This post is courtesy of greyzone Guest Blogger, Amy Haddon.

When I graduated from college back in (gulp) 1996, I felt pretty clueless about what I was going to do with myself professionally.  Unlike college students today, who are often given ample opportunity to look for internships and make inroads with future employers, I hadn’t had a lot of chances to explore the world of professional work. I was just happy to find something that would pay the bills beyond retail and food service.

In hindsight, this lack of corporate experience turned out to be a happy accident, because it forced me to be a bit scrappy when it came to my career, and ultimately took me in directions that I never would have anticipated.  But what I found was that my career progression was much less about climbing a corporate ladder and more like navigating a jungle gym.

I’m a serial hand-raiser and always have been.  However, what I’ve experienced is that this is one of the most important of my traits.  Career development takes risks, and it often requires moving laterally, diagonally, or even backwards in order to get ahead. And sometimes, opportunity arises in the least likely of places. You can miss it if you’re not paying attention.

My Jungle Gym Story:

My career really began when I took a big risk.  I was working part-time as a customer service agent for a small company when the training manager resigned.  I knew nothing about training, but I had carefully observed his role and was sure I could do it.  So, I went directly to the CEO and told her I wanted the role.  She gave me a chance, and I jumped into something cold, with both feet.  A few months later, when the HR manager resigned (we shared an office), I went back to the CEO and told her I could do that job, too.

The next thing I knew, I found myself managing HR, a job I knew nothing about.  I owned it—I learned everything I could, went back to school for certificates and later a master’s degree—until I developed enough mastery that I was a passable HR professional, just in time to get laid off when the business went bankrupt.

My next opportunity led me to being a case-manager for a non-profit.  It was hard, working in vocational rehabilitation, but I learned valuable skills that wouldn’t completely pay off for years to come: how to facilitate meetings, how to manage projects and clients, how to advocate and negotiate.

A relocation took me back to HR, this time in a big corporation.  When the company made organizational changes that left me without a position, I again volunteered, this time for a short-term project that allowed me to travel. I proceeded to roll-out one of the largest people initiatives in the company’s history.  While delivering the initiative to leaders all over the country, I had time to consider my next opportunity, and took it when it came along a few months later, as the HR Director for another non-profit, this time in education.

After nearly a decade in that position, I was ready to consciously plan my next career move. I took some time off from work to really evaluate what I wanted out of my career.  By then, I was in my early 30’s. I realized that I needed to work somewhere with a purpose that aligned with my values.  Happily, an HR-related opportunity came along a few months later, as a recruiter for a renewable energy start-up.

I’d never done high volume recruiting, but again, I was willing to take the risk, this time, to work in an industry I was curious about.  In a short time, I’d expanded my role to include all HR responsibilities.  When the 2008 recession hit, and recruiting no longer filled my plate, I shifted gears again, to add bookkeeping, and then operations to my role.  When one of our VPs came looking for help on a research project a couple of years later, I was there to raise my hand, a move that was the initial stretch that led to my present role as the VP of Communications & Engagement for the Energy & Sustainability Services division of the Schneider Electric corporation.

The Top of the Jungle Gym

As you can see, my career path doesn’t even remotely resemble a ladder. Sometimes, I wonder if I would have advanced beyond where I am today if I’d taken a more linear path, and the answer might be yes.  However, my moves have given me so many more intangible opportunities and rewards—the chance to meet great people (like greyzone founder, Tami Palmer), to learn a great deal about leadership and organizations and to manage my career in a way that allowed for growth and change. In hindsight I can see that I never would have ended up where I am today if I had taken a linear path, or if I’d eschewed the unusual opportunities presented to me, or if I’d never raised my hand in the first place.

Just now, at 42, do I feel like I’ve finally found my career.  All of the pieces of my progression are what provided the knowledge and skills that were the foundation of what I do today.  Sometimes, when people hear that I left HR and went into marketing, they’re surprised.  But I’m not.  The skills I’ve developed over many years in leadership, business, facilitation, communication, problem-solving, and project management are relevant across many fields.  In fact, I look forward to the next obstacle that will be set in front of me.  I’ll remain open-minded so that I’m able to respond to the challenge as it presents itself.

Lessons Learned – advice for those still navigating the lower rungs of the jungle gym

My career advice, especially to young professionals – raise your hand.  Take risks.  Remain open to opportunities, even when they show up in an unrecognizable disguise.  Don’t allow yourself to be limited by your preconceived notions of what your career path might be, or even the type of company you might want to work for or the type of role you might want to accept.  Be willing to consider a move that might not look like a move ahead at first.  Be more concerned with building your character and demonstrating competence in whatever role you find yourself in, secure in the knowledge that your personal traits, hard work, and foundational skills will pay off in the end.  And recognize that, sometimes, it might take a while to get from point A to point B—and that the winding road is completely okay.  I’m living proof.

Bio: Amy Haddon is the Vice President of Communications & Engagement for the global Renewable Energy & Clean Technology Group of Schneider Electric’s Energy & Sustainability Services division, where she will celebrate her 10th anniversary this August.  When she’s not communicating about, educating on, or evangelizing the clean energy and climate change mitigation message, you can find her coaching emerging leaders, snuggling with her kids or her cats, or hanging out in her garden.

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