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"Women Lead" Excerpt of Ch.9: The Roadmap to Success (Has Many Twists and Turns)

Following is an excerpt from excerpt from "Women Lead", by Tracey Wilen-Daugenti

Planning Your Career, and Leaving Room for Serendipity

Chance favors the prepared mind. --LOUIS PASTEUR

Careers are constructed, not chosen. --CAREER COUNSELOR AND PROFESSOR, TONY WATTS

Most of the more than 200 women interviewed for this book said the following about career planning: Have a plan, but stay flexible. It’s sage advice. In a time of rapid technological and organizational change and economic instability, many people are finding that factors beyond their control are affecting their career plans. And many are also taking their careers into their own hands and directing the course of their working lives.

Seizing Serendipity

By any measure, Kathleen Kirkish is an extremely successful woman. She works as director of learning and development for a company that’s a household name: the Gap. Earlier in her career, she worked in executive positions for ULTA and Bank of America. But Kirkish didn’t originally plan on going into business. In college, she was a liberal arts major. After graduation, she interviewed for a job at a temp agency right as a receptionist was fired. Kirkish was given the receptionist’s job largely because she was in the right place at the right time, but that first job sparked her interest in the corporate world and launched her business career.

Such chance events play a role in many people’s careers, so much so that a theory of career development called planned happenstance has arisen to take them into account. The planned happenstance model holds that unexpected events and circumstances have a large part in shaping our working lives. Economics, markets, global affairs, and changes to the structures of organizations all determine what our careers look like, as do chance meetings and other unplanned opportunities that come our way. But we’re not mere pawns of fate. Planned happenstance theory holds that we can set the stage for serendipity by opening ourselves up to opportunity: by networking, making ourselves visible, exploring our options, and cultivating a flexible and open-minded attitude. We can also ready ourselves to take best advantage of these opportunities by becoming educated, sharpening our skills, learning from feedback, and being more self-aware.

Take the case of oncology nurse Alicia Sable-Hunt, for instance. A chance occurrence led to her starting a company: She baked nutrition bars for her patients, who enjoyed them. Hunt was pursuing an MBA program at the time, and decided to write about the bars for her thesis. She developed a business plan and soon chose to sell the bars commercially. “I didn’t have any grand plan to become an entrepreneur,” Hunt says. “My goal was just to have the greatest possible impact on the cancer community.” Chance played a role in the genesis of Sable’s Foods, but Hunt wouldn’t have become successful without business acumen, initiative, and a talent for baking.

Research has shown that people who adhere to the tenets of planned happenstance theory are more successful in their careers. Employees who take a proactive stance towards their careers—those who take initiative, solve problems, and work to better their circumstances—have higher salaries and are promoted more often than those who don’t. Proactive behavior has been linked to transformational leadership, higher sales, smoother entry into an organization, entrepreneurship, and community service. People with protean career attitudes, or those who direct their own careers in accordance with their values and personal definitions of success, have higher career satisfaction. Likewise, personality traits such as optimism, adaptability, and resilience have long been linked to success. A study of 181 telecommunications employees during a period of organizational change, for instance, found that those who were optimistic and flexible achieved the most career success, and that those who planned and were involved in continuous learning achieved the most job satisfaction.

How to Activate Planned Happenstance in Your Career

Successful women advise taking risks and saying yes to opportunities. Cindy Ireland, vice president of IT at, Inc., was a self-described “country girl” who’d never been on a plane when her company asked her to go to Manhattan for training. “That whole week in New York, I realized I had so much more strength and resourcefulness than I thought I had,” she recalls. “It’s been over thirty years since I had that experience and it will never leave me because it was a week that showed me I could do anything I really wanted to do.” Author and motivational speaker Fawn Germer remembers taking a big risk that paid off. “Inspired by all the women I interviewed and the risks they had taken, I quit my job to write a book, and it was rejected by every major publisher in the US. But I used my journalism skills to find out what the problem was with the book, rewrote it, and had a bidding war for it. I just kept pushing until I got that book on Oprah and it was a bestseller.” She adds, “If that book had been accepted right away, I never would have become a speaker, which is a parallel career that I love. The magic is in the risk.”

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