Bring Your A Game: How to Fast-Track Your Career

What are the best ways to build momentum and advance in your career? To find out, Forté asked a panel of MBA alumnae and senior corporate executives to share the strategies and resources that helped them reach the top.

At Forté’s 2020 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, Mary Simon, Director, Career Advising & Education at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, moderated an insightful discussion between:

  • Eunice Heath, Dow
  • Simone Silva, Whirlpool Corporation
  • Eleanor Harte, DaVita
  • Kaitlyn Caughlin, Vanguard

Below, you’ll find a few key takeaways, including the importance of capitalizing on your strengths, taking on challenges, and surrounding yourself with people who recognize your potential.

Make the Most of Your Time in B-School

Kaitlyn Caughlin

Kaitlyn Caughlin

Today, Kaitlyn Caughlin is Principal – Head of Portfolio Review Group at Vanguard. Before earning her MBA at MIT Sloan, she didn’t expect the degree to change her life — but it did. She said, “It made me a completely different person, and it made me want more. It made me want to have a bigger impact, and it made me confident enough that I could.”

She encouraged b-school students to focus on developing themselves in three ways: “The relationships and the networks are critical. There’s the academic knowledge that you can really dig into if you put your mind to it, and there are the softer skills, competencies, and leadership as well.”

Simone Silva, Sr. Director, Consumer Services, Whirlpool Corporation, started her career at age 14, working in an automotive vocational program. Early on, she tended to focus in and do her own thing, but business school showed her the value of working with people from different backgrounds on group assignments. She said, “It doesn’t necessarily translate in your grades, but as you ascend in your career and become a leader, you will remember those situations where you were working with your colleagues trying to solve a case. That’s really very valuable.”

Eunice Heath has worked with Dow for 29 years. She started as an intern, was hired full-time as a sales professional, and grew her knowledge in different roles throughout her career. Today, she’s the company’s Corporate Director of Sustainability. She advised the incoming MBAs, “Active listening is probably one of the best skills that you can acquire… always learning, always being curious.” 

Know Your Strengths and Lean into Them

Eleanor Harte

Eleanor Harte

As a business school student, you may have certain career goals in mind, but these two years will give you a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Eleanor Harte, Division Vice President, DaVita, said, “I think it’s important to get a variety of experiences… I was mediocre in finance at HBS, but I could connect with my peers in a way some people couldn’t.”

Once you identify your areas of expertise, you can use that information to find a position where you’ll shine. From there, you can hire people who are strong in areas where you’re weaker.

Kaitlyn advised really leaning into your strengths. She said, “Think about what you are passionate about and what you are exceptional at so that you can increase the likelihood that you can add tremendous outsized impact and value.” She also emphasized being coachable, and said, “As I think about my career and getting a variety of different opportunities, I try to do both of those things simultaneously — lean into my strengths and then be very coachable, so that when I get a new opportunity, I am accelerating my learning and my development.”

Challenge Yourself 

Simone Silva

Simone Silva

Once you know what you’re good at, don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to come along. Instead, Simone said, “Create opportunities for yourself. When I reflect on what I’ve done to progress in my career, a lot of it was me creating the right opportunity.”

Sometimes other people will see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. Eleanor recalled an experience she had when she was working at a startup before attending business school. She said, “The head of the sales team left, and the CEO at the time said, ‘I think you can do this. Why don’t you manage the sales team?’ I was mid-20s. I’d never managed a single person. The whole sales team was twice my age.”

With the CEO’s encouragement, she took on the new role and discovered that she really loved leading people. She said, “I tried to lead from a place of ‘Here’s what I think I can bring, and here’s what I need from all of you. I’m here to learn as well.’”

Reflecting on her career to date, Eleanor said, “There are times when I’ve raised my hand for a challenge, but other times where I’ve needed a leader or boss or mentor to give me that push.”

Listen to People Who Recognize Your Potential 

Eunice Heath

Eunice Heath

It boosted Eleanor’s confidence that other people saw things in her that she didn’t yet see in herself, and she wants other women to experience that, too. She said, “Surround yourself with leaders, men and women of different backgrounds, who inspire you and will help push you. I think having a boss that challenges me is one of the most important things. I’ve had ‘nice’ leaders, and it’s great to be friends with your boss, but I want someone who’s going to challenge me and help me grow.”

If higher-ups challenge you to take on something new, trust them. Eunice said, “When those individuals see those things in you, and they know you can do it, that’s when you have to take that leap of faith.”

Your mentors and sponsors will also look out for you when you aren’t in the room, and that’s essential. Simone said, “Your career is dependent on decisions that are made in a room around a table where you don’t have a seat. It’s important to have someone in there who has a seat at the table, who can advocate for you.”

Focus on the Things That Matter

As you take on leadership roles and your to-do list gets longer and longer, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Eleanor shared a question that she likes to ask herself: “What needs 100% of your energy, and what can you do and only give 50%?” She reminded attendees that trying to be a perfectionist about everything will hold them back, especially as they take on more responsibility. She said she sometimes tells her team, “Let’s give 50% to this and let’s move on.”

Kaitlyn pointed out that some decisions affect your life more than others. She called attention to two of the biggest decisions she has ever made — deciding who to marry and deciding where to work. She said, “How you’re spending your time accumulates. It goes by really quickly.”

She told the incoming MBAs to really think about the kind of company they’re joining as they enter the next phase of their careers and recommended that they ask themselves questions like, “Who are they? What is the culture? Who do they represent? Is it a place where you can do good and do well?”

Encourage Others 

As you rise up in your career, remember the women who are following in your footsteps and reach out to give them a helping hand. Grow your impact by guiding others and connecting them with resources. (Why not invite them to join Forté?) Kaitlyn said, “My job now is to act as a coach and a mentor and a sponsor to other women, other minority talent, and other talent in general, and figure out how to amplify other people’s potential.”

Eunice is paying it forward, too. She said, “I give back all the way to grade school and to students that are just coming into the company, because I want them to be able to see what’s possible, versus only what they see in their sphere of influence today.”  She encouraged women who are in business school now to build relationships that will last them a lifetime, and said, “I ask you to always be inclusive and always find points of opportunity for collaboration.”

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