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3 Career Lessons I Learned from Making Bad Sandwiches

At women’s leadership forums, I’m sometimes asked how I achieved my position in what is often considered a male-dominated financial services industry. My typical answer starts with the fact that I’m one of six children with three aggressive brothers. Growing up, the art of negotiation was required for sheer survival in a large Irish family. By little design of my own, my rowdy but wonderful family upbringing taught me some valuable life lessons along the way.

Case in point: here was a typical fall weekend at our house. My Dad would watch ball games with my brothers, and often yell out to me or my sister, “Hey Kath, hey Mary Ellen, can you make me a sandwich?” Then my brothers would of course chime in and say, “Yeah, me too!”

You can imagine what I wanted to say to them. I didn’t mind making a sandwich for my Dad, but I did NOT want to be stuck making sandwiches for my brothers every weekend. I wanted to watch the game and be part of the action. But I quickly realized the confrontational approach would get me nowhere. So I figured out at a young age how to make really bad sandwiches – sloppy ones with mustard and mayo oozing out and tomatoes sliding off the side. It didn’t take long for them to stop asking.

This was a seemingly minor moment in my childhood, but there are lessons in there that stuck with me during the ups and downs of my career...

1. Chart your own course. One of my favorite books growing up was “Little Women.” I loved Jo March. In fact I wanted to be Jo. She was a trailblazer in a man’s world who lived life on her terms. I loved Nancy Drew for the same reasons. These same lessons are evident in the professional world. If you want something – whether a new job or career or simply the respect of your peers – take action and make it happen for yourself. Nobody succeeds in life by hanging around the sidelines. You need to get in the game!

2. The importance of “show” versus “tell.” I didn’t want the role in our household my brothers carved out for me. So, I changed their perceptions, bit by bit, by showing them instead of telling them. I’ve tried over the course of my career to stay laser focused on results – results for customers, the business, and fellow employees – and not to get distracted by outside noise or internal political chatter. As Ben Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.” Showing people what you’re capable of, demonstrating results, and using a little humor along the way can make a big difference.

3. The value of taking risks and the importance of achieving your full potential. Whether in life or your career, you can’t let the fear of failure overcome the power of possibility. The most defining moments of my career came when I embraced change and opened myself up to new experiences, even if it was something that might not have felt easy or comfortable at the time. You need to constantly challenge yourself in order to grow.

For me, moving from traditional legal and staff roles to being a business leader was an enormous change. I could have continued on what was a comfortable path, but I wouldn’t have challenged myself to truly reach my full potential by playing it safe. Making sandwiches for my brothers as a young girl was expected of me way back then. That was the comfort zone, yet I knew there was a more exciting path for me that challenged me in non-traditional ways. Fast forward many years later and I still have tremendous passion around people and organizations achieving their full potential.

When your career comes to a close, the last thing you want to do is look back and think “what if?” You want to look back with the satisfaction that you gave it everything and continually grew along the way. Your career is a journey, but most importantly – it’s YOUR journey. Chart your course, be open to new experiences, push yourself to achieve your full potential, and make a few bad sandwiches if you need to.

So, looking back, what moments from your upbringing are now shaping your career path?



Views expressed are as of August 25, 2014. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the author and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments.



President, Personal Investing at Fidelity Investments

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