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An Express Journey to the Top

Sheila T. Harrell,|VP, Customer Service Operations, FedEx TechConnect
Monday, 10 Oct 2011 | 11:47 AM ET



My career journey has enabled me to focus on connecting people, places, and businesses as well as be a part of growing the world’s economy. When I graduated from college during the 1970s, it was cool to work at the airport and every college graduate was looking for a jet-setting career. In 1979, I jumped at the chance to work at a new company called Federal Express whose mission was to connect the world overnight.

I started on the bottom rung of FedExand wore many hats throughout the day. I had the opportunity to load and unload a Falcon airplane, handle the receipt and distribution of shipments to walk-in customers, work on the phones as a customer service rep, and serve as a dispatcher. The work was labor intensive, but team-supported and full of life and excitement. We all understood and lived by the FedEx slogan: “Absolutely, positively overnight!”

The diversity of my experience enabled me to quickly move into management in 1982, and I continued wearing many hats across company divisions, including roles in human resources, education, sales, ground operations and finally, my passion — customer service strategic planning and customer service operations.

Today, I have the honor of leading a team of 6,000 people engaged in customer service activities for FedEx across 35 locations working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When I think about the steps I took to get here and what I have learned as a female leader in a traditionally male-dominated career path, I think about some of the simple principles found in the book of Proverbs.

The Principle of Order

You should have a vision and a detailed plan to accomplish that vision for both personal and professional goals. Stay organized in your approach to accomplishing those goals. Keep a clear head and recognize that knowledge and skills build upon themselves; there is a method to moving up. Build a plan and work the plan. Do not move somewhere until you are ready.

"Establish a personal brand by being your authentic self." -VP, Customer Service Ops, FedEx, Sheila Harrell

The Principle of Reaping and Sowing

You receive what you put out for harvest. If you sow tardiness; you will reap a reputation of unreliability. If you sow self-pity; then you will be passed over for new opportunities. If you sow arrogance; then you will not reap respect. It is simple: the harvest comes when you have planted the right seeds.

The Principle of Differences

Be different as you were made different. Be willing to take on the assignment no one else wants. Establish a personal brand by being your authentic self. Why would an executive want you to work for them if you are just like everyone else?

The Principle of Being in the Right Place/Situation

Be willing to go where the opportunity takes you, and know when it is time to move on. Never stay in one place (job, project, etc.) more than five years. By the same token, be flexible with addressing changes in the marketplace. We started hearing customers say they didn’t always want to call a 1-800 line to communicate with us. We also knew technology was evolving and making it possible to interact with our customers in new ways. We embraced this change and started talking to customers via Twitter, blogs, and Facebook. It was an adjustment, but we encourage such innovation at FedEx and our customers appreciate that we were quick to take our services to the channels they use the most.

Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report
Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report

The Principle of Positive Thinking

You are who you think you are! So be your best self on your best day every day. People at all levels are watching. They have an expectation for your behavior based on the personal brand you have built. This is especially true with customers. For example, we are gearing up for our annual peak season during the holidays at FedEx, and my customer service representatives will handle very high call volumes due to the increase in online ordering and other deliveries this time of year. Now more than ever it is critical that I maintain an energy with my team that fosters a mindset that every package is bringing the holidays to someone. We aren’t just talking to customers about a transaction; our work is helping them connect with loved ones. If I set that example with my team, they respond in kind with our customers.

The Principle of Building Meaningful Relationships

It takes a village to get anything done in this complicated world. To succeed in that village, you must support and respect the contributions of all parts of that team. When you acknowledge yourself as a small piece of the bigger team, you build strong relationships that help you when times get tough. (And believe me, there will be some tough times!)

In summary, you create your own best life; no one else is going to do it for you. Make it your best and make an impact. I am proud to be part of a brand that has revolutionized how the world operates. It never has been about a job: it’s about making a difference for my children, grandchildren and future generations. What a journey!

Sheila Harrell oversees over 6,000 customer service representatives in call centers across the U.S. and Latin America. Harrell has been with FedEx for more than 32 years.

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