The Best Career Advice I’ve Ever Received


This blog offers career advice for other people, so I was intrigued by the invitation to write a guest post for the fun and informative blog, HyperText.  The simple question:  What was the best advice you ever received?  Three important bits of advice immediately came to mind, and each can be traced to my long-time mentor, the late Jack Raymond, a former New York Times reporter turned C-suite PR consultant.

I first met Jack when I arrived at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly after spending most of my early career in political jobs in Indiana and New York.  As Lilly’s new department head of media relations I was asked for my point of view on myriad issues facing the company. So, I took the rope and ran with it.  Then I appeared to hit a brick wall.

A senior-to-me HR executive had a very different point of view than mine, and we openly sparred in front of other C-suite executives.  The executive and I were visibly angry with each other and neither of us backed down.  Other executives appeared uncomfortable with the exchange.  Due to my lower job grade, it was a near-fatal career mistake.  Even though I eventually was proven to be right, he never forgot what he clearly felt was insubordination.  I felt his lack of support in all future encounters, and realized I had made a long-term enemy.  Later when I moved to another corporation I detected utter relief from my verbal dueling partner.

Following this verbal fracas, Jack Raymond, our outside consultant, talked me through the protocol I should have followed.  His advice was simple: “Never back a rat into a corner… he only has one option—to bite you.”  Instead, when I encountered the sharp differences of opinion with someone who is known to be treacherous, Jack said I should have deferred the discussion until I could have a one-on-one conversation with that individual and/or others.  It was great advice and may help explain why I rarely argue—in the workplace or anywhere else.

The second piece of wisdom shared by Jack is perhaps tied to the above advice: “Know when to move on.”  I had reached my seventh year at Lilly.   I especially enjoyed my many outside activities, including driving the pace car which came with my seat on the Indianapolis 500 Festival Board.  But Jack advised me to move on in order to move up.  Lilly’s management development program focused on advancing its talented MBAs, Ph.D.s and lawyers—degrees I did not possess.  I was manager of corporate communications reporting to the director of corporate affairs, who had an MBA and was married to a Lilly heiress.  Jack explained that glass ceilings weren’t just for women.  He also suggested that moving to a larger market would enhance my future.

A few weeks later, Jack told me about an opportunity as director of PR at Pitney Bowes, and a month later I moved to Stamford, Connecticut where I hoped to be “discovered” for a bigger job, perhaps in my dream city–Chicago.  Jack again was right; within two years I was recruited to the Windy City to become executive director of public relations at Sara Lee.  Seven years later, I was tapped for the top PR job at Sears.  Lesson learned:  Being willing to move geographically and knowing when to move on increases the potential for future career opportunities.  (Note that some people have long and successful careers without switching companies or regions, but that’s a rare phenomena). 

Finally, when Jack turned 80, I took him to lunch in New York to thank him for his wise counsel throughout my career.  I mentioned the possibility of eventual retirement, and he raised his voice:  “Don’t you ever retire!”  I assured him that I didn’t have intentions to do so in the near future, and then asked him when he finally decided to retire.  Jack replied, “When I turned 79, and it’s been downhill ever since.”  As I begin my newest career chapter, I do so with Jack’s advice still guiding my journey.

Leave a comment