in marketing, finance, strategic planning, general management and public relations. “I wanted a multifaceted job,” she says, laughing. “I got even more than I asked for.”

From Real Estate To The Three Basic R’s

Charles Murphy’s reinvention journey, while shorter than Dunbar’s, involved a far more drastic change. When the real estate sales career of this 36-year-old went south, he chose a path a lot of people pay lip service to, but few actually take. Murphy took a salary cut to teach teenage boys. His pay, $33,000, was less than one-third of what he earned at the height of his career as a Los Angeles apartment broker. Like others who will have to reinvent themselves in the coming years, Murphy chose personal fulfillment over the pressure to sport custom-made suits and drive a Lexus.

Murphy’s motivation was both practical and highly personal. On the practical end, the bottom fell out of the high-rolling real estate market shortly after he got into the field. A psychology major, Murphy had discovered, while working his way through the University of Southern California, that he had a knack for business and a head for sales. As a neophyte broker, the 1990 graduate had done well–so well that he hung out his own shingle in the summer of 1992. But after six months, he had closed just one small real estate deal. The signals were clear: “It was time to get out.”

In 1991, Murphy’s mother died in New Jersey, and within two years, his teenage brother was experiencing difficulties that affected his schoolwork. Like many 15-year-olds, he became rebellious and his grades plummeted. Murphy decided it was time to go home to Pennsauken, a suburb of the predominantly black city of Camden.

He moved back there temporarily in February 1993, planning at first to continue his sales career. But an interview with Northwest Airlines in Chicago caused him to reexamine his goals. “I realized that deep down I didn’t want to leave New Jersey, and I didn’t want to get into that corporate thing again–reporting to someone else, traveling a lot,” Murphy explains. “I wanted something that would bring me more personal satisfaction.”

To save money and to be close to his brother, Murphy moved into his father’s house, tutoring his brother at night, looking for work by day. Soon, the tutoring began to pay off–particularly for the tutor. Murphy loved it and, more important, he notes, “I was good at it.” Recalling his own high school experience and examining his brother’s, Murphy recognized the striking need for black male teachers. Fortuitously, so did the city of Camden, which had launched an emergency certification program to encourage black males to work for its school system. Without hesitation, he applied.

Murphy’s psychology degree helped him qualify to teach special education, a categorization that carries with it an often indelible stigma. His class consists of emotionally disturbed black and Hispanic boys who, as a group, are dreaded by some teachers, but Murphy sees things differently. His students are “quick-tempered and unmotivated,” he concedes, but they didn’t become that way in a vacuum. And Murphy, who admits to having been no stellar student himself, identifies with them.

In high school, he graduated 36th from the bottom of a class of 500. Most of his teachers predicted his would be a bleak future, and several told him so. He credits the encouragement of two teachers–one a black male–for his going on to prove the others wrong. Of the two mentors who made a difference for him, Murphy says, “I really want to be that for somebody else. I want to let these guys know that someone cares and that there’s a lot of world beyond Camden.”

Murphy’s financial sacrifice has been significant, but he’s no martyr. In an effort to maintain a salary of at least $50,000, he works for a friend’s company, cleaning a law office at night. The job is “boring and repetitive,” Murphy says, but it’s helping him meet his goals, which now include returning to graduate school so that he can move into the rank of principal .

In the meantime, he makes surprisingly little of his adjustments, both social and material: “It’s easy because I know that you can make a lot of money and not be happy.” Also, he adds, unlike so many today who have been forced into lower-paying positions due to a lack of skills or opportunity, “This was my choice.”

Bouncing Back From Being Bounced Out

Geoffrey Macon’s transformation from banker to tableware designer was by choice as well. But, like millions of Americans, he got a strong nudge when his employer of 17 years went through a restructuring.

Macon, 44, was a vice president and branch manager for L.A.’s Security Pacific Bank when it merged with Bank of America in 1992. The divorced father of two already had reached a personal crossroads that was making him question his career. Heart problems had caused him to take an extended leave in September 1991. Just two months after returning, Macon’s health forced him to the sidelines again.

