One of my favorite authors on leadership, Brené Brown, says feeling more than one thing at a time is a sure sign of being human. In her most recent book, “An Atlas of the Heart,”she defines some of those complex experiences. Bittersweetness, writes Brown, is “sadness about letting go of something, mixed with happiness or gratitude about what’s been experienced or what’s next.”
Bittersweet — that hit me. For most of my career, retirement was a stage of life “somewhere out there” in the future. I didn’t know what it would feel like to hit that milestone. Now, wrapping up a fabulous, 40-year career at Cox this month, I can tell you what it’s like.
Sadness? Yes. I’ll miss the teams I’ve led, the incredible leadership team at Cox and the many friends I’ve made along the way.
Gratitude? You bet. I’m grateful for my mentors who helped me tackle challenges, remove roadblocks and break a few glass ceilings.
But what is especially sweet to me is that I know I’m leaving behind a generation of leaders who are continuing to break barriers and lifting others up as they do so.
It’s for those folks, and for anyone interested in living a full career and life, that I wanted to write down a few lessons I’ve learned over the past four decades.
#1: Take the Alternate Route
My career journey began when I hopped in a car at age 22 to follow a boy from my hometown in Las Vegas to Oklahoma City. The boy didn’t pan out — but a PR job at Cox Communications did.
Although I didn’t have much of a plan, I was willing to listen to the people around me. And thankfully, great mentors were among them.
So, when one of those mentors urged me to leave public relations and go into operations, I took the advice. Working in operations was the opportunity to be in the heart of the company — dead-center between our employees and customers.
It wasn’t always easy. In those early days, I was often the only woman in the room and asked routinely to get someone coffee or takes notes. But it was a career game changer for me. I learned how to make decisions and stand my ground.
It can be scary to take a career detour, but if you can learn to be flexible and take a leap of faith, it can take you on the ride of your life.
#2: Know Your Pit Crew
From the person who works the reception desk to the person who signs your paycheck, get to know the people who work for and with you. Listen to their challenges. The problems they have to navigate, and their talents, hobbies and passions, too.
Get to know the whole person. My favorite leaders fostered real, personal relationships with me. They were people, not just bosses. If you demonstrate those qualities, people will follow you because they want to, not because they have to.
#3: Don’t be an asshole.
I shouldn’t have to even say this: Nobody wants to do business with an asshole. We can all be assholes from time to time, but sustained assholery is inexcusable.
Honestly, I pity assholes. They’re missing out on one of the biggest gifts of leadership, which is feedback. Giving it and receiving it.
Feedback is truly a gift. Give it and receive it in that manner.
#4: Be You
Many years ago, someone told me I needed to change my appearance if I wanted to be taken seriously as a woman leader. So I traded my floral dresses, dangly earrings and strappy sandals for conservative suits, little pearl earrings and sensible shoes. When I look at photos of me at that time, I don’t even recognize that woman.
Individuality is at the heart of life and work. Jim Robbins, one of my former CEOs, was known for wearing ripped clothing and, when it rained, a bucket hat (think Gilligan). He was authentically himself — funny, endearing and caring. A former Naval officer, he had a sailor’s mouth and routinely apologized for his salty language in meetings.
I learned from Jim that I didn’t have to dress or sound like someone else to be taken seriously.
Be authentic. Be real. Be comfortable. Be yourself. And if you find yourself in a place where you can’t be you, well then maybe you’re in the wrong place.
#5: Buckle up
Throughout my career, people have asked me where my confidence comes from. The truth is there have been countless times when I felt nervous to walk in a room. But I didn’t let that fear stop or silence me.
Being courageous doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you overcome your fear and do the right thing, no matter how scary or intimidating it may be at first.
And sometimes that means being vulnerable enough to ask for help.
When I moved to Atlanta to run a region, I was nervous — I had run systems, but I had never run an entire region and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I asked for help, and my colleagues delivered. They made sure I didn’t fail.
Courage drove me forward in my career, helping me make tough decisions to pursue new opportunities at Cox; in fact, I moved six times in 10 years as I took on more responsibility.
That was scary for me, and for my family as well. I jokingly told my oldest daughter, “I’ve saved enough money for college and therapy because you’re going to need both.”
Being brave is hard. But again, I go back to Brené Brown: “Courage is contagious. Every time we are brave … we make the people around us a little braver and our organizations bolder and stronger.”
#6: Travel in Good Company
Oprah Winfrey once said, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
I have close girlfriends who have been my allies and advisors for more than 30 years. They know everything I’ve done, hoped to do and failed to do. They are my people. So, when I go off on a new journey, they’re the first ones I want in the car.
You want people who will tell it to you straight. One of my mentors was Jim Kennedy, our chairman emeritus. Every time I was promoted, Jim would call me personally and say, “Congratulations, Jill. I’m proud of you. Now don’t mess it up.”
Look for people in your life who you can trust to be honest with you, to celebrate you when you’ve just delivered a major win, and to tell you when you have spinach in your teeth.
The most dominant feeling in that swirl of bittersweetness I wrote about in the beginning is gratitude. I am so very grateful the road led me to my company, to the many friends, mentors and leaders who have taught me so much. For the teams that lifted me up and cheered me on.
If you’re like me, your career will go by faster than you can imagine. When it’s time for you to take your exit to a new path, I hope you will have flourished in a career that made you feel all the feelings, from bitter to sweet.
Jill Campbell, the outgoing co-president and chief people and operations officer at Cox Enterprises, a private $20 billion company headquartered in Atlanta with nearly 50,000 employees.