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Think Lattice, Not Ladder, For Career Success

by Lara Hall
I started my career in recreational therapy, working with seniors with depression and anxiety at a day treatment program. I led sessions that focused on improving their quality of life through cooking groups, music, art and crafts.

Recreational therapy had been my dream since I was 12, after I heard a practitioner speak at a career day in junior high school. I had my career figured out. Or so I thought.

But immediately after graduating from the University of Utah, where I had a full scholarship, I realized the field didn’t pay well. My first job offer was for $8 an hour. Welcome to the real world!

No matter. I liked my job and loved the people I worked with. But it was emotionally exhausting to see elderly people who had lived good lives and were now desperately depressed.

I knew I could never be self-sufficient on the salaries offered in recreational therapy. I was making $25,000 a year and the prospect of making much more wasn’t good. Still, I put my heart into my work and tried as hard as I could to do well.

Then one day our small company was purchased by a larger firm that was more marketing-focused and didn’t see recreational therapy as a priority. Within a day my supervisor let me know my position would be adjusted: I’d now spend half my time doing therapy and half marketing the company. I was nervous.

I spent my first new week out of the office, building relationships and marketing our program with the new big boss. He was so enthusiastic and told me I had a natural skill for marketing and sales. His enthusiasm and support rubbed off on me so much that by the end of the first week I was ready to leave my therapy groups to focus all of my time on marketing.

That didn’t happen—I kept the 50/50 split another four months or so, but I’d definitely caught the marketing bug. The wheels started turning in my mind: I had a new career possibility ahead of me—one that I had never envisioned before.

One of the psychologists I worked with asked me to join him as marketing director of a new, cutting-edge Alzheimer care facility that he had been tapped to run. I accepted the position—and the $20,000 salary increase—to start my full-time marketing career. I’ve been in marketing ever since and loving it. Ultimately I moved to New York where my first position was as marketing director for three years at Women For Hire. I leveraged that experience to secure my current role at American Express.

You never can tell where life will lead you. My advice:

Always work hard. Even when I didn’t particularly like what I was doing, I rarely slacked off. You never know who is watching. Had I not continued to work hard in that first company when it was taken over, the new boss might never have noticed me. But because I was a good worker, he found that I was smart and creative—nice traits to have in any field.

Don’t be afraid of being friendly with a wide variety of people in the company—the higher ups, the people who make more money than you do. I did, with the psychologists, my bosses and the board of directors at that first job. I don’t view this as sucking up but as a natural reflection of who I am—a friendly person who is not intimidated by another person’s loftier salary or title.

Learn, learn, learn. Once I was tapped for the marketing position and found out that I was really interested in it, I went back to school for an MBA to learn even more about the subject. It paid off in the form of better opportunities.

Be open-minded if you are asked to try a new role—even if it isn’t something in your background. Twenty years ago, I kept an open mind and I have no regrets.