One of my favorite quotes about life is from the American writer and poet Muriel Strode: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”
When I talk to my kids about this philosophy, I refer to it as “Step Up and Be The One.” Whenever your boss needs someone to take charge of a new project, I tell them to be the one who says, “I’ll do it.”
Many people don’t see these projects as a moment to lead or stand out—they see them as more work and don’t want to take the risk if there is no guarantee the project will be successful. But when an opportunity to take a leadership role on a project arises, try to look past the amount of work required and evaluate the totality of the potential experience. Will you be exposed to areas of the organization you’re not currently familiar with? Will you be managing a team of people? Will you be using skills you’re not using in your current work?
One of my most memorable “be the one” experiences was in the mid-1980s at MTV. I was in my 20s, working as a young analyst in marketing. The project required reviewing logs of subscriber information and other data that was the opposite of engaging or stimulating. I volunteered to co-lead the project because I thought it would expose me to senior management and be a chance to learn about a different side of the business.
Managing the team working on it was extremely challenging, especially as a 20-something directing people older than me. I learned that what motivates others might be different from what motivates me—a skill I’ve used ever since.
My work on the project caught the eye of senior management. I was seen as a problem solver and a go-getter and was asked to work on other high-level projects. What many of my coworkers assumed would be a boring and tedious project turned out to be a moment that opened doors for me in the organization.
This advice to step up and be the one applies to all women, no matter where they are in their lives: High school, college, graduate school, work, volunteering. When you step up to lead, you have the chance to create your own path. In doing so, you’re choosing not to head in the safe direction that everyone else is. It does take courage to travel the unexplored path. But it’s a lot more fun, and that route usually leads you to a wealth of valuable experiences that you probably weren’t expecting.
Ina Coleman is a gender equity consultant with Sirenia Partners. She works with organizations across the country to focus on the strategies necessary to advance more women to the highest levels of senior leadership in business. She can be reached on Twitter @InaColeman.