I asked 9 executives for the best ways to build a career you're proud of, and came away with 5 key lessons

By Jessica Thiefels, Business Insider

  • There are many ways to build a successful career, but most people who have attained success in their  fields have faced and overcome a few similar challenges.

  • We interviewed nine executives, ranging from CEOs of worldwide organizations to small business founders, to get their insights on how people can best advance in their careers.

  • Several execs said that while it's important to evolve and be on the cutting edge of your industry, you also want to ensure that you don't lose who you are in that evolution.

Career growth can feel like a mystery when you're trying to get somewhere without a clear path to advancement or a map to tell you what to do.

Despite facing those same challenges, the nine executives Business Insider interviewed for this feature have figured out what it takes to grow a career to be proud of.

The executives we spoke to over email ranged from CEOs of worldwide organizations to small business founders.

1. Perseverance will always take you far

Almost every single interview yielded this insight: perseverance, above all else, is the number one factor in building a career to be proud of.

Sam Meenasian, director of operations at USA Business Insurance, told Business Insider he spent 12 painstaking years getting where he is today, in an industry that requires you to be tough as nails: insurance.

"I started out with small personal lines sales, writing auto insurance for local clients," Meenasian said. "I have been through the insurance transition starting from door to door sales to putting flyers on cars in the hopes of getting one call out of the hundreds of flyers passed out."

Often, those years of perseverance are anything by glamorous - but they can build grit, resilience, and yield life-changing results, according to Meenasian. "After struggling for all those years and working on minimum wage or commission basis, I now own a successful commercial based insurance agency," he said.

Surya Kant, the president of North America, UK, and Europe for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), had a similar lesson to share.

Not only has Kant experienced a similarly long career trajectory, but through it, he's been able to work in countries around the world, and in many different areas of the consultancy business:

"I started out at the bottom of the totem pole here at TCS, and stuck with the same company throughout my entire adult life," Kant said. "It may have taken a long time, but I've achieved my goal of becoming a leader in a company I love."

2. Ensure that you're on the cutting edge of your industry

If you want to grow in your career, you have to be on the cutting edge of your industry, regardless of what you do.

This was the biggest lesson I learned from Raji Arasu, SVP of platform and services at Intuit. It's also something she learned while preparing for and evolving with the changing needs of technology in her previous job as CTO of StubHub.

"To disrupt and transform, it required me to learn evolving trends and patterns by networking with other leaders in the industry, widen my perspectives, and bring my organization along on the journey," Arasu said.

3. In evolving, make sure you don't lose who you are

The key to this critical lesson is maintaining your values and remaining true to what you bring to the company and the team, Arasu said.

"Every day, I interact, learn, change … but remain true to who I am and the values that I hold," she said. "I have had the privilege to learn from many leaders who have influenced me through my professional and personal life. But I take the best parts of that fabric and stitch it my own way."

In fact, knowing who you are may be a challenge as you strive for that coveted executive position in the first place. For Felicia Mayo, VP of HR and head of diversity at Tesla, "becoming comfortable with being 'me'" was something that changed the course of her career.

"I recognized and became comfortable with my different perspective due to my unique experiences. I am now comfortable in my expertise, my background and where I am headed in my career in the future."

It seems as though, when you can combine the lessons you've learned with the unique individual that you are, you become a more powerful executive, able to make change and define it for yourself and the business.

This is especially true for those pursuing a career in leadership. After years of learning from and "copying" the leaders he admired, Jason Zintak, CEO of 6sense had an ah-ha moment that we can all learn from:

"My mistake was to 'copy' a leadership persona rather than develop my own. You can't wear someone else's jacket if it doesn't fit. Becoming a CEO is about authenticity, keeping it real and relying on who you are while borrowing from those you've admired. I work to carry this authenticity into everything I do."

4. Be open to new experiences and methods

The way we live, consume and do business is changing rapidly. This may be why many executives expressed that being adaptable in your career is important.

Stephanie Sharlow, chief editor for DesignRush, experienced this first-hand. She was once a journalist and intern at "The Today Show," and she also wrote for several publications. As her career developed, however, she saw that she needed to adapt.

"I quickly realized that the way in which people were consuming content was changing quickly and drastically," Sharlow said. "Although I was still in content-specific positions, they were increasingly marketing focused, not editorial."

Sharlow said she learned new concepts from every experience she had on the way starting as the first employee of DesignRush. Her resultant advice is simple: "The moment you pigeonhole yourself is the moment you become stagnant. Instead, be open to new experiences and what they can teach you."

Adam Gorode, cofounder and CEO of AGW Group, also told a story of adaptation and reinvention in tracing his career trajectory. Gorode started out as a classically trained musician in high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts, but intrigued by the music business, he pivoted to get his Bachelor's Degree in Music Business at Syracuse University:

"As a student, I'd booked over 40 concerts, hustled my way into internships at Columbia Records, Epic Records, and the Fader, teeing me up for the music industry just as it began to collapse," he said.

Gorode then needed a subsequent pivot. He learned the digital advertising industry from scratch and pitched and produced an award-winning campaign for the Showtime Network. He later went on to launch his own cultural marketing agency with AGW Group.

5. Be willing to take risks and persist through rejection

Kinh DeMaree, a startup advisor and technical talent partner for Moveworks, an AI platform that operates in enterprise IT, told us that she's taken nearly dozens of risks in her career: She started college at 16; shared a house with three strangers just to be a Bay Area homeowner - and afforded it; and flew across the country to convince a top psychology researcher to work with her as an undergrad, despite a PhD-only rule, just to name a few.

The first venture of Eren Bali, the cofounder and CEO of Carbon Health, was Udemy, an online learning platform, and risk-taking was his only option in the endeavor. He founded Udemy in India, and after shutting it down in 2008 due to low traction, he moved to Silicon Valley in order to restart it in the US.

His risk led to more than 65 rejections from investors until he was finally able to raise an initial round. He and his colleagues worked full time at tech companies to maintain their visa status, while working nights on Udemy. But Udemy faced further challenges when Bali's colleagues were denied visas, and they had to split the company between US and Turkey.

I've learned-and it's easy to see-that the benefits of taking these risks can have remarkable rewards. Udemy now has 30 million students, according to their 2018 year in review.

And after flying around the world and taking career-altering risks, DeMaree now advises the CEOs of some of the "hottest companies" in technology and "thought leadership."

"I wish was out there when I was starting my career. I learned that in order to stand out in Silicon Valley, I needed to go after what I want, and take a chance on myself before anyone else would," DeMaree said.


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Home Magazine: I asked 9 executives for the best ways to build a career you're proud of, and came away with 5 key lessons
I asked 9 executives for the best ways to build a career you're proud of, and came away with 5 key lessons
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