Embracing the Crooked Path: Unexpected Lessons from a 37-Year Career
2022-07-11 | 10 min read
Thirty-seven years ago, with equal measures of pride and apprehension and no lack of disbelief, I wore my best suit to start my first "real" job at the famed Hewlett-Packard Company. Fresh out of college, I had created a fantasy tale about how it would be on the inside of this prestigious institution. I could never have dreamed that 37 years later, I'd be looking back at this day still at the same company. Grateful. Humbled. And, I'd like to believe, a little worldlier and wiser from the unexpected lessons that awaited me.
For one, it took me only a microsecond to realize I was over-dressed. Way over-dressed. I am sure my new colleagues registered the shock on my face when the other side of the handshakes revealed jeans, cowboy boots, shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and flip-flops. And no, no suits in sight.
First fantasy tale: dashed. You see, in my electrical engineering school, there were the undergrad labs with products from competitors and then there were the restricted labs with HP equipment that only professors, grad students, and a few anointed undergrads could access for the real research. Behind closed doors and glass panels, we had felt like children looking into a candy store of forbidden test and measurement equipment that we weren't worthy to savor. Surely, flip-flops could not have been the footwear of choice for the brilliant minds coming up with these breakthroughs in the ivory towers I'd concocted. Not that I have anything against flip-flops now, mind you.
As cliché as it sounds, I stayed in large part because of the culture and its people. It has been the people and their collective passion, curiosity, integrity, selflessness, skills, and smarts -- footwear notwithstanding, that have left an indelible mark on my career and on my life. Learning from them I have gained personal truths in the adventure that has been my career and that no doubt will help launch me into my next one:
It is about the people
Dave Packard, in his book "The HP Way," summarized these company values that I tried to carry with me through every role: "each person in our company is important, and every job is important." It takes a collective to make a company successful. Sincere appreciation and an openness to consider ideas rooted in customer and company success keep people committed to a place. It certainly did for me.
I've admired the great strategic leaders who took a jumble of industry and technology indicators, mixed them with customer and stakeholder obsession, and resolutely defined and stayed the course to re-invent the company at its most pivotal moments (looking at your Ron Nersesian, Satish Dhanasekaran, and so many others). But it's what they've done at the hardest, darkest moments, like their support of employees who lost homes during the Santa Rosa fires, that defined the expanse of their leadership.
And yet, I'm also awed by those who did the work. Those who went the extra mile and who were so committed to their piece of the work because this company, and this work, meant something to them beyond just a job. Those who came together to lend a hand professionally, but also offered their time and their personal resources at those same times when colleagues needed them most. Their commitment and kindness have exceeded my expectations at every turn.
Integrity is tangible
One of my early role models in management would teach newby managers three things: always assume good intent first, always be willing to give feedback to a person's face, and always choose courage. As a manager and leader for over 25 years, the most powerful questions I learned to ask were: what am I not providing to my team and to my direct reports that could be impeding their success? Rather than looking externally for blame, am I being courageous enough to look at what's not working, to be vulnerable, to expose flaws and shortcomings, in myself and in our processes, in order to do better and be better for my team? While I hope these made me a better leader, have no doubt they made me a better person.
Work is fun
On the professional side, the company has taken multiple bets on me. It trained a degreed engineer on-the-job to explore marketing, communications, and even branding a 4-billion dollar "startup." It sent me around the world. It supported me in honing skills I never knew I'd love (me, speaking in front of an audience of 400 people, and liking it? What?). It provided me opportunities to traverse my career in a non-linear pattern that taught me something new at each turn.
On the personal side, I've explored my own diversity and my own privilege to make me a more compassionate and understanding human. I've impersonated J-Lo in a marketing idol competition, sang Bohemian Rhapsody in the back of a bus in Beijing with a favorite colleague, traversed the Black Forest, and been welcomed into homes of kind teammates when I had weekend stays away from home. These don't even begin to scratch the surface of the memories I've collected.
What is success?
They say success is to leave the world and the people around us better than how we found them. I can see this for Keysight. With its curiosity and passion, it has helped solve the tough challenges that move the world forward. With its humanity and courage, it has made me, as I prepare to retire, wiser.
Did I succeed? As a working mom, there was never a day when I didn't think about the trade-offs I was making. Was I leaving too much of my children's care to others, not giving them enough of my time? Was I decelerating my career in order to be there for them when it counted? To read them books at night and to witness the moments of their lives? I'm sure I didn't do either perfectly, but I'm proud of the adults my children have become, the relationships I have with them, and the life my husband and I built, which are all inextricably tied to the work I chose and the company I chose to stay with.
What is next?
I won't lie and say that I'm all in for the next chapter. I'm mostly all in. I'm all in enough. Some days, I can't fathom how I'll manage the quiet. How I won't be able to reach out on Teams and mix a little personal connection with a challenging business topic. Check how some of my favorite people are doing, what they did on the weekend before diving into the project at hand. Will anything I do next match the intoxicating mix of stimulation and trepidation when jumping into something brand new?
Well, the answer is: most likely. Keysight taught me to try new things, to not be afraid of asking tough questions, to embrace the crooked path, to shed expectations (including in footwear), and to look in the mirror first and foremost to effect change. Keysight prepared me for this next step in the grandest way possible. I'm ready. Hand me those flip-flops, will you?
Elizabeth began her career on July 8, 1985 as a technical support engineer for HP's Fort Collins Systems Division. She has had multiple roles in various HP/Agilent/Keysight businesses spanning technical marketing, product management, product and outbound marketing, executive and internal communications, branding, and corporate marketing. She is retiring on August 4, 2022. Her path will likely continue to be a little unknown, a little crooked, but likely just right.