“I should have gone to business school; that was much more interesting to me.”
I hear this kind of thing a lot, especially from people who went to law school.
They’re not sorry they went to law school; they just realize it was a springboard to doing something they enjoyed more or felt more passionate about than practicing law. Sometimes, they feel like a different springboard would have been even better.
This is not at all about business vs. law school. Most people—no matter how they train—end up in a different career path than they initially envision for themselves. In fact, careers can—and should—be voyages of discovery, allowing us to change direction and embrace new opportunities.
Today, Diane Danielson is the COO of SVN International Corporation, a commercial real estate firm. She grew up in Columbia, Maryland, one of the earliest planned cities. “It was meant to create socio-economic equality and be ethnically mixed.” The world of commercial real estate was all around her, though she took little notice of it.
In a fairly routine fashion she acquired a B.A. in English (Colgate University) and thereafter a J.D. from Boston College Law School.
She started work in 1993 and practiced law for three years. “There was a shake-up at my firm when I was a third-year associate. My boss left in the middle of the night….I found myself out looking for a job.” Danielson was about 26.
“This isn’t supposed to happen to someone like me; I play by the rules.”
This is another common pit stop on the voyage of a discovery-driven career. Sometimes we get to change in the manner and time of our choosing; many times we have to adapt on the fly. Often, that turns out to be a good thing. We should be changing, but without the cosmic push, we don’t.
Danielson was interviewing with a lot of law firms and realized she was dreading the possibility that one of them would hire her. Practicing law wasn’t really her cup of tea. As an attorney she had worked on a lot of real estate transactions; looking around, it was her impression that all those people were having a lot more fun than she was.
“So I took a job as a salesperson—100 percent commission….It felt like jumping out of a plane with no parachute.”
That’s a big change from the guaranteed salary of a third year associate in a law firm; the loss of the juicy year-end bonus. It was a huge step back, but with far more potential for growth.
“Almost every firm in Boston was willing to offer me this job. I think they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself….I think if General Counsel had been a thing back then, it really would have been a better fit for me. In-house counsel was a newish thing, 25 years ago.”
As an attorney she was good at evaluating the business case and really good at drumming up business, but not rewarded for the hours she put into these non-billable activities. Her skillset was a conundrum for a law firm but it was advantageous expertise for her pivot to commercial real estate.
She took the job offering what she perceived as the greatest opportunity and closed her first deal in four months—hard, hard work, but apparently record time.
“I realized, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
That’s when she made her move into marketing and operations. She started junior, maneuvered through various roles, moved to bigger firms. “In three years I’d really revolutionized some of these 125 year old firms and they let me do a lot. They supported me. I got to be a Vice President.” She was one of the youngest vice presidents; one of the only women.
For instance, she created a business women’s network—now the Downtown Women’s Club—“with other individuals who were in similar situations but different industries.” The head of her firm recognized that “that’s a whole other network that we’re not tapped into.” Danielson generated a lot of business leads for the firm from that network.
She switched firms while pregnant—typically not good timing—but it was a more interesting position and the new firm was amenable to dealing with the pregnancy. It was another time when she acknowledges that she could have stuck with the status quo but she wanted a new challenge: less marketing, more business development. It was an uphill battle in a male-dominated environment. She was soon a single mom with a health-challenged child needing to see a specialist every few weeks; Danielson had to pretend she was going golfing rather than acknowledge what she was actually doing—golfing was acceptable to the old boys’ club; doing mom stuff wasn’t.
“I didn’t know there was a glass ceiling until I hit it really, really hard.”
She became a “reluctant entrepreneur.” She grew the Downtown Women’s Club into 30 chapters in three countries. There were ventures into business networking technologies. Eventually she founded a business consultancy; the core of her clientele became the commercial real estate firms who knew her from her earlier career incarnation.
Then SVN found her on LinkedIn and came calling, wooing her with the irresistible pitch: “You have the weirdest resume and we have the perfect job for you…in a nicer way….They purposefully looked beyond the normal candidates for a COO of a commercial real estate company….Normally it would be a man….But I had legal and marketing, commercial real estate sales, technology.” Danielson manages headquarters operations and oversees marketing and strategy for the international franchising giant.
“There were some colossal failures in there.”
That’s a familiar milestone too, looking back. From the loss of her law firm position, to challenges in the commercial real estate business, to being a single mother and a struggling entrepreneur trying to find a niche in the tech world, Diane Danielson, like many others, proves that failure isn’t fatal. We mourn, we learn, we brace ourselves for the next leap. Big success lies on the other side.