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Leave it better than you found it

by Shelly Gensmer, VP of Legal Compliance, ERC

I always treated my jobs like borrowed cars. I don’t own my job. Rather, someone has trusted me to use it for a while and use it well. So, I try to keep the tank full, keep the car moving, and leave it in a better condition than how I found it. What I mean by this is, in every job I had, I worked to demonstrate commitment and add value to the position. I worked to grow it and eventually, leave it with a well-trained, qualified person who has just as much vision as I did.

I’ve had to make more job changes in my career than I would have picked, thanks to unpredictable swings in the economy and the industry. But, I found that this attitude - and the strong relationships I made while working this way - really helped me to grow a strong, steady career, despite several stressful transitions.

At 23, I started my career in legal collections. Working full-time at an agency, part-time as a waitress, going to school full time for my Bachelor in Paralegal studies and raising a brand new baby at home - I was personally put to the test. This challenging time in my life truly made me aware of what I was capable of accomplishing. This set me up to be able to handle high loads of stress and pressure through the rest of my career.

I eventually switched companies and became a litigation specialist and corporate secretariat, but quickly, I and 3,000 other employees found ourselves out of a job due to a downturn in the economy

Now, having just recovered from the loss of what seemed like my perfect job, I was also facing a really crushing divorce. I had a child with an illness that wouldn’t be diagnosed for another year, meaning trips to as many specialists as would hear my cries. Gratefully, I was welcomed back to my former company - a testament to leaving the right way and maintaining relationships.

Although fortunate for the opportunity, I knew the position wasn’t for me long-term. I wanted to use my current degree and I wanted an even higher degree.

One fine day, I received a call asking me to come in and interview for a new opportunity to run an entire legal department. It was perfect. I immediately felt at home there, I was challenged and I loved every minute of my time there.

History repeated itself for me again, unfortunately. That company was bought by another and eventually all employees were let go. At this time in my life I’d lost two perfect jobs, I was now a single mother of two sweet little girls, and felt like a huge failure. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted. I think this was probably the lowest I’d felt in my life to date.

At our lowest we get very resourceful and humble ourselves. I leaned heavily on my past work relationships to pull me through. Again, my ability to maintain strong relationships at my former companies led to my next role at another company in the Compliance and Remediation Services department. I worked hard and made sure I stuck out, in part, by, taking on HUGE projects. I collaborated with other departments, took meetings I wouldn’t otherwise take, and found ways to expand my knowledge of my industry. I quickly rose from a specialist to Assistant Vice President of Regulatory Services and was granted time to begin my Masters of Science in Legal Studies.

Fast forward a few years – My fiancé and I decided to move from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. I left everything behind to start over with my freshly earned Master’s degree in hand. Nervous and not knowing at all how I would find work in a small town, everything came full circle.

Again, not burning bridges, respecting the position and maintaining strong relationships proved to be key. In July of 2016 I got a LinkedIn message from one of my former CEO’s. He had always been complimentary of my work and asked me to come in to meet his team, evaluate where the legal team was and see if I could help mold it into a well-oiled, strategy-smart team. I quickly accepted and was leading their legal team by August 2017.

I learned some VERY valuable lessons during really trying times. Along the way I never forgot these very important things:

NOTHING is owed to me by my boss or anyone else. Everything I have in my life and my career I have earned – including the failures.

  1. Temper tantrums are for toddlers – spouting off at the workplace earns you a reputation for being difficult to work with and unable to manage yourself let alone others. (Thank heavens, I was never the tantrum thrower! I witnessed it often.)

  2. Leadership is ACTION. It is not a position.

  3. If you don’t learn to tailor your leadership to accept diverse personalities, you’ll never develop the culture that your team needs to want to stay and grow. Basically, it’s this: learn to talk so your employees will listen and listen so your employees will talk.

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