Everybody makes mistakes. Though we know this to be true, we all have the tendency to look at some of our most revered friends, colleagues and members of our community and think, “Oh, but not them. Not really.” Today, we are debunking that myth, with career mistakes and lessons learned from 13 widely respected business leaders from the Memphis community. Having found success in business, art, design, hospitality and medicine, these locals share an early career mistake or two, and offer insight as to how these mistakes ultimately contributed to their success. Check out some of these helpful takeaways from their early professional blunders.
Lisa Mallory, Owner of Lisa Mallory Interior Design
Mistake: Trying to do everything myself
Takeaway: Delegate to qualified assistants
“My early career mistake was trying to do everything myself. I would over-commit and not delegate tasks other people could help me with. My takeaway lesson was to have people around me who could help with the day-to-day operation of the business. That frees me up to do the design work and see my clients.”
Beth White, Co-founder & Owner of White Door Events
Mistake: Being quick to speak before listening fully
Takeaway: Listen first, then speak
“Early in my career someone I looked up to said to me, ‘Beth, you are not listening to the whole conversation.’ I would try to predetermine what I thought would be said and interject without all the information. In most cases, this leads to overthinking and occasionally landing on a different page from the client. This lesson learned proved to be invaluable to my career after that day and even still today within my own company. My team and I constantly hold each other accountable to always listen first to learn. White Door Events is the place where our clients’ needs and wishes are heard and prioritized first so that we can passionately style their vision, creating the reality they imagined and so much more.”
Lon Magness, Principle and Partner at Reliant Investment Management
Mistake: Defining success too narrowly and setting aspirations that are too career-focused
Takeaway: Ultimate success is more balanced than what happens from 8 to 5
“As with many young people right out of school, my initial career goals were focused on climbing as high on the corporate ladder as possible. I thought that nothing less than CEO would be considered a success. In time, I realized that I most admired those executives who were the happiest, and that success seemed to follow those who had found the balance between family, faith and work. Career goals are important, but my goals shifted as I realized that there is more to success than a corner office.”
Dorothy Gunther Pugh, CEO and Founding Artistic Director of Ballet Memphis
Mistake: Being afraid and unwilling to speak
Takeaway: Your voice is powerful; use it
“I wouldn’t say it was a mistake so much as a lesson that took me many years and experiences to recognize and learn, and the lesson is that it is OK – as a woman – to ‘use my voice,’ to express my opinion and to stand up for what is right and just. Believe it or not, the world of classical dance is dominated by men, and I now recognize, again after many experiences, that my voice and input are just as important and powerful to the art form and especially to how the art form evolves, is appreciated and can make a difference in the world.”
Cory Prewitt, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Marketing at Laurelwood Shopping Center
Mistake: Trying to achieve a goal with no passion for it
Takeaway: Follow your passions; step outside your comfort zone
“My family has several prominent attorneys in it, and I was following that same path until I had an epiphany one night. I spent all this time and trouble to get into law school, and I just knew, in my heart, that it was not my path. With Laurelwood, I get to employ my creative streak with events and photography. I am able to focus on local charities. Giving has always been part of my life, and I’m thrilled that I get to make an impact on a local level. Also, since I’m the COO, I handle all day-to-day operations, so I get to work in fields of management AND real estate. I highly encourage people to participate in situations they are unfamiliar with. You will learn a lot about yourself when you’re ‘uncomfortable.’ Step outside monotony and push your limits. You’re capable of so much more than you know.”
Sue Layman Lightman, Owner and Artist at Sue Layman Designs
Mistake: Thinking everything had to happen immediately
Takeaway: Be patient
“I wasn’t patient enough when I first started my business. I thought everything was supposed to happen very quickly. Sometimes when things don’t happen quickly, it’s for a reason. It gives you a chance to change direction if needed. I soon realized that developing a new business takes a lot of time, effort, energy, focus and, of course, patience.”
Wm. Bryan Jones, SVP, Memphis City Executive at Landmark Community Bank
Mistake: Idolizing the corner office
Takeaway: Learn from less “title laden” co-workers
“Fresh out college with a degree, youthful energy and aspirations of a top-floor corner office, many tend to look for someone in an organization that fits their idea of success and emulate that person. It’s a sure bet for success, right? Well that single vision would probably be an early career mistake of mine. That is, not fully recognizing the value of establishing relationships and gleaning information from less ‘title laden’ co-workers.
“Finding a more senior mentor and advocate is an important part of one’s career development, but there is a vast amount of knowledge with non-management employees. Much of the time, these are the employees who keep the company’s heart beating and are the face and attitude a customer associates with a company. That which makes a company a success. Yes – find a senior manager/mentor to help navigate the career ladder, but don’t ignore the wealth of knowledge and lessons you can learn from individuals who do their jobs well, with a passion, with enjoyment, and much of the time without fanfare. What you learn from these individuals will keep you steady at every rung of your career ladder climb.”
