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As we move through the many stages of our lives, we often turn to others for guidance – our parents, siblings, friends, colleagues or even our children – to provide perspective and support. Over the years, I’ve been particularly shaped both by the women in my family, and by others I’ve met through my career. Whether it was my mother’s resilience, the well-worn advice of a former boss or the inspiration provided by my daughter, time and time again I draw on the varied and wise knowledge they impart.
In my current role, I am privileged to mentor and speak with young women about their own aspirations for the future. Conversations range from what courses to pursue at school or university; how to develop confidence and gravitas; or how to balance work and home lives. When International Women’s Day was celebrated back in March, I was asked to put some of my life lessons into a blog (which I never did) and recently I spoke at a Bank of America Merrill Lynch Women’s Networking event. So finally, I am putting pen to paper (lesson 1 to self: don’t procrastinate). I hope some of my own ‘life lessons’ resonate with others, and give our talented next generation a few ideas that may help encourage discussion as they embark on their personal journeys.
Talk through tough times
Resilience is perhaps one of the most important life skills. Much of this learning has come from my mother. Life regularly challenges us with unexpected events, and navigating the storms is not just about weathering them, but also learning to grow from them. Talking to someone who has gone through similar experiences can help steer you in the right direction and evolve into a stronger, wiser person, better able to face adversity. So don’t bottle up your problems – use your support network to help you deal with life’s challenges and opportunities – your friends, colleagues and family can serve as strong allies in helping you to process much of what life throws at you.
Dig deep to know yourself
What makes you want to succeed? You really need to know the answer to this question because that is what will help with your decisions along the way and get you through the days when you are at your limit of long hours of studying; when you are juggling one too many things; when your boss asks you to take on yet another project; your parents call to see if you are still part of the family; or your kids call to ask when you are coming home… Only you know why you are doing what you are doing. Trust your instincts and believe in your decisions; being true to yourself will stand you in good stead, and may also inspire people around you.
Be wide-eyed and flexible
Whatever stage you are at in your career, don’t worry if you don’t have a long-term plan mapped out. Many unforeseen opportunities present themselves throughout our lives and it’s rare to have full control over the path that lies ahead. Being open to new opportunities is important. During my career, I’ve worked at an art gallery, practised law, produced TV, launched a brand/marketing consultancy and now I am at a bank. The days of a job, or indeed a sector for life, are over. Technology and globalisation have had an enormous impact on people’s careers over the past decade, and we know that so much more is set to change in this respect. Did I think that I would be working in the role I am in now when I was younger? Absolutely not – I didn’t even know my current position existed when I was young! By learning new, transferable skills with each experience and being flexible, I’ve been able to find many careers that I have really enjoyed and I’ve met great people along the way.
“Be open, be willing to connect, quick to contribute, ready to take risk, always commit, have fun and receive and feel the magic.”
We all know the importance of networking, it is a big buzz word – and yet most of us are uncomfortable with the process. And although women still lag behind men in the truly effective use of networking, I would suggest that we actually have a much greater scope of contacts and people to call on than we might think. Most of this unstructured networking is comfortable and natural and something we do without necessarily realise we’re networking.
Some our most important networks are developed through the relationships we develop over time in a variety of situations – school, college or university friends, neighbours, work colleagues, clients, people you meet when you travel – these people are all important to tap into as you seek out opportunities and, more importantly, life options. Use these networks to ask about professions and opportunities and let people challenge your perspectives of yourself. Being open to advice and forging strong and trusted relationships leads to a fulfilling life on many levels.
And don’t think that those words of wisdom or direction need to come from people who are older or more senior than you. The person I have learned the most from is my daughter. Her energy, drive and kindness have taught me how much joy there is in the world if you have the patience to listen, to be inspired and to act.
Indeed, this is also a reminder of the responsibility we as women have in mentoring young girls. We live in a fragile but exciting world, where the possibilities are endless if we have the access to people willing to provide guidance and make the time to listen. Investing time and energy in this next generation will both empower these women and help create the next group of role models for the future.
*Andrea Sullivan is International Head of Environment, Social & Governance Group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.