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The career advice you shouldn't listen to, according to successful female CEOs

The path to success can be one with lots of twists and turns — just ask these five talented women.
by Jean Chatzky /
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It’s no secret that there are many pathways to success. If you’re looking towards a leadership role, you probably have a certain trajectory in mind — one strongly guided by the wisdom passed down from parents, bosses and mentors. But what if one day you decided to make a sharp left turn from the conventional path? It could be a big mistake. But it could also be the best move you’ve ever made.

These five female CEOs are thankful they ignored some sage pieces of advice and took the road less traveled. Here’s a look at some of their more successful counter-intuitive moves, and some great advice if you’re considering a similar path yourself.

Beth Gerstein
Beth Gerstein

I was told not to negotiate, but I did it anyway.

Beth Gerstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Brilliant Earth, an ethically sourced bridal and fine jewelry company

When I got my first job offer, my college’s career center told me not to negotiate. I immediately went and did it anyway, and it paid off. I got more than the company had originally offered, plus a signing bonus. My thinking was, “What’s the worst that can happen? They may say no, but at least I asked.” Of course I went in with a reasonable figure in mind — I knew if I went in there with something three times the going rate, they would roll their eyes. I was keeping in mind that although I wanted more money, I also wanted to foster a long-term relationship.

Her tip: When you ask for more money, try to sound comfortable in your request — not too bold, and not overly pleading. And when possible, take a data-driven approach, and look at the going rate for your position, and your salary relative to your peers, if you know it.

Diane Deitz

I went from big public companies to a small, privately-held one.

Diane Dietz, president and CEO of Rodan + Fields, a skincare and cosmetics company

My background is big public companies. When I thought about my next role, I only considered those same big public companies. In many ways, I was on a set track — I started at Procter & Gamble and then moved to a very large retailer, and I took it for granted that my next step would be either the #1 or #2 position at a huge corporation. But then I got a call from Rodan + Fields, and I thought, “I can stay on my traditional course, or I can try something new, at a company founded by women, and run by women.” Almost instantly, I felt ignited by the prospect of moving in this direction, that this company would fit really well with what’s important to me. But it isn’t something I ever would have predicted early on in my career.

Her tip: On your journey there will be multiple stops. Be prepared to explore a lot of different things, and to deviate from your original plan. At many points, there will be experiences that cause you to ask, “Am I in the right place?” Flip the script and ask instead, “What can I learn from this?”

Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable
Christa QuarlesEric Millette

Rather than acting tough, I decided to own my own vulnerability

Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable, the world’s largest provider of online restaurant reservations

Over the years, I learned to step up and say, “Hey, I’m not great at this thing, but I am great at this other thing.” When you own your vulnerability, you become the most powerful person in the room, because you’re owning the story of your weakness. No one else can take it from you. I used to believe that if I told people I wasn’t good at something, they would pounce on me. But that’s just not true. The best thing you can do is to bring self-awareness to your narrative about who you are and what you bring to table. Everyone wants to work with someone who knows where they’re weak and where they’re strong. If someone has no perception of where they need work, it’s going to be really hard to get them to a better place.

Her tip: Often the first step to self-awareness is getting 360-degree feedback from people you trust. Ask them to be candid, and remember that all feedback is a gift. Once you understand where some of your weaknesses are, get on a path to making them better.

Megan Driscoll
Megan DriscollBrian Ach / Brian Ach

I turned down a full-time job offer from a prominent firm.

Megan Driscoll, CEO and founder of EvolveMKD public relations firm

When I was graduating from the University of Chicago, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I was good with people, but wasn’t quite sure what job that translated into. The economy was bad at the time, so I found myself going on a lot of informational interviews. One of them was at Edelman public relations firm, and I loved everything I learned about the possibilities of a career in that field. Soon after, I got my first full-time job offer from a prominent wealth management firm, but I turned it down to take an internship at Edelman. My parents — and many of my friends — thought I was nuts for taking the internship over the job, but that internship is what set me up in a career I love, and put me on the path to owning my own business.

Her tip: What I always tell people is that you are the only steward of your career (and your life) so definitely listen and be open to advice, but also, trust your gut. Only you know what the right career path is for you, and what it’s going to take to be successful at it.

Janice Bryant Howroyd
Janice Bryant Howroyd

I chose to compete with giants.

Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder CEO of The ActOne Group, the largest woman-owned human resources solutions firm in the country

Early on in my career, I had to learn how to compete with well-funded public companies, which are largely run by men, and I did that as a woman and as an African-American. I learned that no matter who you are, success all comes from the same place — from attitude and focus. In other words, you get results from where you place your attention. If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen. But you have to be in constant communication with yourself, checking in to make sure that you’re on the right path, and that you’re freshly motivated every day.

Her tip: When you’re having doubts about yourself or your business, the best thing you can do is find a quiet space and listen to your inner voice. No matter who you call God, call God every day and listen. Knowing yourself is so important, because only then will you know what you’re truly capable of.

With Kathryn Tuggle

More career advice from CEOs

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