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Career planning: build on strengths, strengthen weaknesses.

In planning a career, the average person might not dream of becoming a multitalented author, playwright, producer, director, singer, dancer, and Poet Laureate. That's what's happened to Maya Angelou, but it wouldn't have happened if she had not recognized her strengths early in life, worked hard to improve herself professionally, and set achievable--if ambitious--goals for herself.

On a recent occasion, Maya Angelou related a story involving an incident that was crucial to her career.

Many years ago, as a young mother, she had just returned from appearing in Porgy and Bess in Europe and was depressed because she had been away so long from her son, who had been cared for by loved ones. Still depressed, she went to her voice instructor's house. She told him how she felt.

He picked up a yellow tablet and a pen and told her to write.

"You don't understand," she said.

"Write," he said. "Write your blessings."

"But, I ..."

"Write that you can see this pad. Write that you can hold it. Write that you have the ability to write. Write!"

And so she began to write her blessings, and by the time she finished the page, that particular bout of depression had lifted.

"As a result of my teacher giving me that yellow pad," she said, "I have written all my books, every play I've written, every television script, every movie script, lyrics that I write for different singers and myself, my new play, and all my essays and all my articles are written on a yellow pad. I have the secretary to type them up. But I write them on a yellow pad, and as soon as I see the yellow pad, I think of my blessings."

If you allow it, your mind can be your greatest liability. In this story, Dr. Angelou gives one example how to make sure your mind is your greatest asset--whether in pursuing a career or simply enjoying life.

In her own life, Dr. Angelou placed great value on influences that have inspired her, and so she has become an inspiration to millions of Americans. She recognized in herself the ability to inspire others, and she has built on that strength.

Bob Johnson, CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET), advocates making friends before you need them to help boost your career. "Everyone you come in contact with is a potential source of support somewhere down the line," he said. "Down the line may be one day away or it may be 10 years away. You want to impress those people when you meet them. Build a rapport with them. When you need someone, it will be someone who has been impressed with you instead of somebody who just passed by and didn't notice you. It's building relationships."

Such relationships are strengths that can make careers soar because you made friends with the right people.

In choosing a career, filmmaker Ken Gamble made a choice obvious to him; he loved films. After working on the crew for a graduate thesis film during his freshman year at Howard University, he compiled extensive experience leading to an award-winning short silent film, then a music video that was one of 10 national winners in Madonna's Vogue Video Contest. Finally, he went on to produce, direct, and star in his first feature film, "Ballad of Sacrifice," which won major acclaim for him when he was named a 1993 Sony Innovator. (The Sony Innovator Awards go to outstanding young filmmakers, writers, and musicians.)

From interest to career has been a straight line for Gamble, and his interest has proven a definite strength for his career. He has had to work hard and thoroughly prepare himself at every level he has occupied in his rise to prominence. He has had the faith to act on the confidence that he is talented in his area of interest.

"Information is power," says Cathy Hughes, owner of Radio One, Inc., a company with four radio stations in the Washington-Baltimore area. As the host of a weekday morning talk radio show, Hughes holds the attention of a large and devoted audience every day on the air.

However, Hughes attributes her success in radio to being an assertive woman in a male-dominated industry. "Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself and your abilities," she said. Speaking up for herself gave her the opportunity to gain experience in several positions at different radio stations, securing the knowledge she needed to run her own stations.

Seemingly, Hughes is at the pinnacle of her career, as a station owner in two major markets. However, as an astute business woman, she knows that her growth stops only when she allows it to stop. Hughes and her partner and son, Alfred Liggins, are looking to expand Radio One into additional stations and cities.

Hughes' assertiveness about identifying her strengths and making them known to others may account for her success. She also paid her dues in gaining experience in the complex world of broadcasting before becoming a station owner.

Kevin Mitchell, national director of Alternative Promotions for Def Jam/Rush Associated Labels, a recording company, says he got ahead by doing more than was required.

Excelling in college radio gave him an opportunity to attend the Black College Radio Convention and other conferences. He was the only conference participant who brought business cards, took notes, asked numerous questions, and wore a suit. Consequently, he stood apart from other participants in a positive way. He thus was able to secure his first position in the recording industry.

Mitchell, now with a very demanding position at what is probably the premiere record label for rap and hip-hop music, still continues to do more than is required. For him, the results are a quick climb up the ladder of success in the recording industry.

Being confident of his own strengths, Mitchell has always done what it takes to make others aware of him by standing out in the crowd as a leader and a first-class professional.