So, when the newly merged bank offered him a buyout package in May 1993, Macon wasn’t surprised, and he already had a plan in hand. Like an increasing number of African-Americans laid off or pushed out by corporate restructurings in recent years (see “Downsizing Trounces Diversity” in this issue), Macon had no choice but to reinvent himself. At the same time, he leaped at the chance to pursue a deferred dream: to become his own boss.

His employer’s $50,000 buyout, along with savings, enabled Macon to launch his own business, Ethnicware, a manufacturer and distributor of Afrocentric stoneware plates, cups and saucers. Calling on his own untrained but passionate eye for ethnic art, Macon created the primitive earthtoned graphic designs himself and found a Chinese manufacturer to produce the line. He contracted out the rest of his business operations, to a graphic artist who translates Macon’s ideas into form, a sales manager and an operations manager.

Before Macon could bring his product to market, L.A.-based Threads 4 Life Corp. d/b/a Cross Colours (ranked No. 10 on the 1993 BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100), was marketing its own line of tableware under the label “Cross Colours Home.” Macon, whose products are sold only in 20-piece boxed sets, says he is shooting for a more mass-market consumer than more upscale Cross Colours line, which is sold by the place setting. Thus, he seems unfazed by the inevitable comparisons.

Part of what feeds Macon’s confidence is the success of Ethnicware so far. In November, he finalized a limited distribution deal with Macy’s West Coast, assuring that his line will be sold through Macy’s and Bullock’s stores in California and Texas. He is also marketing his wares on the road, at industry trade shows throughout the country, and through direct sales. Ethnicware is available at a few small specialty stores as well, such as African-American-owned Blackberries in Washington, D.C., and Whole Earth Access in Northern California.

Next month, Macon will introduce a line that includes oversized mugs featuring original designs by the prominent black artists Varnette Honeywood and Synthia Saint James. Macon expects the mugs to help push Ethnicware’s sales over the $2 million mark. After spending the bulk of his career helping countless firms get off the ground and stay afloat, Macon says he is finding ultimate satisfaction in steering his own ship.

Getting Degrees That Get You To The Top

Deloris McClam Cross is extremely modest. But no amount of humility can cover up her remarkable drive. Lacking a college degree for most of her 22-year corporate career, she’s nonetheless advanced, making lateral or moderate moves when necessary. But when it became clear to Cross that her career was leveling off despite her experience, she earned two degrees–cum laude, no less–at night. Now in control of her career she’s going back for her MBA, at 42.

“Dee,” as she’s called, was always a top achiever. In 1969, she graduated from high school with honors and won a full scholarship to her native South Carolina State College. Sidetracked by an early marriage and motherhood, she never cashed in on the scholarship. Instead, she took her first job in 1972 as an administrative assistant with AVCO Financial Services in Spring Lake, N.C. When she left the company six years later, she was an assistant manager. She was also divorced.

Despite Cross’ on-the-job experience, Ford Motor Credit Co. in Houston offered her only a clerical position in 1979, along with a promise of advancement. She took it and kept Ford to its promise, rising swiftly. But when she remarried and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1980, she was offered a lesser position than the one she’d left, even though she moved within the company. “I was advised that there was no equivalent position in D.C.,” she says, “but I believed not having my degree had a lot to do with it.”

That notion was reinforced when she was passed over for a promotion. One obvious difference between Cross and the person promoted: He had a bachelor’s degree. Dipping into her savings and taking advantage of Ford’s tuition reimbursement benefit, Cross attended Prince George’s Community College at night. In 1987, she graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average and an associate’s degree in business management. She continued in an adult education program at Columbia Union College, collecting her bachelor’s in business administration in 1992.

Shortly after earning her degree, she moved to Atlanta, becoming Ford’s rental distribution and business operation remarketing area manager at Atlanta Auto Auction. In that capacity, Cross has responsibility for an average inventory of about $25 million in used Ford vehicles, which she remarkets through the auction to Lincoln-Mercury dealers nationwide. She makes around $60,000. She maintains that her degrees have made a significant difference in her career, but believes the company would argue that her performance has meant more. “If nothing else,” she says, “psychologically, I have an edge.”

Last fall, she applied to Mercer University’s evening MBA program. “When the right opportunity does come around, or when I create it, I want to be prepared to meet it and make the most of it,” she says. “In today’s climate, particularly for African-Americans, we can’t afford to do any less.”

COPYRIGHT 1994 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group