‘One regret I have is never learning how to more than “proficient” in Excel’ – Minda Harts
This career reflection of Minda’s (pulled straight from page 114 of her book The Memo) caused me to bust out laughing, as my early career strategy was the polar opposite: never be excellent or even borderline efficient at Excel.
Let me explain.
Back in 1994/1995 when I was a newbie attorney in Toronto, I was assigned to work on an urgent matter. Ok, not urgent, it was an unforeseen, THIS MUST BE TURNED AROUND NOW crisis for the client, which meant the team (senior partner, junior partner, senior associate, and me, the punk) needed to work around the clock over a weekend to be ready to head into bankruptcy court on Monday morning.
Oh, some more facts on the team before I continue:
- Senior partner = old white dude
- Junior partner = youngish white dude
- Senior associate = youngish white dude
- Junior associate = younger me
So there the “team” is, working away on the Saturday afternoon, fueled by urgency, adrenaline and caffeine. I was working in a conference room with old white dude partner – getting old-school mentorship as I watched, absorbing the master at work drafting every line of the pleadings, listening in on every client strategy call etc. – when the junior partner and senior associate wandered in, arms full of paper, seemingly benign smiles on their faces. Addressing the senior partner, they asked:
“Is Kelly busy?”
(reminder: I was in the room!).
Is Kelly busy?! Use your eyes morons – or ask me if there is some confusion (which in hindsight I’m relieved they didn’t address me directly, because at that people pleasing highwater moment in my career, I probably would have chirped ‘how can I help?’).
But old, white dude senior partner (who had seen it all – so yes, there is a benefit to having grey hair and experience) – chimed in. Now, but for a quick sideways glance at the two of them over the edge of his reading glasses, he did not look up from the document before him, responding to their “Is Kelly Busy?” inquiry with this zinger:
“If you two idiots were not smart enough to book a secretary for the weekend, you better learn how to type and fast. Kelly is not here to do that work for you.”
I froze again – and when my brain defrosted, I thanked the old white dude (after the other two slinked out of the room) then thought to myself: if Plan A is to have a strong ally stand up for you, what’s Plan B?
My Plan B was IGNORANCE.
I would not become proficient in word processing (as it was then called) or Excel or dialing-up conference calls or online legal research – and if I did know how to do those things in a reasonable way (yes, I took typing in Grade 9 so I am quite good at that) I was not going to let on that I was. Remember, this as in the 90’s and anything “admin” was still looked upon as “women’s work” in the office. And women’s work was undervalued as much then as it seems to be now. I’d gone to law school, passed the bar, and was a lawyer, so as far as I was concerned, I was being paid to do lawyering (along with the reasonable grunt work associated with that). I was not there as a stand-in for a legal secretary (we called them that, back then, and they were amazing, talented, and made our legal lives so much easier).
This was a proactive career strategy – and it worked well for me because it worked for the era, along with the profession I’d chosen and office environments I was working in. Rather than becoming proficient in “admin tasks”, my skills development strategy laser focused in other directions because, like Minda, I knew then, as now, it is critical to invest in your own career development!
Fast forward to 2004 when I switched careers and became Manager of Professional Development in the NYC office of a global law firm. Oh my gawd! The number of times associates whined and complained about skills development programs – ones they were required to attend, the ones they wanted to take but the firm wouldn’t reimburse them for etc. etc. Then, as now, all that goes through my head is:
It’s your damn career! Go invest in it!
Last time I checked, you get to keep all the information you tuck into your head – to use where you work now, to take along to another employer, to apply in a new career or venture. Why on earth would you balk at investing in yourself??? Unless of course not learning is part of some master Plan B strategy because of (as I experienced), sexist stereotypes on the role in junior female employees in the workplace.
You are your own best investment, so I’d strong suggest you proactively make wise investment choices.
I’d recommend listening to the BYDN podcast episode Intentional Career Development–With Sherrell Dorsey and reading the Don’t Wait, Anticipate! blog post.