Women & Business

How I Did It: Creating Options

Cathy Benko|Vice Chairman and Managing Principal - Brand, Deloitte LLP

In a marketplace where it’s expected that only 20% of the workers will have the skills needed for 60% of the jobs—mostly because the jobs haven’t been invented yet—options are key. On my own career journey, creating options has long been the name of the game. I grew up in a neighborhood where there wasn’t much expectation to pursue a college education or a lofty career. But the generosity of the local Lions Club, a little serendipity and a lot of sweat equity provided a path of opportunity for me from the secretarial pool to a vice chairman at Deloitte.

While convention would say that I climbed the corporate ladder, in reality my journey has been more like traversing an organizational grid. I’ve enjoyed myriad, nonlinear opportunities to grow my skills, gain new experiences, and expand my networks. Sometimes I’ve moved “up,” sometimes across and other times moved diagonally. Each was a new challenge and adventure, and helped me rack up both the skills and acumen to make me attractive for the next.

I don’t think I’m alone in living a zig-zag career journey. Maybe not all have gotten the memo yet, but ladder thinking about how careers are built and work gets done is being replaced with a more agile corporate lattice modelof career progression.

What I gave up along the way is the notion that I couldn’t—particularly as it related to gender—do more. For example, after powering myself, nights and weekends over five years, to get my undergraduate degree while working full-time, I started to think about attending an ivy league business school. My mother’s advice: “People like us don’t get into places like that. You’re setting yourself up for a fall.” And a few months when I got the ‘nod’ from Harvard, my grandmother responded that she didn’t know why I’d go off and do something like that since I already had a job. Her reaction was surprising to me because she was very proud when a male cousin had gotten into Stanford. When I ask her about it, she said: “That’s different. He’s going to have to support a family someday.” Hmmm. Honestly, that had never occurred to me, nor obviously did it ‘square’ with me.

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Today I tell my kids not to prepare for one set future but to build a portfolio of skills, experiences and network that prepare and position them for whatever future presents itself. How do roles I’ve held from consultant to global e-business leader to chief talent officer or leading brand and related areas for the largest professional services firm in the country connect? Through personal brand. Be sure to use your skills, experiences and capabilities as personal brand-building assets. Build a portfolio of career-enhancing competencies and experiences by regularly developing new skills that are transferrable from one role to another. Take calculated risks that get you out of your comfort zone, otherwise complacency is sure to seep in—a career death knell in a marketplace where time-to-obsolescence is at an all-time low. If you’re hesitant to make such leaps, ask yourself how risky it is not to act at all.

The lattice world is an ever-changing calculus, so actively seeking out opportunities—lateral and diagonal moves along with upward movement—that open up career paths for you not just now but every step forward. Whether or not you ever exercise those options doesn’t really matter—what does is making sure you have them.

Cathy Benko is Vice Chairman and Managing Principal - Brand, Deloitte LLP. During her tenure at Deloitte, Cathy has led the firm’s award-winning Women’s Initiative, managed Deloitte’s e-business and high-tech sector practices, and most recently was Chief Talent Officer. She is a best-selling author of books including The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work (Harvard 2010), Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today's Nontraditional Workforce (Harvard 2007), and Connecting the Dots: Aligning Projects with Objectives in Unpredictable Times (Harvard 2003).