In this early phase of my professional life, the thing I've learned most is that my number one professional goal and value is alignment. Does the day-to-day of my role challenge and fulfill me? Am I excited and proud to tell people what I do? Do I feel like I’m bringing value to my team and my work? Is the company culture a fit?
Recently celebrating my 1 year work anniversary leaves me nostalgic, so humor me while I take a look at some lessons learned in my pursuit of professional alignment, which ultimately brought me to project management and Leverege.
I’m lucky because a lot of different professions are appealing to me. At various points in my life I wanted to be an artist, supermodel, publicist and lawyer. Some of those are more realistic than others, but I never stressed too hard about finding my niche.
However, as a bubbly and precocious youth with a mother in sales, I was often pushed towards a similar career path. I find this is the stereotypical profession for extroverts. If you’re a good listener, enjoy client work and enjoy chasing concrete goals (and that $$), you may enjoy great success in a sales role.
Thus, after waffling on majors my first two years at the University of Maryland, I graduated in 2016 with a BS in Marketing from the business school and a job in digital marketing/advertising (read: sales) at a hip media company in downtown DC. I was given a challenging territory, and knocked it out of the park my first six months. The praise and dollars were flowing!
Quickly, though, I found myself struggling to be motivated. There were so many other interesting parts to the job that I liked and was good at –strategizing with clients, developing new sales products, brainstorming with my colleagues on best and better practices, that I often found myself neglecting the non-negotiable part of my job: making calls and making sales.
I wasn’t aligned with the core purpose of my position, and it was starting to show. I was falling behind my quarterly goals. I was having intense work-related stress dreams for the first time in my life, and my anxiety manifested in me starting to avoid work when I could (note: this strategy will not calm your anxiety, and in fact makes it worse).
I had been sniffing around job boards for a while, but my frustration finally came to a head in February 2018; with no backup plan whatsoever, I left a wonderful company full of my friends and people I truly liked to start the job search full-time. Though it was a risky move, I would recommend it to anyone: if you feel like you’ve done everything you can to improve your situation, and your unhappiness in your current role is dominating your life, leave. This is a very scary thing to do, but it is a very important step in pursuing a career that leaves you feeling lifted up instead of hunched over.
Funny enough, while at the hip media company, I saw a glimmer of alignment and applied for an open role as a project manager in another department. They ended up going with an external candidate who had more experience, but it didn’t dampen my interest in project management as a career path. Taking stock of my strengths–hard-working, persistent, communicative, team-oriented and loads of client-facing experience–project management seemed worth pursuing.
Flash-forward to an unemployed Reilly in spring of 2018 shooting her shot and applying for PM roles at marketing agencies and media companies all around the greater DC area. I’ll admit, for someone with no job hanging out in her pajamas all day, I had an impressive level of confidence. This was swiftly diminished upon realizing that almost every single PM job listing required at least 3-5 years of experience.
Luckily, about a month into my funemployment, my roommate recommended Angel List, a site that specifically helps candidates find open roles at startups. I found Leverege’s listing for a project manager, applied, and was quickly contacted to set up an intro call. I never saw myself working in a proper startup or at a true tech company, yet here I was excitedly moving through the final rounds of interviews for a company that was both.
I like to think the leadership team and I saw each other the same way: we were wet clay to be molded, with the raw value and skill to be successful. A huge part of my excitement stemmed from how seriously they took me as a candidate from the start. Here I was, with no technical or formal PM experience, and yet they saw me for who I was - someone who wanted to and could contribute to their team, learn quickly and help shape the role for future project managers.
There was quite a learning curve my first few months at Leverege. I was surrounded by people who had years of technical software experience, and had to lead calls with partners who had decades of hardware and network experience. As a self-professed know-it-all, I struggled to find my voice when I frequently had no idea what I was talking about.
Fortunately, a good manager helps. A word we started using a lot was “empowered,” meaning: “to give (someone) the authority or power to do something; to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” Empowering your team is one of the most important things you can do as a manager, and this philosophy created space for me to ask questions, admit my ignorance and challenge authority when necessary. It’s become such a common term among the team we even created a Slack emoji for it!
In addition to quality management, I suggest finding a good work pal if you can. Starting a new job in a new industry is hard enough without having to worry about what to do if you need to go to the bathroom, but don’t know where the bathroom key is. If there’s someone in your workplace who seems like they know the ropes and you think you’d get along, ask them what they’re doing for lunch and if you can tag along. Great work friendships happen over lunch.
This past year at Leverege has been full of big challenges, big wins and big growth. I took a risk, and it paid off in spades. But have I found professional alignment? Let’s revisit my opening questions:
Yes–I literally learn something new every day while also feeling empowered to trust my judgement, ask tough questions and drive strategy in a collaborative environment.
Oh, heck yeah! The first time I led a project and the brand new interface was pushed live, I was working from my parents’ house and pulled it up to show it off to my dad. He didn’t really get it (dads, am I right?), but we were both very proud nonetheless.
Contrary to the previous anecdote, the nature of being a PM means you often don’t really have anything to show for your work. You didn’t build it, code it or design it, so what did you do? Project managers are the transmitters of information, which often turns us into the interpreter, which then turns us into the chief strategist. I can see my value when someone on my team announces their work for the day in our daily standup, or when we get positive feedback from a client letting us know how our solution has improved their workflow.
I work with fantastic and driven colleagues, who are patient when answering my questions and respect my professional opinion. They let me be myself, even if myself is someone who shares music reviews in her team’s weekly important updates and drinks too much kombucha. Working in a startup means we all get to contribute to and shape the kind of company culture we want in real time.
Professional alignment is a life-long pursuit. I will change, and my needs and desires will evolve with me; what suits me now might not work for the woman I am in 5 or 10 years. So how lucky am I to be part of a culture that’s willing to grow with me?
Reilly is a project manager at Leverege and manages community growth for IoT for All. She is interested in the ways in which tech innovations can and will affect society, and has been called the Kombucha Queen of the office.
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