What is the Best Piece of Advice You Received?
The words that transformed the lives of women leaders
Good advice can change the course of your life. In my post from a few weeks ago, Rewrite Your Story to Change Your Path, I shared the story of how a few words—“You can stop fighting now”— made me stop, reflect, and change direction. That simple piece of advice helped me stop being held back by my past and start looking to the future. It made a lasting impact on the way I work and live.
In honor of Women's History Month, I asked some of the most incredible women I know about the best advice they've ever received, and how it changed their lives. I hope that as you read these suggestions, you also reflect on the advice that has affected you the most and share its impact with the people who gave it to you.
“Don’t be limited by other people’s limited imagination.”
Sanyin Siang: Executive Director, Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) Fuqua School of Business
Who shared it: Mae Jemison, the astronaut
Context: Several years ago, I attended an event for Mae Jemison, the physician and pioneer who is the first African American woman to travel into space and who can give you a vision of something that seems impossible and create the confidence to make you feel that it’s attainable. She is bold and fearless as one would expect of a pioneer. She shared advice that really shifted how I thought about myself and about the role of leaders.
How it changed your life: Often, as with many high achievers, I tend to look for external validation for my ideas, for what I could be capable of achieving. And that external feedback is important. However, what Mae’s advice made me realize is that those external to us don’t have all the data about the full range of our capabilities. They may not yet be able to imagine what we might be capable of doing, or the achievability of our ideas. It also means that as leaders, we have to be careful not to be the ones who are the limiting imagination for others. This advice is part not only of how I lead myself and others, but it’s also at the core of my superpowers work on optimizing individuals and teams.
“You're either ripening or rotting.”
Who shared it: My first manager, Dan Bain
Context: I was just starting my career. [Dan] had a career conversation with me that, in retrospect, was remarkably well-thought-out, given that he was a brand new manager. It really set me up for a career that would be guided by what is now called a "growth mindset." At the time, this idea that you just had raw talent was pervasive.
How it changed your life: Dan’s advice helped me create success across several career paths. It's also become a part of the constant drive that I'm either acknowledged for or accused of having (depending on who is commenting). I don't believe in stagnation, thanks in large part to this mantra.
“It's not brutal honesty. It's candor with care.”
Who shared it: Marc Katz, CEO & Founder of CustomInk
Context: I was so nervous about giving harsh feedback. I worried about eroding my relationship with my direct report, because he felt like a close friend of mine. I called Marc to get his advice.
How it changed your life: In my attempts to sugarcoat my feedback, I was struggling to be direct. Marc told me, "It's not brutal honesty. It's candor with care." He explained that honest feedback is something you share when you genuinely care about someone. You need to free yourself from the fear that it will be hurtful and reframe it as a way to show your investment in their success. This helped me be so much more direct. Sugarcoating is not doing anyone any good. Speaking honestly is the best thing you can do for someone!
“Too many women get caught up in tiara syndrome. Don’t wait around for someone to put a tiara on your head.”
Who shared it: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Meta
Context: So many women, including myself, keep our heads down and work our tails off, and then wait to be recognized or given the next opportunity. I have had so many instances in my career when I waited for a promotion or opportunity without voicing my ambitions. I often felt afraid or embarrassed to share what I wanted, as I was worried the person on the receiving end would think, “Who does she think she is?” Sheryl’s advice made me rethink this and realize that I needed to go after what I wanted—and make it known. The most important thing for a leader is to be the leader of your own life. Don’t give the power to determine your value, or to choose your path, away to someone else.
How it changed your life: I took the wheel. I became much more clear and proactive about my ambitions. I raised my hand for new opportunities, even when they were a stretch, because I knew they would allow me to grow. I shared my goals with others, whether to get promoted, get a board seat, or start a venture capital firm. Often, when you make what you want known, people show up in incredible and unexpected ways. I could not have made the leap from operator to investor, or start a VC firm, if I had waited around for someone to recognize my hard work and anoint me. You have to be the leader of your own life, take risks, and seize the opportunities you want most.
