Action is everything. If there’s a lesson that has defined my career in the commercial finance industry from the day I first answered a newspaper advertisement for a credit specialist position at MetLife Capital, it’s the idea that the actions you take in your career — not what your resume says, and not what your job description says — determine your impact.
When I applied for my first job in this industry, my employer was looking for someone with more experience than the freshly minted accounting graduate I was at the time. But my life experience spoke louder than the credentials on my resume. As a child who grew up in the foster care system, I had been in the workforce since age 14. I paid my way through college by running a business typing papers and resumes for other students. The company saw that my experience with finance didn’t just come from a classroom, so they took a chance and hired me.
More than three decades later, I am having the time of my life in a career that has been hard work but has given me the gift of unending opportunities to learn. One of the greatest joys of my work is helping others identify and pursue their ideal career journeys. To that end, here is my advice for women who are beginning their careers and want to continue to grow into leadership roles.
Believe in Yourself
When I started my first job at MetLife, which became GE Capital, I sought out opportunities to take on special projects that would teach me new things and solve problems for company leaders. When you see opportunities like this, it’s important to trust your instincts and believe that you have what it takes to succeed. You will always be your biggest critic and your biggest advocate. Lean toward advocacy by having the confidence to take on challenges that will allow you to grow and shine.
Networking Means Building Real Relationships
I am at EverBank today because of the power of authentic personal connections. In April 2015, when GE announced it was selling its Capital assets, meaning I needed to start looking for my next job, I made one phone call to a former colleague. Within a week, I had lined up the next step in my career as I moved into my first role with EverBank.
Successful networking starts with developing an innate curiosity about the people you are working with. Who are they? What motivates them? Attend industry events, join professional organizations and stay in touch with people as they move around the industry. Always be looking for individuals you want to get to know better.
I first met John Pataky, who recently retired as executive vice president of EverBank, in a meeting, and I immediately said to myself, “I want to work for him one day.” I sought out projects that would put me in a position to work with him. This allowed me to build a real relationship, which eventually led to working as his chief of staff, which opened up more opportunities. This taught me that true networking comes from shared experiences, from being in the trenches working together. Always be on the lookout for mentors, mentees or other relationships that will enrich and expand the experience of your working life.
Never Stop Learning
Our industry is continuously changing, so I consider it essential to my career to be a voracious consumer of information. Today, we can do this in so many ways — reading industry publications, listening to podcasts and attending events, courses and webinars. Remember that everyone around you can teach you something. Be curious not only about what your colleagues can teach you, but also what your clients can teach you. Learning what drives your clients’ success is just as important as learning about your own industry.
A major lesson of my career has been that no matter how long you are in this industry, there will always be more opportunities to learn and to think differently about how to do business. Don’t get comfortable with the status quo. Always be curious about why things are happening the way they are.
True Leadership Requires Authenticity and Empathy
Those who work with me know, “what you see is what you get.” Success never comes from trying to be someone you are not. For me, leadership means bringing your authentic self to the table with awareness and compassion for the needs of those around you.
I am always grateful for the jobs I’ve held on my journey into leadership. I’ve done many of the jobs of those who work for me, and I think this is important to understanding what drives the individuals in my organization so that I can feed that motivation. DON’T WAIT TO BE ASKED Over and over in my career, success has come through recognizing problems and proactively coming to the table with solutions. See what needs to be done and do it before being asked. Volunteer for projects, take on additional responsibilities and seek out opportunities to showcase your skills and expertise.
I have had conversations with individuals who feel they are “owed” that next step up. The question is then, “What steps have you taken to get there?” Just showing up isn’t enough. How can you differentiate yourself? How can you take action? Take control of your destiny. It’s not just going to be handed to you.
Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
About a decade into my time with GE Capital, I made a move that would change the trajectory of my career when I went from commercial underwriting into a Six Sigma position focused on operational effectiveness. This set me up for leadership, but it wasn’t the normal path from where I had started in the organization. In fact, the move was so unorthodox that my boss at the time didn’t even want to let me make the jump.
This experience taught me just how important it is to say yes to the projects that make you feel uncomfortable because those are where you will grow the most. Taking risks, even if you fail, will lead to personal and professional growth.
Support Other Women
Lift and empower other women in the industry. Celebrate their successes, offer support and, ultimately, when you advance in your career, mentor those who are starting their careers. Creating a supportive environment for fellow women professionals can help break down barriers and foster a more inclusive industry. I see it as my responsibility as a leader to help people, particularly other women, find their way in their career. I am not doing my job if I am helping people to be stagnant.
To do this well, we sometimes must remember to prioritize a stellar colleague’s need to move into a role where they can grow over our own fear of having to replace them on our team. True leaders help people soar.
Embrace Work-Life Integration
When was the last time you fully disconnected from work? If you have never done this and you are in a leadership role, then it is a sign that you haven’t developed your team to be able to manage things on their own. It also means you may be setting an unsustainable example.
Healthy work-life integration means setting boundaries and not being afraid to say “no,” or just “not now.” It means that family and personal events are just as important on the calendar as work events. By being proactive with our time, we can make room for what’s important.
The equipment finance industry comes with peaks, victories, challenges and setbacks. The longer you are in the industry, the more cycles you will experience. Use setbacks as opportunities for growth and keep pushing forward. Once you feel comfortable, help others to navigate uncertainty and challenges.
I’ve come a long way since I answered that first newspaper ad that launched my career in the equipment finance industry. I truly believe this industry holds endless opportunities for those who are hungry to learn, curious about what drives people and unafraid to take action.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ellen Comeaux is a senior vice president, commercial division leader for EverBank, where she leads the Vendor Equipment Finance and Commercial Real Estate businesses. Prior to joining EverBank, Comeaux enjoyed more than 24 years in both individual contributor and leadership roles with Fortune 500 company GE, under GE Capital, GE Capital Bank and GE Real Estate.
As a member of EverBank’s senior leadership team, Comeaux has a very diverse commercial lending background. She has significant experience in commercial banking and lending, strategic planning and execution, cross-functional team leadership, marketing, credit underwriting and is a certified Six Sigma Process Improvement Master Black Belt. Comeaux is an advocate of diversity and is especially passionate about developing the next generation of talent and working to advance the careers of her team.
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