By Victoria Varley, Vice President of R&D for Diversified Brands at Sherwin Williams
Growing up my Grandmother often referenced this line from FDR's first inaugural speech. Little did I know back then that I would look to this phrase as one of the core reasons I have achieved all that I have in both my career and family life. Today it is still a key factor for me in overcoming obstacles and driving change.
I grew up in a steel town and attended a small high school during the 80's. I was "book" smart achieving a 4.0 GPA, yet quite naïve and terrified about the world outside of my home and geographical area. I wanted to go to college, I would be the first generation in my family to do so, but there was not a good option to commute and I did not think I could manage alone without my family. I spent weeks stressing over the decision and making up stories in my head about the 4 years that were in front of me.
After wearing myself down, I made the decision that I was not going to go to school and would find some type of job to support my basic needs. I remember telling my grandmother this and was surprised by her reaction as she was always a supporter of my decisions. She said she could not support this decision because it was based on fear and that is not a reason to shy away from a challenge.
I tried to explain to her that besides the basic fear of being away from home that I was extremely afraid that I would fail and disappoint her and my parents. She looked at me and said if you give it everything you’ve got and face the fear straight on, you will not fail.
The outcome she explained was not predictable but valuable learnings were guaranteed that would guide me in future endeavours. On the flip side, not going was failing myself by not believing in my potential. Needless to say that after that conversation I filled out the applications and ultimately earned my BS in Chemistry and later went on to earn my Masters degree.
Over the years, I have faced my fear on multiple occasions. Sometimes the experience was fabulous and other times not so much. Each time though I did learn skills that have played a role in my development and how I approach my team and peers.
The most recent instance that I consider a turning point in my life, involved a career move about 4 years ago. I was offered a functional manager position. Most would have been thrilled. I was very humbled and honoured by the opportunity. However, instead of smiling uncontrollably, I pasted it on my face as my insides were shaking with fear.
I had been in the Industry for 22 years, but never worked with the type of customers or technology that the job required. I also had a lot of confidence and trust building to do with my peers as most had been in this particular field for 20+ years. It was made clear that I had to come in running and start creating positive results. That part I typically would have loved but could not imagine how I could do this with the above tasks at hand. As I was writing my list of pros and cons (something I often do to help me clear my head), I heard my Grandmother’s voice and knew I had to embark on the journey.
It was not what I would call my smoothest transition. It turned out to be the most difficult role to date that I have held and I honestly felt like I was starting my career from scratch. There were times I wondered if I was doing any good and how I was going to motivate myself to start fresh the next morning. Today I am thankful for this experience and look at it as a blessing. I learned so much about myself and how to be a better leader. Most of this learning came from mistakes and constructive feedback. If I would have let fear win I would have missed out on one of my career aspirations and maybe more disappointing not have realized unknown strengths and areas for development.
One of my passions and time away from work is mentoring young women that are first generation college students and/or early in their career. A common theme through our conversations is that they are uncertain if they can reach their goals because they feel insecure in some capacity or another. I then quote FDR’s line and tell them face the fear and you will be one step closer to your goals. I typically get a polite response, but can tell I did not satisfy their concerns... so I tell them some of my stories and before I am finished I often see a more confident and relaxed young woman. I get so much joy knowing I have provided encouragement; in fact it is the greatest gift that facing my fear has given me!
Being a scientist I would love to say that there is an easy equation or process that you can follow to face your fears seamlessly. Unfortunately, there is not, so I will borrow slightly from NIKE and say Just Try It. It is okay if it takes several attempts…how often do we hit anything out of the park on our first try As you go through the process try and enjoy it... embrace your emotions, identify, and apply your learnings and ask yourself what would I do differently next time?
Finally share your story with others and help them become more confident in facing challenges, driving change, and reaching their ultimate potential. It has worked for me... well except in the case of spiders but I am not giving up on that yet!
Victoria Varley is the Vice President of R&D for Diversified Brands at Sherwin Williams. She is a chemist by degree and spent the first 10 years of her career developing technologies and products for the Coatings Industry before moving to a career in technical management. She is a strong believer in giving back to the community. She volunteers as a mentor to first generation college students, supports CSU as a visiting committee member for the College of Science and Health and is a Board member for Hospice of the Western Reserve. In her spare time she and her husband enjoy camping and vacationing in the Caribbean.