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Leslie Tolf

President, Union Privilege.

Washington, D.C.

Regardless of the career or the title, it dawned upon me that a marriage between the skillset that I was developing and the values that had been so deeply rooted in me from my early years could exist. It had to exist. This is how I leaned in—to my work and to myself.

I went to high school in the ‘70s, when your school advisor wasn’t forcing you to have at least 10 “leadership” activities on your resume. You just did what you were interested in. That’s how I discovered that I had a passion for competition. I sold the most holiday candlesticks as a Junior Achievement project. Why JA? My parents, bent on me channeling my energy into something that wasn’t yelling at them, had encouraged me to join.

And of course my first leadership job was an accident. At University of Michigan, there was a Friends of the Earth club. I joined because I liked a boy, and at the first meeting they voted for officers. No one wanted to be president, so I volunteered. Three months later, I was knee-deep in a bottle bill recycling door-to-door campaign, and loving every minute of it. When we won by less than 10 votes, I realized the power of a small group coming together to make a difference. It was intoxicating.

So by the time I graduated and reached Washington D.C. I was living and breathing the non-profit world. My 20s were all about trying different hats – from non-profit graphic designer to direct mail production cog. I wasn’t even capable of a long-term ambition until I was 28 – when I decided to further my education to switch gears with my career trajectory.

Again, it didn’t exactly happen as planned. I drank the kool-aid of interning at an exemplary services company that was well known for their marketing. As a “high potential” MBA recruit, they wined and dined us, and exposed us to a substantial amount of training and strategic thinking. Thus began a 10-year journey working at various financial companies.

Why did I stay? I was learning, and having a ball. I was investing in myself and they were investing in me—as a manager, as a critical thinker, as a presenter. They afforded me limitless opportunities in training. This was laying the path for all of my future endeavors.

In my 30s, my values began to creep back into my consciousness. I had two children, and I began to think about how I would present my hawking credit cards as a noble calling. So I stopped abruptly again, and decided to do freelance work for non-profits—perhaps not the most rational idea, but it paid off.

My previous experiences had taught me the importance of truly engaging in all aspects of the work process. Getting to know people. Mastering whatever realm I was charged with—but doing it all with sense of humility. Regardless of the career or the title, it dawned upon me that a marriage between the skillset that I was developing and the values that had been so deeply rooted in me from my early years could exist. It had to exist. This is how I leaned in—to my work and to myself.

Heading Union Plus has given me a wonderful opportunity to bring my “whole self” to work. Hardship assistance for members. Giving out scholarships. Supporting education. Stretching the paycheck – these are all areas that I can feel proud of and talk to my kids about. I couldn’t have done it without the management, critical thinking and marketing training I got from Fortune 500 companies. In hindsight, I had no idea that the non-profit and corporate structure would blend so well.

Patti Sellers of Fortune talks about careers being a jungle gym and not a ladder. I know that I could not have gotten to where I am without a diversity of experiences from both the corporate and non-profit worlds. More importantly, I could I have done it without taking the time to invest in furthering my education and staying true to those things that have grounded and sustained me for so long.

Looking back, these are the things that I found to be most important:

Have a focus on what you want to do, but be flexible. I thought that I wanted to be the head of an environmental non-profit. I realized that I wanted to truly affect social change. I let that desire lead me as opposed to forcing it.

Wherever you are, take it as an opportunity to learn. The most menial task can grant you the keys to success. Thrive in it.

Be willing to say, “how can I improve?” and mean it. Never stop learning about yourself & how you can improve yourself. This will pay off in any career in any path for any person.

Not being a perfectionist pays off. There’s nothing wrong with striving for quality work. Having children taught me that seeking perfection is the easiest way to fail. Unsubscribe from those parenting magazines. Make mistakes. That’s how you truly lean in. Follow the path that only you can follow. It will lead to phenomenal places.

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