How to Build Your Experience When you Start from Scratch with Janet Brewer

Progression is rarely a straight line. For most people, advancement up the career ladder is a series of calculated risks and course corrections. These twists and turns are not blemishes on a track record, but necessary learning experiences that drive professional growth. For Janet Brewer, Chief People Officer at Arcfield, successfully managing the challenges that come with switching jobs and industries has taught her invaluable lessons and honed her into the leader she is today.


How to Measure Success

Each profession and role has its own yardstick for measuring success. When you take on a new role, especially in a new industry, you may discover that the benchmarks for high performance are very different from those of your previous position or industry. You may not even learn what the criteria for success are until you’ve been in a role for some time.

Janet recalls such an experience early in her career when she managed corporate reporting for training activity. When she began her position, she was not an expert in reporting or data management, so she did not know what “right” looked like. For the time being, Janet decided to evaluate her own performance against a personal goal of avoiding making the same mistake twice. This approach not only empowered Janet to make the most of the feedback she received, but also helped her track improvement.

Experience Is the Key to Confidence

When it comes to building confidence, there is no replacement for hands-on experience. Studying may help you learn the fundamentals of a profession but doing your homework will only get you so far. “You build confidence through experience,” Janet says. By actively putting what you know into practice, you can prove to yourself what you are capable of.

Over the course of a career, both your rate of learning and confidence will periodically plateau. This is normal. Janet reminds us: plateaus are temporary phases between the mastery of one skill and entry into a new, more complex skill. When you feel stuck, remind yourself to measure your success not by the bar set in front of you, which you will ultimately rise to meet one day, but by the bar behind you. If you allow yourself to fully celebrate the achievements you have made so far, you will learn to appreciate the time it takes to get to the next set of learning challenges ahead.

Assess Your Situation

Lessons learned from previous experiences are flexible guidelines, not fixed rules. When you encounter a new situation, you must determine to what extent the past should inform your response to current circumstances. Janet recalls a difficult but valuable learning experience early in her career when her supervisor changed. Her previous manager impressed upon her the importance of being assertive, but her new manager preferred a mentor-mentee relationship with his direct reports. Janet’s assertive style did not match his approach, leading to interpersonal conflict. This incident taught her that the lessons of prior experience will not always meet the needs of the moment: you must use your judgment to decide which lessons apply.

Listen to Advice with a Discerning Ear

When you ask someone for advice, your adviser will likely extrapolate from their own experience. Your adviser may think they are giving advice that is best for you, when in fact, they are actually providing insight on what worked best for them and their circumstances. This is an unintentional yet common tendency that places the onus on you to determine whether your adviser’s situation is similar enough to yours for the advice to be applicable. Listen to advice, Janet recommends, but remember that you know yourself and your circumstances better than anyone else. Take the suggestions that make the most sense for you and leave the rest.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Change is hard, but when you ask yourself the right questions, you increase your likelihood of success. Treating every transition, difficulty and mistake as a learning opportunity, Janet developed a set of questions that helped her make the most of each step in her career that may be helpful to you, too:

  • What are the benchmarks for success in my role, profession or industry? What are my personal standards for success?

  • Where am I in my learning journey? What skills have I mastered, and what is my next learning challenge?

  • Should my previous experience inform how I respond to my current situation? What makes my current situation different?

  • Does the advice I received make sense for my situation?


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