From Engineer To Marketing Exec: What I Learned From Pulling Off A Career 180 – Twice

Estimated reading time ~ 7 min
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I like to say there are three stages to landing a dream job: The wonder phase, where you first discover the thing that you want to devote your career to; the thunder phase, where you jump in head first by doing research or earning another degree or doing whatever it is that needs to be done in order to secure the job; and then the blunder phase, where you realize that, despite your best efforts, success is not going to be instantaneous.

I experienced this phenomenon almost 10 years into my career as a chemical engineer, which made the whole process even more difficult. Let me tell you, nothing makes you question a career move like going from a position that is fairly high up on the career ladder to starting over in a completely different field. Still, I pivoted.

After going back to school to earn an MBA from Duke University, I walked into my first day at my new Procter & Gamble marketing job bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (hello, thunder phase!). But it didn’t take long for me to start questioning whether I was doing the right thing, especially since this job required me to take a few steps down the ladder. Luckily, I had a wonderful mentor who put things into perspective for me. When I went to him, frustrated because I wasn’t at the level where I wanted to be in my new field, he told me to stop focusing on the right now and to start playing the long game.

On a sheet of paper, he had me write my age and map out what I wanted every year to look like between then and the time I turned 40. Then, he had me repeat it two more times so that I’d have different paths and career options to guide me when something from Plan A inevitably didn’t pan out exactly as I hoped. I asked my wife to do the same thing – we even mapped out the ages at which we wanted to have each of our children. It sounds intense, but the result was a powerful grid that has helped me stay focused whenever I feel stuck or worry that I’m not progressing fast enough. I can pull it out and see that, OK, maybe I’m a little behind on what I wanted to achieve in this part of my life, but there’s still plenty of time to catch up and meet the goal I have for five years from now.

As you can probably tell, I’m a big believer in the power of putting your dreams out into the universe. If you’re thinking about making a career change, start by getting in touch with who you are. Pull out your own sheet of paper and map out your vision for your life. It might not be a job you start with – maybe it’s an achievement. When I think about the legacy that I want to leave, I ask myself, "What would you do if you weren’t getting paid?" and let that inspire me. Once you have a plan written down, seek out input from everyone you know and trust. The last thing you want to do before making a leap is be uninformed.

Now, at age 45, I can honestly say that I’m sitting in one of those dream pathways that I mapped out for myself all those years ago. After working for Procter & Gamble for many years, I went to Charmin, where I worked on launching a new product upgrade on the Ultra product. This helped finalize my decision to go into marketing. I followed that up with stints at Bounty, Kleenex, and a handful of other companies before I landed my current position as vice president of marketing for commercial tires at Bridgestone.

My philosophy on life is that you have to take care of yourself, your family, and your community, in that order, so that you have the energy to take care of your business, and that’s what my map has allowed me to do. Here are four more lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Know that it’s never too late to try something new.

When I was about five years old, I was set on becoming a doctor. I remember latching onto that idea and studying the pathways and mechanisms of diseases in my free time. I actually pursued it all the way through college. I ended up getting a degree in chemical engineering. I did a summer internship working at the Northwestern Medical Center to prepare for the MCAT.

Eventually, I decided to put my engineering degree to work instead and spent a few years building a career in that field before I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted. I thought about going back to medical school, but around that same time, I attended a conference and realized that business was my passion.

Another turning point was when I decided to finally go back and get my MBA. I’d spent eight years building a career on the engineering side of business when I started thinking that I wanted to switch to marketing. I kept thinking, 'Do you really need an MBA? Are you really going to do marketing?' It also put a lot of pressure on my wife because she had to step up and support me. I had supported her while she got her master’s in education, but it was much easier back then because we only had one child as opposed to the two we had when I was considering going back to school. Once I’d decided to go for it, there were still times when I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what have I done?'

Taking the risk to go back to school taught me not to put too much stock in one year. Instead, you have to look at the big-picture possibilities of what could happen in five – or even ten – years. That’s the ticket.

2. Even if it’s not your dream city, it could still be your dream job.

Here’s the thing: Destiny requires diligence. I have lived in cities that I might not have necessarily chosen. But, when you’re doing what you love in a job that is high energy, where you get from others as much as you give, it doesn’t really matter where your office is. My current career path started out in the early nineties at the Procter & Gamble plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Moving there was a pretty difficult transition for an urban kid from Chicago. First off, I'm a Bears fan and that's Packers territory. And, although Green Bay is a great city and very diverse now, at the time, there weren’t a whole lot of people who looked like me.

But, I remember coming out of undergrad, weighing opportunities and knowing Procter & Gamble was the right choice, even if the location wasn’t ideal. If I had started out in a “cooler” city, I wouldn't have gotten the same opportunities as early on in my career as I did. What I eventually figured out is that it behooves you to find a way to love your city so much that you become an advocate for it. The professional network, culture, events, whatever it is that you’re missing, you can be the one to go out and make it happen where you live.

In Green Bay, I ended up getting together with some other like-minded young professionals to form a minority leadership team. Our mantra was "Green Bay is the place to be," and we worked hard to make that a reality. And when I eventually moved right outside of Green Bay to Appleton, I became Appleton’s brand ambassador too. You’ve heard of Atlanta being called The ATL, right? Well I called Appleton The APL, which meant Appleton Phenomenal Living. And I’d tell everyone I met that I was from there and why it was such a great city. When you love your job, your team, your brand, your city, you will be able to see opportunities for growth that others may not. That’s how you get ahead.

3. Identify people in your industry who are doing what you want to be doing.

I’ve had so many great mentors over the years. Terence Moore, who is a vice president at Procter & Gamble, is one of my mentors and friends. He was one of the first African-American plant managers in Green Bay when I was there, and he had a profound impact on my career and my life. Chris Heaser is another person I worked with at Procter & Gamble who has helped shape who I am professionally. He was my first manager, and, when I was first starting out, he told me that he was going to be pretty rigorous in his training, which made me determined to rise to the challenge. In return, he would identify areas of opportunity for me within the company, which allowed me to get a lot of experiences a lot sooner than I might have otherwise been able to.

Another inspiration is actually someone I don’t know personally: Lloyd Ward. He’s actually the person who helped set me on the path to marketing. I was at the airport when I saw him on a magazine cover. He’d just been named CEO of Maytag, and, when I started reading his profile, I realized how similar our backgrounds were. Even our first jobs had been the same, both in engineering at different Procter & Gamble plants. I ended up mentioning the article to the person who was my plant manager at the time, and that’s what opened the door for me to consider a new career in marketing. It was another five or six years before I acted on it, but it just goes to show that keeping an eye on what others in your industry are doing can lead to great things.

4. Success is about the journey, not the job title and salary.

Just because something is right for someone else doesn’t mean it will be for you. For me, I know I'm at my worst professionally when I'm in an environment where I feel like I don't matter, I'm not valued, and that I’m not making a difference. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find love for everything I’ve done. But even now, as vice president of marketing for a global brand, I sometimes feel like I’m still running a race that I started a long time ago. You can achieve whatever it is that you set out to achieve, but if you’re not happy once you finally do it, that’s not success. That’s why I don’t think there is a “there” – you’re always on a path to “there.” So enjoying the journey and getting as much out of it as you can is where “success” lies. It’s about defining how you get “there” and what it looks and feels like along the way.

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