Kate Gassaway, RN, MSN, APRN, BC, Nurse Practitioner, Owner of Solutions Medical Center
Mistake: Saying “yes” to everything
Takeaway: Be honest about what you — and your personal life — can handle
“When I first started Solutions Medical Center 10 years ago, I was driven by fear, competition and the ability to prove myself. I said ‘yes’ to everything and would sort things out later, taking on more work than I could handle. Taking on too much work can lead to disastrous results … it can cost you your sanity, hours of time you cannot regain and possibly your marriage. Don’t be afraid to tell clients that you won’t be available right away. Most of them will gladly wait if they have a firm belief in what you can do.”
Sally Pace, CEO at Connect Healthcare Collaboration
Mistake: Expecting yourself to have all the answers
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out”
“Early in my career, I mistook being asked a question for being expected to know the answer. Too often, I would find myself in a meeting and a question would be directed at me. I would scramble to answer it (often incorrectly), and then miss the rest of the discussion having an internal discussion with myself on what the correct answer should have been. It took many years for me realize that the question wasn’t posed because it was assumed I knew the answer, rather, it was how effective managers seek buy-in from their team.
“I realized my mistake of being too quick to answer a question when I was sitting in a meeting at HGTV regarding our upcoming magazine cover shoot. The EVP of the department turned to me and asked if I knew where to find white pumpkins in mid-June. It was at that moment that I realized, he isn’t asking me to search in my mental rolodex to name a place for said pumpkins – he was asking me to manage the project. He was giving me a chance to prove that I could deliver solutions and take on additional responsibility. Since then, I feel comfortable answering a question with, ‘I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out.’ At the end of the day, people want problem solvers – not know-it-alls.”
Dr. Mary C. McDonald, Founder and President of MCD Partners
Mistake: Trying to do it all right away
Takeaway: Make great hires who share your vision
“Being an entrepreneur is a way of life, a way of approaching opportunities and challenges, and seeing the potential in all situations. I operate with a growth mindset, so early on in my business I had to learn to manage the pace of the growth of my business. I wanted to start out with a full line of consulting, strategic planning, operations and leadership services. I found out you can’t do it all right away. When you first start out, you touch all aspects of your business and as you grow, you have to learn what to let go of, and how to make those great hires of the brightest and the best people to oversee aspects of your business that are not your strength. I learned that sharing your vision and your passion for what you do attracts the people who share your vision, and as you provide opportunities for them to grow, your business grows. When you help others to accomplish things they didn’t believe could be done, it is a reward itself. Taking the risk to start, pacing your growth and building the right team are timeless takeaways that can help any business.”
Kim Heathcott, CEO and Owner of Clarion Security LLC
Mistake: Overestimating what you can do
Takeaway: Start small and set ambitious, but realistic, expectations
“[I would imagine] my company bigger than it really was at the time. I spent hours filling out proposal requests for deals too big for us to handle, spent money I didn’t have to waste on an attorney reviewing a contract I was never going to win and hired overhead to do jobs in the office that I could do at the time because I had the capacity!
“It’s okay to take bite-size pieces for growth. Be really great in your performance and execution with the smaller opportunities. Set realistic but ambitious expectations, and don’t spend your precious cash when you don’t have to yet. It’s one step at a time and you look up in a couple of years and you will need a bigger ladder to tackle those opportunities!”
Greg Siskind, Founding Shareholder of Siskind Susser PC
Mistake: Moving too quickly
Takeaway: Do your homework before expanding or hiring
“One [mistake] was trying to branch into new offices without having our systems tightly refined and documented. It’s a recipe for failure, as the other office’s performance will be much more difficult to measure and monitor.
“Another is hiring too quickly. Again, metrics help. If you hire simply when you get somewhat busier, but you don’t have benchmarks to see if you really can afford the new person, you could find yourself overstaffed as soon as things return to normal.
“We now have focused on developing a highly fleshed-out firm operations manual to make our operations more consistent and ensure that branch offices operate the same way. And we have benchmarks for measuring the percent of our overhead that can be allocated for salaries as well as comparing data to prior years to see if there are seasonal fluctuations accounting for upticks in business as opposed to real growth that justifies expanding our work force.”
Valerie Morris, President and CEO of Morris Marketing Group
Mistake: Hiring young graduates without having the time or capacity to train them
Takeaway: Hire seasoned professionals
“I had a great desire to mentor and help mold young graduates right of school, but I quickly realized that due to the fast pace of our business and continued growth, that I did not have the time to properly train or hand-hold through the many processes to get them up to speed quickly, and therefore I was actually setting them up for failure.
“As a small business owner, I have learned not to hire brand-new graduates that have had no full-time experience or never held a full-time professional job. They have so much to learn just to transition from school to a professional life. I now require a minimum of 3-5 years of experience to join our team of seasoned professionals, as someone else has already had the opportunity to ‘break them in for their first professional role.'”
Whether it’s learning to listen, following your passions or working up the courage to say “no,” take these lessons to heart, and avoid some of the career mistakes that befall other professionals.
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