When I spoke with Texan By Nature CEO Joni Carswell about their unusual data-based corporate partnerships approach to conservation, I discovered there are nuggets of career advice buried in her career path, especially for changing industries as she did.
Texan By Nature is a conservation nonprofit founded by Former First Lady Laura Bush that partners with businesses in Texas – which has about 100 of the country’s largest companies – on a variety of projects related to land, water and habitat restoration and education. (You can read my Forbes piece about what we can learn from them to prevent the next public health crisis here.)
Carswell is a trained engineer with a dual Masters’ degree in business and engineering who spent most of her career in business, including as the CEO of an Edtech company, and at Dell. Then she got an intriguing and unexpected phone call….
Here are 10 unique career insights from our conversation:
1. Answer the phone: A recruiter called her out of the blue one day with an unusual potential opportunity that at first blush seemed outside Carswell’s wheelhouse. It became a highly-rewarding opportunity to use her skills in a different context and make a difference.
2. Think about applying your skills in a different way: Your skills are like a collection of puzzle pieces. You are probably accustomed to using them in a particular industry or situation, but the reality is that you can arrange those pieces in a variety of ways to address a variety of challenges. Carswell even asked the recruiter why they thought she might be appropriate for the nonprofit CEO role, and had to step back and think about applying her business skills in a completely different industry and context.
3. Be willing to change industries: Carswell could have shut the door on the opportunity to be CEO of Texan By Nature because it was so different for her and she had never worked in the environment. Instead, she was willing to be flexible and consider the dramatic change – similar to when I accepted the opportunity to lead communications at Chrysler’s electric car division when I had no prior automotive experience.
4. Admit when your job evolved to require different skills: One of the particularly interesting coincidences of the timing of TXN’s offer, was that Carswell was starting to question if she had the right skills to take her current company to the next level. That takes a lot of courage to admit, even to yourself. But acknowledging that helped make her more open to the new TXN opportunity. Usually, you can find a way to expand your skills as needed, or augment them with other team members.
5. Research the prospective employer thoroughly before you interview: Spend the time looking strategically at the potential new employer and their industry, as well as what the role you’re exploring would involve. Doing this in-depth research increased Carswell’s curiosity about the role and helped her develop a slew of questions for them. Look at it as if you already had the job. What are the strategic challenges? What differentiates it? What are the industry’s trends, opportunities and challenges? How long have leaders been there? Remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.
6. Bring those questions with you to the interview: Asking strategic questions always make a significant positive impression on the person you’re interviewing with, even if they can’t answer them. If they can’t, ask to talk to someone who can. Bring new ideas for them too, demonstrating the contribution you could make. Carswell thought about how she might be able to leverage Mrs. Bush’s platform to “move the needle” in conservation in a bigger way than they had to date, for example.
7. “Step up whether your ready or not.”: That’s how Carswell put it to me, adding, “I think the most pivotal moments throughout my career were when I actually said ‘yes’ when I wasn’t ready….But having that confidence and trusting in your network and that if someone is tapping you on the shoulder and saying, ‘you can do this,” then step out of your comfort circle and do it.”
8. Think things out with your professional support network: Carswell admitted that she has tended to think things out on her own too often and that she benefited from processing things out with trusted members of her network. They have helped her understand and strengthen her weaknesses and tap into much-valued resources.
9. Be candid in the interview process about your weaknesses: Carswell made an interesting point I haven’t heard very often from the dozens of top leaders I’ve interviewed. While they all talk about the importance of being candid, consider this: “I think it’s very important in the interview process, when you’re going for a senior executive or a CEO role, to be very open with the interviewing board about what your weaknesses are and what your plan is to shore those up. Because that could have budget implications, that could have partnership implications, and you just need to show that you’re aware of those and this is who and what you’re going to put in place for the organization to be successful. And then be able to hit the ground running when you get that job. (Otherwise) you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
10. “Look out at your path…and innovate in your space”: This is such a great point to explore what it means for you: “I would also encourage everyone to look out at your path, at your history and the things that you think don’t have anything to do with one another, and use those things to innovate in your space. Because you have the single unique way of looking at a puzzle that no one else does … Use those different ways that you’ve seen the world to solve problems.”
Listen to my full interview with Joni Carswell on my podcast, Green Connections Radio on your favorite podcast platform or on our website, and read my Forbes blog about Texan By Nature’s unusual conservation model here.