“When was the last time you tried something for the first time?”

I saw that slogan on a t-shirt promoting a triathlon and loved it.  Don’t worry – this blog is not to try and talk you into participating in a triathlon. But, I may challenge you to try something new in your professional career. We have all seen the studies on women’s reluctance to apply for a new job unless they can check all the boxes in the job description. Today I want to tell you about my experience in applying for a job where I checked very few of the boxes.

-Quote by John C. Maxwell

First let me provide some background. I have worked for the same company for 25 plus years – most of that time was as an attorney in the Legal department.  My job in Legal had always been challenging and rewarding and I was not looking for anything new. We had an opening for a head of Internal Audit. I called our CEO and offered to help oversee Internal Audit while the company conducted a search for a new head. I sat right near the team and figured I could help out in the short term. Our CEO told me he had already asked our CCO to fill in, but then he asked me if I had any suggestions for the role. I gave him an earful about what I thought he should look for in a new leader for that department.  At the end of our conversation, the CEO asked me if I was going to apply. I just about dropped the phone. I had offered to babysit the department only – plus I was a lawyer, not an auditor. 

I thought about this question for about two weeks (which I now know is a ridiculously long time to answer a question from your CEO). But it was a really hard question for me. On the one hand, I loved my current job and team in Legal. We were doing important and interesting work. Plus, I had worked really hard to become a lawyer and was not sure I was willing to give that up. On the other hand, the idea of a new challenge was intriguing. If I took the job in Internal Audit, I was going to be the department head. In Legal, I was Deputy General Counsel, but not truly in charge. 

In the end, I decided to put my name in for the role, and I will never forget my first interview. It was with one of my company’s most senior leaders. We were wrapping up the interview and I thought it had gone pretty well. I had known this person for many years and knew he respected my work. But at the end of the interview the senior leader shut his notebook and told me that we were “going off the record.”  He then gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. He told me that I was coming off wishy-washy about whether I wanted the job.  That surprised me, but when I thought about it, I had to admit that I was maybe a bit wishy-washy about whether or not I really wanted the job. On the one hand, it was an interesting new challenge – but I also did love my current job. The senior leader explained to me that I was an underdog for the role due to my lack of audit experience, and that if I wanted the role, I’d have to really go for it.

I went home and thought about his question. Even though I had put my name in for the role weeks earlier, that was the night I decided that I did truly want it. The rest of my interviews went much better, and in the end, I was offered the role. I found out later that the real challenge for the executives making the decision was that the other candidate had significant internal audit experience. I did not. My only internal audit experience was in being audited from time to time.   

I have now been leading the audit team for 7 years. I had a huge learning curve for the first 6 months, and it was quite terrifying at times. It took a lot of nights and weekends for me to learn what I needed about auditing. But I have never regretted my decision. Taking on this new and different leadership role (for which I checked very few of the boxes) was such an empowering, energizing and rewarding experience.  I encourage you to think outside of the box about your career.  And don’t be afraid of trying new things. Many of the best career moves are lateral (as this one was for me). Don’t be scared off from interesting opportunities by focusing on the boxes you can’t check – rather think about what you can bring to the job (even if those boxes are not specifically on the job description). And then go sell why you are the best candidate for the job – don’t be wishy-washy!!