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5 Big Career Lessons from my 20-years in Corporate

What I am sharing with you is unwritten career lessons – personal reflections and actionable advice from a seasoned professional. It does not imply that my career experience has been negative in any way.

Reflecting upon my corporate career brings back so many good memories – which is what I am most proud of because it means I have enjoyed my journey.

Channeling my corporate lessons in my second career as a strategist + executive coach.

One of my favourite memories is a team building event I organised at Shell. My team and I dressed in medieval costumes while partaking in a dinner game at a Dutch castle, all in theme. It was hilarious. 

Yet being a woman from a minority race, living in the Western world having been raised Asian, has meant that being different has been the most consistent theme of my career. That said, I am not sure any of these lessons would be any different for someone with white privilege.

A Partner (from the firm I used to work at) I used to know well once told me, “We are all in the business of building empires.” That remark has stayed with me ever since. A lot of my observations can be explained by this very remark. In some ways, it is what is natural for mankind historically and thus the same applies in the workplace.

Lesson 1: Trust no one

As women, we want to build connections and trust. We naturally gravitate to forming bonds with select individuals to confide in, our secret sharing circle. Unfortunately, in the workplace, this is a strict no-no.

The biggest culprits are other women we trust because their best interest is always themselves. Given the opportunity, they will likely switch their allegiance. Women-women relationships are also often complicated, with strong yet diverse personalities and opinions so a fallout or period of disagreement is to be expected. 

This is precisely the reason why I insist all my clients develop an external but parallel network as part of their toolkit (in their Career Success Formula). That way, you still have the opportunity to confide in a peer or mentor but they genuinely will not harm your career because they belong to a peripheral network to your current workplace.

Aside from trusting yourself, trust your mentor and trust everyone else cautiously (or do not). This is of course not to say that deep friendships you have cultivated over years and built on a foundation  of trust in the workplace are unreliable.

Lesson 2: It is always a competition

In the corporate world, you are ranked in some way or form. This is a necessary measure for companies to understand employee performance, which directly affects seasonal compensation such as bonuses or shares.

Although internally within the company you are encouraged to build and belong to communities, the harsh truth is that everyone else in the company is your competitor, either directly or indirectly.

Back to my remark about companies being empires, you should actively engage and cultivate co-dependent, symbiotic relationships if an individual can support your career. This competitive mindset can be encouraging because it forces employees to constantly be vigilant in maintaining their record of good performance and contributions.

Lastly, just because your workplace represents a competitive environment does not translate to you acting selfishly all the time or disregarding others. Team collaboration is still a core component of the corporate world but your performance will still be judged individually regardless of the team. 

Lesson 3: Find your Career and Life Success Formulas early on

I teach a concept called Career Success Formula because I observed that women, in particular, are so unstructured in their approach to their careers.

Finding and then consequently knowing what your success formulas are gives you such a cutting edge in both life and the workplace. Why? Simply because it is a completely personalised guide that gives you clarity as to the important success indicators for you.

Natasha Baker Bjoerndal is The Careerist - in a navy suit embodying a Career Strategist and Executive Coach.
Rebranding herself after a strong, mid-career pivot as an entrepreneur.

In the self-guided booster session (online course) that I teach, I encourage every woman to wholly personalise their career formulas. My methods are simply a starting point if you need it. Knowing your career success formula helps you in many ways – it helps you to keep in perspective what you should and should not be pursuing or investing time and energy into. It also gives you various concepts and milestones to work on and achieve throughout the year.

Similarly, you should also have a life success formula. To simplify, be brutally honest with yourself on what IS important to you and what is not. In 10 years, where would you like to be and how can you shape that life, starting now? You should never adopt a dependency mindset whereby when you do or complete a task or milestone, THEN you will start to focus on your goal. That is just a losing mentality and a gross example of procrastination.

Both these formulas can help in situations where, for example, you need to decide between staying in a certain job, starting your own business, investing time in an activity or adhering to a strict list of things or situations you should avoid because of your life goals.

Lesson 4: Invest in relationships, not friendships

This sounds like a contradiction but I assure you that it is not. We are constantly forming relationships – they are natural human connections that take place in our daily lives. Some relationships evolve and mature while others are momentary only and short-lived. Friendships, on the other hand, are cultivated and invested relationships – they are a subset of relationships.

So why should you invest in one and not the other?

Consciously making the effort to engage with others can easily and organically broaden your network. Some of these connections may be people you never meet or ever speak to again. However, if needed, you can tap into your connection.

At the start of my career at Shell in the Netherlands, I met a man named Winand. We spoke at length over the short years I was on his team and discussed everything from his cancer discovery, recovery, to his career, research and his twin boys.

I moved on to another team and years later, left Shell yet we stayed connected via LinkedIn. Two years ago, out of the blue, I needed to find out more about a technical software for a proposal and so I dug into my LinkedIn network. Winand had spent years working on the software so I emailed him and my first sentence was, “Hi Winand, it’s been a very long time. How are the twins?” That instantly reconnected us and we picked up and headed into a two-hour conversation as if no time had passed.

Winand and I are not friends in the traditional sense of the word but we share a professional relationship, a connection we forged almost 20 years ago. 

Lesson 5: Everyone is replaceable

As much as we would like to think of ourselves as indispensable, we are not. The harsh truth is that if we suddenly eliminated ourselves from our positions at work, the company will STILL go on, manage and function. Perhaps not as smoothly as it did with our leadership, contributions and expertise but all these skills are replaceable with other talents.

With this mindset, we should cultivate a perspective of a broad, global view of our careers. One that spans much wider than just the company we have at the time, attached our names and lives to. What this translates to in simple terms is that we should proactively and consistently be aware of emerging trends, market shifts and notable leaders and players within our industry and area of expertise (function). 

Why? Because they represent opportunities for us to, at a moment’s notice, make the leap forward or laterally, if we needed it. It’s the formula for being prepared on an almost transactional level.

This relates directly to keeping our connections fresh, our network of influence sharp and our support system agile and robust. I teach this very concept in my booster sessions because I strongly believe they are the foundation of every successful career.

Summary

In a nutshell, those are the lessons that I can share from my 20 year career that will actually help and impact you, a member of my community. I could have shared high-level, happier, more mainstream examples instead but that is not what I believe my business model to be. I am here to make a difference, help shape careers and lives and ultimately, in my own unique way, to change the world.

Thank you for reading – what lesson resonates most with you? I would love to hear some of YOUR career lessons as well – please share them in the comments and I promise to respond to each one of them personally.

To making a difference in any way we can, natasha

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