Since I was a young girl my mother has encouraged me to lean in, often by following her example. For example, she told me many times about how much courage it took for her to come to the U.S. by herself after World War II and the Greek Civil War. She was 18, didn’t speak a word of English and had no money. And, despite the barriers, she succeeded in having a full life in the U.S. and achieving what she considers her most important career goal: giving my brother, sister and me an education.
She’d tell me over and over, “If we can do that, you can do anything you want to do and be anything you want to be. Don’t ever take 'no' for an answer.”
I've relied on my mom's advice many times, but especially in 1997 when I was one interview away from being promoted into my first executive role. My husband David and I were living in San Francisco with our two daughters. I was wined and dined and told I was the perfect person for this dream job that required that our family move to Minnesota to be at the company's headquarters.
The day arrived when I expected to receive the formal offer. Instead, I was told that I wasn’t "right" for the position. I didn't walk away, but I also didn’t take “no" for an answer; I took a detour. I accepted a more junior role at a lower salary that still required that we relocate to Minnesota. My husband, my true partner, said it best, "Don't follow the money; follow the opportunity."
My strategy was to get my foot in the door at the corporate office and focus on performing my job well. I also promised myself that I wouldn't be angry.
Over the next two years, I led two major initiatives that had a material impact on the company's strategy, and in 1999 the company approached me to negotiate a long term employment contract. The initial terms did not include a promotion, but I knew it was the right time…and the right circumstances. I leaned in harder than ever and finally got a seat at the table as the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare; three years later, the company promoted me to be CEO of a wholly owned subsidiary.
Leaning in isn't about always getting what you want when you want it. It's about knowing what you want and navigating toward that goal. Sometimes you have to take a detour. And, when you re-route, stay positive and focused on your performance. Then, when the perfect opportunity is facing you, step on that accelerator, make a hard right turn and lean in hard.