When Life Happens

Vicki Wright Hamilton sitting in chair holding cash smiling

I always say that mentoring partnerships are reciprocal, and I have learned as many valuable lessons from my mentees as I have taught as a mentor. One mentee taught me how a carefully considered plan can help us navigate through unexpected (and potentially harmful) situations.

My mother told me never to burn bridges, and, over time, I have learned that there are good reasons to pay attention to old adages. My mentee, Caroline, recently avoided a collision with misfortune when she followed this same proverb.

Caroline had been successful in her job for many years and had mastered the responsibilities of her role. We discussed her career path and she shared that she was ready for her next challenge. I asked her to outline, as specifically as she could, the things that she wanted to accomplish in the future. From this exercise, and many follow-up conversations, her plan began to take shape.

Along with her plan, we discussed the importance of her keeping her manager abreast of her desire for professional growth. This meant not waiting for an annual review to speak about her goals. She soon took the opportunity to discuss her goals, objectives and projects with her manager, and made it known (to her manager and then to others in the organization) that she was interested in expanding her responsibilities should an opportunity become available. That opportunity did become available – just at another company. By networking with friends and colleagues, she learned about a job she wanted to explore. She explored… and she won! The job was hers. She couldn’t believe it, and she looked forward to the next chapter of her career, yet she handled the transition professionally by giving appropriate notice to her manager.

As she prepared to wrap up her current role and begin a new one, she found out during a routine doctor’s visit that she needed surgery. This unexpected news flooded her with questions. How could she start a new job that didn’t offer health benefits for 30 days when she needed surgery now? She was more than ready to transition to this role, but the stress of not knowing what might happen with her health (and the expense of health care without benefits) was unbearable. She wondered whether she should tell her new company about the situation, and would they wait? Should she tell her current job, and would they care, since she had resigned? These were all real questions with serious consequences. Her ability to talk to mentors and to network about her specific circumstances helped her to find peace. She decided to speak to her new employer, and, when she did, they told her that they wanted her and were committed to giving her what she needed – even if it meant additional time at her current company. She also decided to talk to her current manager, and, because she had been honest and open with them from the start, they were also willing to support her during her unexpected circumstances. Her ability to perform, and her integrity in dealing with the two companies, were powerful reasons for both companies to give her support to deal with her personal situation.

As I watched this unfold in the best way I could imagine, I heard my mother’s voice saying, “That’s why you never burn a bridge.” She was right. I always advise my mentees to keep the relationship as positive as possible when leaving a company. Never speak negatively of a previous employer or past colleagues, as you never know what might happen. I’ve seen this over and over again, though rarely with such dramatic circumstances. Throughout a professional career, most of us encounter previous colleagues and managers – sometimes as customers, as new colleagues or even as repeat hiring managers. This makes sense when you consider that a previous manager is most familiar with your work. By leaving on a positive note, they will think of you first when a great opportunity comes along (not to mention the importance of having positive references from past employers).

Caroline’s story went well. Her amazing husband and three children helped her through her illness, and she soon recovered and began her new job. She is very excited about this opportunity for growth.

As I reflect on Caroline’s story, there are several questions that you might be asking:

When you are working in a company and want to expand your opportunities, how do you let others know? Who do you tell? When is it perceived that you must be unhappy or disgruntled because you want something new?

How do you deal with the life challenges that present themselves when you don’t have control of the situation and when you can’t plan for them in just the way you want to?

Every company has its own culture, and it’s important to understand the culture where you work. In some organizations, it is expected that you only discuss your goals and career objectives with your direct supervisor. The thought is that they are responsible for your development and should ensure that your development needs are met. This can be a challenge if your manager is not equipped to meet your professional need for growth and advancement. So, what do you do?

One option is to ensure that your human resources representative is aware of your desire to develop. This is part of their function in the company, and, because they are thoroughly aware of all developmental opportunities (as well as of company needs), they can help. Another option is to seek professional experiences in order to expand your skills. You can volunteer for other projects, committees, and initiatives (both within your organization and in your industry). This will give you exposure and practical experience working in the direction that you would like to go in the future. Find out the accepted protocol for your company’s environment and move forward!

Another lesson I learned from Caroline’s experience is that, when facing life challenges, you have to draw on your strength. Caroline relied on her mentors, her family and a deep sense of faith to get through her illness and make the best of a difficult situation. Caroline reminded me that we must keep in mind that life happens! It always will. How we handle and deal with the unexpected is a valuable part of our professional and life journe

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