When I Learned the Most

I had a great opportunity this week to listen to two fantastic CEOs talk about both their businesses and experiences.  One of those was my CEO, Mike Duke (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.).  The other was Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM.

Rometty is a dynamic figure if you’ve never met her or heard her speak.  She is down to earth, to the point, and fascinating to listen to.

At one point in the conversation, Rometty was talking about the times that she learned the most in her career.

She was straightforward and clear in her answer, “When I took a risk.”  She elaborated that when she tried something completely new like her move from GM to IBM she learned, grew and stretched tremendously. Rometty’s career progression exposed her to a number of facets of business that broadened her perspective and provided her with lots of different experiences.   And between her ‘student of the business’ mindset and hands on approach to driving the business, it’s no wonder why she’s in the role that she is.

Picking up where Rometty left off, Mike Duke commented on his own career progression.  And I’m sure it’s no shock for you to know that the same type of story was revealed.

Duke took advantage of a number of career opportunities to experience different parts of the business.  This was evident both in his early career in retail as well as his later career at Walmart.  Mike came to Wal-Mart via our Logistics Division, which he headed shortly after arriving to replace then Logistics head Lee Scott (who also went on to be Mike’s predecessor as CEO).  Mike then made his way to become the Chief Administrative Officer of the company, led the Wal-Mart Stores US business unit, and then led the International business unit prior to becoming CEO of the whole company.

Mike recanted a story about when he was asked to go lead the International group.  He said that he hadn’t traveled outside the US as much and didn’t have a background in running international operations, which made him a little apprehensive.  But like each role before, he learned quickly and grew significantly with each step.

Mike said it best, “The time I learned the most was when I was put into roles where I had little or no direct knowledge.”  It forces you to listen.  To learn.  To stretch.  To grow.  And again, with all of his experience, just like Rometty, it’s no wonder that he is in the role he’s in today.

Following this conversation, I took a stroll down memory lane and thought back to the times when I learned the most in my career.

And……I’d have to concur with these two leaders.  When did I learn the most?  During the times that I took on assignments or projects that were completely new and foreign to me.

As I’m reminiscing, I’m smiling, because I can vividly remember some major turning points in my life.

One of those was when I was an Assistant Fire Chief and took on all of the budgeting, planning and administrative responsibilities.  What firefighter wants to do that?  We all want to put out fires and rescue people, right?  It was a major stretch for me and I am so thankful for that opportunity when I was in my twenties, because while it was a lot of very quick nerve-racking learning, it evolved my business acumen and set a foundation for my future.

Another was when I was promoted to Director of Business Continuity.  I was in that role only a short while before four hurricanes hit back to back in Florida.  It was a major stretch because it quickly evolved my leadership and broad thinking acumen through a major and highly visible crisis situation.

Another was my move to Sam’s Club.  Moving out of the security/emergency management business was terrifying for me because it’s what I knew best and what I was trained and skilled in.  There was a lot of comfort in it.  But this move to Sam’s Club completely stretched me in different directions that I never expected and grew me in a number of different areas (e.g., systems development, marketing strategy, how to use insights data, etc.).

While these are just a few of the many stretches in my own life, the key is that each of these experiences and exposures builds upon the previous and broadens and strengthens who you are as a person.

Again, I’m thankful for all of these opportunities – but like Rometty and Duke –  each of these opportunities also came with risk.  Mainly – the risk of failure.  Each was a step outside of doing what was comfortable.  Each was a little unnerving at times.  While there were many failures, all of them were learning opportunities.  And while sometimes daunting, I also found that I survived from each experience too…which made me better and stronger for taking that risk.

Likely, if you examine your own career, you’ll find that the same holds true for you too.

Now, each of us are at different places in our lives and have different drivers and motivators.  Some are happy to stay where it’s comfortable and don’t want change.  And that’s cool.

But for several of us, we want to be challenged and stretched.  We want to learn and grow.  We want to evolve.  We want to do more.   If this is where you find yourself, then you should really examine your life and see if taking a risk to step out and do something new is for you.

Whether in your professional or personal life, stepping out into the unknown is when you will learn the most.

I found a quote from an interview that Rometty did last year that perfectly sums up this concept of risk taking and evolution.  She said, “Growth and comfort do not coexist.”   And I must agree.

QUESTON:  When did you learn the most in your career?

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