Star Jones, legal correspondent for NBC News, offers two bits of advice for young people in the process of planning their careers. First, seek as many mentors as you can by collecting business cards at meetings and speeches. Jones says that it is very important to follow up on offers for you to consult with those people as you pursue your career path. Second, shoot for the general position in a business instead of relying on the scarce "minority spot" to get you through.

Although confident of her own strengths as a lawyer, former prosecutor, and broadcast journalist, Jones also values the strengths of others who are senior to her. Thus, she is able to incorporate their insights as well as her own into her career planning.

Broadening oneself in terms of skills and becoming expert at emerging technologies are strategies that are seen as important by Keith Clinkscales, Chief Operating Officer of Vibe magazine.

"It is very likely," he said, "that someone coming out of college now will go through five or six job changes and perhaps even three or four career changes in his or her lifetime." Having as many skills as possible is job insurance.

In addition to mastering technology, such as computers or telecommunications, Clinkscales also urges young people to develop their communication skills as much as possible. "People who don't have good communication skills are at a terrible disadvantage in today's job environment."

Having a strength upon which to build a career is vital. It's even better when the individual has more than one strength, thus permitting more than one potential career path. Being versatile gives one something to fall back on if the initial career path is blocked.

"People skills" are also important, according to Robert J. Brown, chairman and founder of B&C Associates, a North Carolina public relations firm. "The people who have the best people skills are the ones who ultimately end up winning the race," he said.

Brown also offered this advice, something his grandmother told him when he was growing up:

"If you have enough courage, enough faith, and if you are willing to sacrifice and work hard enough, you can achieve anything."

"I think that is true," he continued. "If you make all these things work and imbue those things into your daily regimen--hard work, sacrifice, faith, and courage--then you are going to make it in whatever field you are in."

Brown is correct, of course, about interpersonal skills, but those who know him also know he is an excellent communicator, an accomplished business executive, a highly intelligent problem-solver, and one who remains current on myriad details related to national and international affairs. On top of that, he is a hard-driving professional whose example brings out the best in others.

"People skills" may top Brown's priority list of strengths, but he has worked hard over the years in numerous areas.

In my own case, when I was a high school student in South Carolina, I became aware of certain strengths of mine upon which I have built my career. Growing up on our family's farm near Marion, SC, I was attracted to the business aspects of the farming operation.

I had a special interest in the books my father kept and he came to depend on me to fill out his income tax forms every year. My father persuaded me that if I wanted to fulfill my ambitions, I first needed to develop contacts in the business world.

An encounter with a South Carolina senator helped open the door for me to take my father's advice. At a political rally, I listened to Sen. Strom Thurmond, but when I had the opportunity, I boldly asked him, "Are you a racist?" Thurmond astounded me when he asked, "Why don't you come work for me someday in Washington and find out for yourself?. "

When I graduated from South Carolina State College, I accepted Thurmond's invitation to do an internship in his office. That was only the beginning of what was to become the public service phase of my career.

During that portion of my career, while a legislative analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I got the idea of bringing comedian Richard Pryor to the USDA as a speaker. Despite many obstacles, I made it happen. When The Washington Post asked Pryor why he had come to speak to the USDA in Washington, he replied, "Because an employee there named Armstrong Williams asked me to."

Among those reading the story was Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. He hired me as his confidential assistant, a position I held for four years.

Later I joined a public relations firm, B&C Associates in High Point, NC. There, I served as vice president of Governmental Affairs and International Relations, dealing with clients all over the world.

At B&C Associates, I met Stedman Graham, a fellow executive, and later we founded Graham Williams Group, a public relations firm with offices in Chicago, that he managed, and offices in Washington, DC, under my leadership.

Although we no longer have a Chicago office and I am now the sole proprietor of Graham Williams Group, Stedman remains a close advisor to the company as well as a member of the Board of Directors.

In looking back over the way my career has evolved, I feel wonderfully blessed. I have never been without a job, and opportunity has opened for me each time I have needed it.

Building on strengths and strengthening weaknesses are good strategies for developing careers. Interests are strengths, particularly when talent is associated with the interests. But hard work is always required to achieve competitive performance.

A virtuoso performance with the violin is not attained in one burst of insight, but is acquired one stroke at a time of the bow across the strings. And so it is with careers and life. We don't burst forth into success. We get there one small step at a time. The conscientious, patient, and determined way is the sure way to success.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Williams, Armstrong
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:2014
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