“How you ask for feedback matters.”
Who shared it: Steve Bennett, former CEO of Intuit
Context: Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work directly with the company’s CEO. During our second or third meeting, I asked him, “Do you have any feedback for me?” He shook his head and told me I was asking the wrong question. “How you ask for feedback matters,” he said. He explained that a generic request for feedback isn’t helpful, because most people, when asked that question, simply reply, “You’re doing a great job.” Instead you should be specific. You might say, “I’m working on contributing more in team meetings and expressing my point of view proactively. Have you seen me improve in this area over the last month?” This creates an opportunity for someone to give you specific feedback and coaching about a behavior or skill you want to improve.
How it changed my life: After that conversation, getting feedback quickly evolved from a “check the box” activity to a more productive dialogue about my development. Being explicit about my development opportunities and asking colleagues for specific feedback on my progress increased my focus. It helped me build the behaviors and leadership skills that mattered most, and it has become part of how I help grow and develop others.
“If you’re good at what you do, there will always be demand.”
Who shared it: Alesia Latson, leadership expert
Context: I had a special HR role at PwC focused on leadership development. I had always been told by the author of The Leader’s Edge that she would love for me to represent her work as an independent consultant. After several months, I made the daunting decision to start my own practice and reached out to her, thinking she would be thrilled with the news but she said the climate was not good. I felt so defeated, having built up the courage to make this move only to be advised not to. Discouraged, I reached out to Alesia Latson, a former collaborator and a consultant. She acknowledged that it was a tough climate for consultants, but also said, “Carol, if you’re good at what you do, there will always be demand.” This was just the nudge I needed.
How it changed my life: Alesia’s advice led me to strike out on my own and trust that the opportunities would materialize. It stands as a defining moment for me, and deeply validates that we shouldn’t allow circumstances to overly-inform our decisions. We have the ability to influence circumstances to create what we want and need. It starts with self-empowerment, deep belief in ourselves, and owning our value. I’ve paid this advice forward many times. It’s thrilling to see other successful entrepreneurs who now have multiple years under their belts because they, too, bet on themselves to succeed.
"When faced with a choice, choose the difficult option. You will never regret challenging yourself to see what you’re capable of.”
Who shared it: A good friend and engineer I was working with at the time while I was early in my career at Microsoft.
Context: I was debating taking on a new role and stretching myself in a new way, so I asked my colleague for advice. I got the same advice again from my husband when I was deciding to move with my startup across the country to San Jose from upstate New York.
How it changed my life: I have learned to live by this saying whenever I am faced with a hard choice. It has helped unlock new career and personal opportunities, and made me realize I’m capable of taking on big challenges—even challenges that I previously believed were out of my reach.
“Run your own race.”
Who shared it: My dad
Context: He wasn't a runner, but I am. My dad’s words have been a wonderful reminder to do my own thing.
How it changed my life: Early on, his words helped me focus on my career and not worry about my peers getting promoted or not. Later on, as a Head of Product, they helped me focus on my users and product and not obsess over features and competitor moves. Today, they remind me to build a successful company on my own terms and not get distracted by competitors and noise. And as a parent, they help me remember that the race is the point—not the finish line—and to enjoy where I am.
“Hang Up, Call Again.”
Who shared it: Steli Efti from "The Startup Chat” podcast
Context: This was a favorite podcast of mine as a founder. [Efti] shared a story about how his co-founder was calling an airline to try to resolve an issue with his points for an upcoming flight. The first agent could not solve his issue, so he decided to hang up and call again until he could find an agent that did.
How it changed my life: This advice has been a great reminder to me on my journey as a founder and leader that hearing no or hitting roadblocks is just part of the journey. The key is to have the perseverance to keep calling until you get the answer you want!
The right advice at the right time can have a huge impact on your goals, your direction, and your relationship with your career. I hope this post inspires you to reflect on the advice that has helped you, thank the person who gave it to you, and pay it forward to others. You never know when the right words will change someone’s life.