When Katia Verresen, my career coach, asked me if I wanted to join a panel for the Paths to Power class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2014, I hesitated. What did I have to say that a class of MBA students would possibly find useful? I was a Director at Facebook. I’d had a solid career, but I was not a particularly distinguished alum.
Katia, who has been one of the resident coaches for the class, urged me to accept despite my reluctance. I had very little to lose, and the biggest risk was embarrassing myself in front of a group of grad students. I lived (and still live) near Stanford, so I decided I would give it a shot.
What I didn’t realize was that this act of saying “yes” would change my life. I have spoken on the panel for the past eight years. Each year, I learn something new from my fellow speakers, gain perspective on my life and choices, and mark time in my own career journey.
Time flies by so quickly that it's often hard to know if you're making progress. We tend to think mostly in terms of the present moment: our present job, our present location, our present challenges, and victories. But what’s far more difficult is to see our journey as a whole, to get perspective on where we came from and where we’re going.
This is why marking time is so valuable. Each year, as I prepared for the Paths to Power panel, I knew I was going to see Professor Pfeffer and his class again. And I was going to have to answer for what I had done during the year before.
It's incredible how much this annual milestone forced me to think holistically about my career. It's easy to allow things to get away from you, or to put your objectives on hold, but when you know that every February, you're going to sit in front of a hundred students and tell them about your career progression, it really focuses your mind.
This experience has taught me two things: the importance of clear, actionable goals and the importance of holding yourself accountable. Speaking with Professor Pfeffer and my fellow panelists every year has been a reminder to keep looking for new ways to evolve and grow, and then to make it happen, rather than resting on my laurels. Thanks in part to this yearly milestone, I have made more progress in my work than I ever thought was possible—and so can you.
You don’t need to be on a panel like this to mark time. You can leverage New Year’s, performance reviews, and work anniversaries in a similar way. The key is to have a forcing function—something to remind you that a career is a marathon, not a sprint—and clear goals to pursue. With some careful reflection, you will be able to propel yourself forward.
Knowing that I would be speaking to Professor Pfeffer’s students each year was a useful motivator because it came with the implicit expectation that I would have something valuable to add to the conversation. As the class approached each year, I was forced to take stock. Had I done anything over the past twelve months that was worth talking about? The answer was always yes—in part because there was always another panel on the horizon, and in part because of Professor Pfeffer himself.
After the event, Professor Pfeffer often took the panelists out to lunch so we could connect and talk about different things. For four years, he asked me the same question during those discussions: "When are you going to leave Facebook to become a CEO?"
The first time, I laughed and brushed it off, thinking he was kidding. The second time, I thought about it a bit and then told my husband, but the idea still hadn’t really gelled for me. Even still, it lingered in the back of my mind. The third time he asked, I had recently been invited to interview for a public company CEO position. I mentioned this to Professor Pfeffer, and he told me I should go for it. While that position didn’t work out, I called him to ask for his advice when I got the offer at Ancestry. At the next panel, I shared with the class that I had just resigned from Facebook and was starting a new job. His response? "It's about time."
Finding My Voice
When I met Katia, the first book she gave me was Professor Pfeffer’s book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t (it is free with Prime Kindle and is worth the read). With the exception of the first year, the Paths to Power panels always consisted of three male alumni and me. Each time, several of the women in the class would ask me what I thought about the book and the techniques it discussed. They wondered how they could be powerful without coming across as abrasive or overly aggressive, and whether Pfeffer’s advice was applicable given the double standards that women face when they seek power.
My answer was complicated: I love Pfeffer’s book, and I frequently give copies to friends and acquaintances. I found it extremely enlightening because it opened my eyes to many of the hidden power dynamics in the world around me. However, I also understood that women have different burdens and expectations placed on them in the workplace, and therefore must navigate their careers in different ways.
What resulted was another seminal moment for me. Four years ago, when the question about Pfeffer’s book came up during the panel, I impulsively replied that I planned to write my own book about women and power. Since I had said it, I actually ended up writing it. The book contains research I conducted, interviews with women who reclaimed their power in the workplace… and all the advice I wished I could share during those 90-minute panels. It’s no exaggeration to say that Take Back Your Power was born of the Paths to Power class. Knowing that I had committed to the project in front of those students—and that I would be back to answer their questions again in the following years—gave me the motivation I needed to realize that vision.
The last time I went to speak for the Paths to Power class, the professor and the other panelists mentioned how much more confident I seemed, and how much I had grown since that first panel. Interestingly, the difference wasn’t obvious to me, but that’s the thing about time. Just like my kids have gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye, from tiny babies to fully-grown human beings who steal my clothing, the day-to-day changes are hard to notice.
This is the power of marking time. When you take stock of your journey, you can see how far you’ve come and be decisive about where you’re going next. You may end up taking a big step in your career or accomplishing something you’ve always dreamt of but never seriously considered. You may even end up writing a book. By setting milestones and reflecting on your progress, you can better navigate and direct your future. For me, that milestone happened to be a class. It could be anything for you. But it is during these moments when you check in with yourself that your progress really shows. That is how you know you are growing and evolving.
It's easier to do mark time in school, when nearly everyone advances grades and graduates on a preset schedule. Once you start work, you have to own your own career progression. Maybe career coaching should be more widespread and not just for senior management?