I'm writing this post in the context of a recent job rejection. As much as it pains me to share that fact with anyone and everyone reading my blog, it is relevant to the rest of the post. So there you have it: I made it through four rigorous rounds of interviews with a large, international company, and within ten minutes of the final interview, I had an email rejection in my inbox.
I know what you're thinking: Wow, she must have really bombed it. And if that were the case, I would be willing to admit it. But I promise you I did not stutter during that interview, I did not come unprepared, and I answered the man's questions with as much confidence and poise as I did during the first four. I have a few guesses as to what I said that may have resulted in their decision, but even if I could go back and change a few answers, I'm not sure I would.
The feedback I received was: my salary requirement was too high, and I "lack corporate experience."
Regarding my salary requirement, I will just say this: Their starting offer was less than what I am making in rural China, where I don't have to pay for housing, meals, or airfare home. I have it on good authority that my request was well within reason for a person with my skills and experience. Having spent this year reading books like Lean In, Nice Women Don't Get the Corner Office, Developing Global Leaders, Ask For It, How Remarkable Women Lead, and numerous Harvard Business Review articles, the company's response to my salary request does have me wondering whether a man would have been similarly shut down. But enough about that.
This post is actually not about the job interview or rejection. It is not supposed to sound like a rant or a "woe is me, I got rejected" post or a pity party. But the feedback I received from that final round interview is what has inspired the bulk of the post that follows, so bear with me as I continue with this story.
It's the "lack of corporate experience" that has prompted me to share a few things on my blog with you today. The company that interviewed me had (in their mind at least) a valid point. My most recent year of work experience has definitely not been a classic "corporate" experience. I didn't work in a cubicle, I rarely crunched numbers or made cold calls or had meetings in big rooms with white boards on the walls and people in suits. And I am confident that most of the things I have learned this year could not have been learned as quickly or as effectively in that environment.
And now, finally, after a lot of prefacing, I can get to the point of this post, which is, what the heck have I learned from a year in rural China?
1. More Chinese than you can believe. I've finally reached the goal I set at age 18 when I started learning this crazy language: I am mistaken for a Chinese person when I talk on the phone. Being in China has been key, but being in rural China (English-speaking population: 4) is clutch.
2. My strengths and weaknesses as a leader. This year, I have been given more responsibility than any sane person would give a 20-something with zero business experience. It was an ideal situation, really: I was given a $100,000 investment and told to do whatever necessary to make it profitable. In reality, though, it felt like this:
My boss (Eric): I'm going to give you a house!
Me: Awesome! I can't wait to move in!
Eric: Well, it isn't built yet.
Me: Um, okay! What should I do to help?
Eric: Don't ask me, you're in charge! I got you this piece of land for it.
Me: ...Just the land?
Eric: Oh, and four big pieces of wood!
Eric: It's going to be easy! All you need to do is find some people to help you and some tools, and then draw up the plans yourself and follow them. But you should know--we're not going to pay for any expert "construction workers"--you're going to just need to find some recent college grads and teach them how to build.
Me: But... I don't even know how to build a house myself.
Eric: Well, I guess you're going to need to learn!
And that's what I've been doing this year. Not building a house (that was a metaphor), but building a business with whatever resources I could come up with. A lot of the time, I felt like my main goal was to not mess anything up too badly.
Aside from the entrepreneurs who start their own businesses at 25, few people are given such a huge amount of responsibility when they first start out. Therefore I think it's safe to assume that few people are able to learn so much about their leadership and management styles in their 20s. And since we are more flexible, more adaptable, and more receptive to change during our 20s than, say, when we become middle managers at the age of 40, I think the fact that I've tapped into this side of me this early on bodes well for the future.
So forgive me for stepping off the humble bus for a moment as I briefly outline my strengths as a leader:
- Seeing the "big picture"--understanding a company's vision, and then being able to communicate that vision to others.
- Motivating a team to stick together, do their jobs, and stay positive even when things get really tough.
- Taking responsibility for all members of my team's actions. When someone makes a mistake, I coach them through it and work with them to make sure it doesn't happen again. But when I have to explain that mistake to my boss, I understand that it happened on my watch, and was therefore my responsibility. I don't use names if I don't have to, and stay solution-oriented instead of passing blame off to someone else.
Even more valuable than knowing my strengths as a leader has been discovering the areas in which I am weakest:
- Numbers. It isn't a surprise (math was never my thing), but not having a basic understanding of finance makes running a business tough. I'm enrolled in an online Introduction to Finance course, and I try to spend at least some of my rare free time watching lectures and working through the homework problems to bring myself up to speed.
- Naïvety. This one has two parts. The first is that when I ask someone to do something, especially in a work setting, I expect that the staff member I asked will, in fact, get it done. I'm a reliable person, and I expect that same reliability from other people. Unfortunately, that means that my follow-up isn't always as rigorous as it should be, and has caused me to miss deadlines or fail to achieve certain targets. The second part is that I am "too nice." I hear this from every direction (and always have). In life, I'm okay with it. In business, it's not working out. This is incredibly difficult to change, but I am trying. (Hence the Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office on my reading list above.) Judging by the books on my reading list, I make a lot of the same mistakes many women in business do: phrasing instructions as questions ("Would you mind translating this email for me?" instead of, "I need you to translate this email for me by 2 pm"), not speaking up in meetings until the very end, letting others take credit for my ideas. Addressing this weakness will be an ongoing process, but knowing it's an issue is a step in the right direction. A combination of more experience, more reading, and an MBA at some point down the line should have me singing a different tune ten years from now.
3. The most valuable traits in an employee and in an employer. Being the middle woman between a staff of fifteen and the CEO of a major company has been very enlightening. As a manager, I have discovered that the best traits in an employee are (in order of importance): the ability to achieve results, a positive attitude, and loyalty to the team and the company's vision. Everything else is a bonus. Managing others has helped me understand how to be a better employee myself; if I expect those qualities in my staff, I better be willing to demonstrate them myself. I strongly believe that if you possess those three qualities, you will earn the respect of your boss, your colleagues, and your staff. And you might earn yourself a raise, too.
Ultimately, my year in Libo has been a time of incredible personal and professional growth. When I had a bad day, I didn't get to go home and snuggle up with my dog and my fiancé, have a pint of Ben and Jerry's and call it a night. I literally live with my coworkers--the people who work for me and occasionally frustrate me to no end are the same people I eat all my meals with and go out with at night. I have dealt with cold showers, aggressive mosquitoes, and gigantic spiders. I have fired someone I considered a friend, I have defended what I knew was right, even when it wasn't popular, and I have taken a stance against policies I considered unfair. And instead of doing all of this in a "cubicle in the big city," I have gotten to do it in one of the most beautiful regions of China.
Whether it's next month or next year, I will almost certainly be headed into a more "corporate environment" for my next job. I am so grateful that I will have the unique experiences of this year to draw upon when I face challenges down the line, and I think my future boss will find him- or herself grateful as well.
And now, the fun part! Pictures of me in my non-corporate environment over the last few months.
Solving technical and operational problems: