When I graduated college in the 90s, the path for women was single file. We became admins, assistants and entry-level workers. There were start-ups, but it wasn’t a conscious career path like it is today. So, off we went to work for big financial companies, accounting firms, banks, ad agencies and law offices, putting in long hours with the goal of climbing the mystical ladder to the top.
Corporate life was the only option on the menu, and the pinnacle of success was a private office with a view, an expense account, a matching 401k, health/dental/vision benefits, three weeks of vacation, staff and an admin, and hefty year-end bonuses.
I was a GenXer and that was life in Corporate America.
Fast-forward to today, and the path for Millennial women couldn’t be more different. They are rejecting the slow climb to the top for the instant gratification of passion-inducing, empowerment-creating work. They don’t want a big office - they would rather work from home or out of WeWork. They don’t want a corporate car - instead, they ride bike shares or take Ubers. They don’t want big benefits and bonuses - they want equity, unlimited vacation time, and wellness programs.
Their minds continue to shape the Share Economy and pivot the idea of career pathing.
Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends report describes Millennials as “now-focused, want-to-be-discovered, optimists”. If I were to describe my GenX view at the time when I was starting my career, it would be “future-focused, work-hard-to-prove myself, realist”.
I didn’t take my first job because of the excitement of being an admin. I took it because it was the way to work myself to the top and prove I could do more and keep climbing. None of my women friends took their first jobs because they found the greatest ones ever, doing the coolest work. They took the roles because they was a starting point – entry-level – with the promise of leading to more.
KICKING THE CORPORATE CLIMB
For Millennial women starting their careers, breaking the glass ceiling, taking bigger risks, and starting their own businesses is part of their DNA. There is no slow climb, and many Millennial women are ditching the corporate world for entrepreneurial life. According to a recent study by the consulting firm, REAL, “Among millennial female entrepreneurs, nearly 90 percent left their job in the corporate world to start their own business.”
Serena Saitas, the founder of REAL, says, "Many women who are not getting the chance to make an impact at a corporation are leaving, and starting their own companies where they are calling the shots and making the impact they want to make.” The study goes on to say that 43 percent of the women surveyed said that they left their corporate job because they weren't following their passion, 42 percent left because the corporate lifestyle was not for them, and 33 percent said that they changed directions because they felt too restricted.
JUMPING TO THE JUNGLE GYM
I get it.
I’m not a Millennial, but I ditched Corporate America. I painstakingly worked my way to the top of the ladder, looked around and said, “Really? This is it??” It was one of the scariest moments in my life to jump off the corporate cliff into the abyss of start-up life. Hang a shingle, work your tail off, and hope you are not a statistic.
In many ways I am like Millennials, in that I want to make my own way. I chose the challenge, flexibility, passion, experience, and control over stability. I want to be the kind of leader I would work for. I want to build an awesome company that talented people want to be a part of. I want to work with smart, humble, driven people. I want to leave early to take my son to hockey or spend the morning volunteering. I want to travel and see the world. I want to control my own destiny.
Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, says that women need to think of their career more like a jungle gym than a ladder. This reality came to me in my 40s and is how Millennial women are wired in their 20s.
Here are a few pieces of advice for those of you trying to figure out your careers and what’s next:
1. BUILD YOUR NETWORK
I recently wrote about The 5 Lessons I’ve Learned as a Female Entrepreneur and the importance of your network and relationships. My daughter said to me today: “Mom, you’re having lunch with someone you don’t even know?!” The horror for a 13 year old. It was horror for me at 25 too.
Now, it’s what I do and a key part of how I run and grow my business. I am constantly meeting new people through an intro from a friend or client. I see meeting new people as an amazing way to learn and grow. My lunch today gave me a bunch of new business ideas and led to two new connections, in addition to meeting the savvy leader of a top agency in Boston. Embrace the connectors in your life and start meeting new people who can share their learnings, ideas and experience with you. Invest in growing and cultivating your personal network – it is your biggest asset.
2. BE AWARE OF THE ENTITLEMENT TRAP
All the companies I work with are hiring Millennial talent. The theme I hear over and over is that Millennials are “entitled” and that they are tough to manage and retain. I have learned from working with lots of Millennials that, sure, there are some that are entitled and that is who they are. But there are also 30/40/50/60 year olds that act entitled too.
There are lots of theories on why Millennials think and behave differently, but the reality is that for this group of people, the “entitlement” label has been set - I call it the Entitlement Trap. Millennial spirit, passion, quest for empowerment, control, and entrepreneurship can be misunderstood as entitlement. These women can easily fall into the trap or be placed there by a manager or colleague.
I recently worked with a Millennial woman who left a start-up because she wasn’t included in all the executive meetings. She felt she deserved to be in the meetings because she was smart and had ideas to share. I tried to help her understand that the seat at the table had to be earned, and that she should come up with some suggestions for how to include her ideas and then go talk to her manager, the CEO, or someone on the exec team.
When I was 25, I had ideas to share - but quitting my job because I didn’t get invited to the exec meetings never occurred to me. Sadly, this woman fell into the Entitlement Trap. She could have handled the situation very differently and in a more productive way than quitting. Being a woman in business is hard enough. Be aware of the Entitlement Trap and avoid adding a negative moniker to the mix.
3. RESPECT THE DIFFERENT PATHS TO SUCCESS
Your career is in your control. It’s up to you to choose how you exercise your power, passion, and ideas. Consider the different paths you can take. Success may no longer be a ladder, so if it’s a jungle gym, what different moves could you make? Think about the types of roles, companies, people and experiences that could help further your personal and professional growth.
My experience working AT different companies in lots of different roles has given me perspective, vision, and experience that helps my business every day and makes me be a better leader, partner, friend, resource, mom, and colleague. Some people choose the ladder. It doesn’t make them lame or soft or unmotivated. In many ways, it makes them strong enough to survive and they have most definitely learned a thing or two they can share with you.
Embrace the paths people take and see what you can learn from them to apply to your way forward. It’s not just about free snacks, unlimited vacation, and foosball tables. Experience comes in lots of different packages. Consider the types of paths, knowledge and experiences that will make you even better when you hang your shingle.
And remember the words of Mr. Miyagi, “First learn stand, Then learn fly.”