Top 10 Career Tips from Intuit Sr. VP Nora Denzel

Jul 6, 2011
16 Min Read

Nora Denzel didn’t start her career as a senior vice president of Intuit's Employee Management Solutions Division, which includes all Intuit Online Payroll products. In fact, she will be the first to say how hard she had to work to get to where she is today and how many mistakes she made.

One day, Denzel reflected on those mistakes and came up with a list of the top 10 things she learned from them. She decided to share her tips with an Intuit Women’s Network audience a few years ago. Her talk was so successful that we wanted to share her advice with a broader audience. Without further ado, here are her “Top 10 ways you shoot yourself in the foot” in her own words in hopes that you don’t make the same mistakes she did:

1. Remember to control your PR agent: YOU.

Every time something comes out of your mouth at work, people will form an impression of you. Every time you say something, you are essentially issuing a press release. If you think others are talking poorly about you, know this impression of you started with what they heard you say.

For example, I had an employee who had just given a fabulous presentation. And when someone told her that, she replied with: “I was tired and it wasn’t my best work.”

What that interaction told me was that she didn’t think highly of her skills and I left wondering if she was as capable as I thought she was. A better response would have been a simple “Thank you,” or “I am glad you liked it.”

Let me share with you another example. When I worked at IBM, my boss asked me to take a job in Tucson. Because my husband lived in California, the commute was very hard. Soon, people started asking me how the commute was going and I realized early on I had to be careful with what I put out there.

Should I say the absolute truth: that I knew the flight attendants better than I knew my friends; that I was missing birthdays; that I was constantly tired? Or do I simply say “I am learning new things”? The point is, don’t lie, but be selective with what you put out there.

2. Aim high – project what you want to do.

A year or two into my career I was traveling with my supervisor when she turned to me and asked what my career goals were. Now, at this point in my life, I just wanted to pay off my student loans and maybe buy a new car. So, without really thinking, I blurted out “I want to be a third line manager.” In other words, a middle manager with about 150 employees. Not a bad job, but not a particularly lofty goal.

She turned to me, and said sternly “Never say that again! Someone as bright as you should never have such low goals.”

At that moment I learned that even though I had no idea what exactly my goals were, by putting an aspirational goal out there, I was opening myself up to so much more. Others began to see me as ambitious and gave me a lot of great advice. Over time, I was sent to special development classes and people saw me as someone with potential. And, yes, I did eventually lead an IBM software business along with a whole lot more.

3. Learn to ask.

I had an employee come into my office and let me know that some day he was going to take an assignment in another country. At the time, I thought he was crazy because there were no openings outside of the country. A few weeks later, I was in a meeting where someone said they had an opening for his skills in another country. Because that man had made his aspirations known to me, I then said I might have the perfect person for that role. About 48 hours later he was on a plane.

The very next day, a female employee came into my office and wanted to know where that job had been posted. I had no idea she was interested in a global assignment because she’d never mentioned it before.

This forward approach of just ”asking for what you want” might not work for everyone, but the important lesson is to have conversations with your managers so they know what your aspirations are. Learn how to ask for what you want and ask in the right way.

4. Get a Life.

A lot of times people don’t understand that at corporations there are a lot of wants and a limited number of resources. Some people often get so invested in their work that they wind up taking things personally. If someone is against their proposal, they get offended, take it personally and ruin that relationship.

People that get so hurt and take things personally aren’t great employees. Learn to let things roll off your back. What you need to realize is that if you lighten up at work, you’ll also have a much better life. When you realize that a life isn’t all about your work, but work is just a piece of your life, your career will soar.

5.  Don’t always work to please everyone.

When I grew up, I used to watch the Miss America pageants. What I noticed is that the girl voted Miss Congeniality – or the nicest girl at the pageant – never won the crown.

That lesson served me well when I was at IBM and was asked for the second year in a row to head a charitable contribution campaign for the whole site. I politely declined the request.

What they said was I was the best coordinator they ever had. But what they were really asking was “Will I do that role forever?” I already learned enough and achieved my personal goals during that one year stint. Miss Congeniality would do it the rest of her life and feel guilty if she said no to the offer. The pageant winner wouldn’t do it for more than a year and wouldn’t be upset about saying “No thank you” and moving on. And that’s what I did with no regrets.

6. Learn how to act.

As a farm girl from upstate New York, whose family raised beef cattle, I come from rather humble beginnings. I put myself through college and when I was in my early 30s I was scheduled to meet Bill Gates on a business matter. Now to a computer science major—even one who has been out of school for a while and had some success in her career– Bill Gates is a GOD. And I was about to shake his hand.

It was a situation, and all of you will have them from time to time, that threatened to overwhelm me and make it impossible for me to manage my brand.

Here’s the trick to getting through these situations: act like someone who is confident. Act like someone who knows what she’s doing. I said to myself, just act like Grace Hopper. For those of you who don’t know, Grace Hopper was the most talented programmer I’d studied in school and she was a very confident person. After a while of talking with Bill, I wasn’t acting any longer and I really was the confident, smart, accomplished person discussing a computer science problem with Bill Gates.

7. Feel comfortable being uncomfortable.

Strive to be the dumbest person in the room. Yes, I really mean it. When you are the dumbest person in the room, you grow, quickly. Being the smartest one in the room is boring. Now, I’m not bragging here, I’ve actually left jobs because I got tired of being one of the smartest and most experienced in the room, because it meant I wasn’t growing.

If you don’t take a job outside your comfort zone, you are limiting your potential. If you aren’t uncomfortable in your role, you aren’t learning. What I recommend is for those starting a new or different role, is to circle a date in their notebook that is six months out. And at that date, if you are still uncomfortable and truly hate the job, then you have permission to go back to your old role.

What happens is if you turn down that role before even trying, you could end up wondering what could have been. Be secure in your abilities and be uncomfortable at times and you will grow more in your career. Plus, there is never fault in saying “I don’t know, teach me.”

8. Embrace criticism.

For me this tip is huge. In my career I have seen people get extremely defensive when hearing criticism. Trust me when I say criticism from the right people is very helpful.

If someone gives you advice and then you complain that the person’s advice was wrong, you are shooting yourself in the foot. If that person hears you, that will be the last time they give you feedback. And without that feedback, you won’t grow.

But if you get feedback you don’t believe in, before just shrugging it off, ask clarifying questions. Give it 24-48 hours in between discussions and then thank them for their time and ask for additional context. And if you never hear that bit of feedback from anyone else, then you can discount it. But if you hear it over and over from other folks then you need to look into it. One of the best books I ever read was “The Critical Edge: Learn How to Give and Take Criticism … and Come Out on Top.” Check it out if you can.

9. Attitude- you make your own rules.

In large organizations, rules exist to prevent anarchy. But, true leaders know that they make their own rules. When I am looking for good leaders I look for people who know when the right time is to break those rules. It really does pay off to think beyond the rules in certain situations. I’m not giving you permission to violate one of our values or do something unethical, just encouraging you to think creatively and not let the existing rules or policies be a barrier.

10. Remember you are judged on results.

In today’s shaky economy, job security is never a given. The closest you can get is employment security by having good results. Your career is more like an obstacle course than it is a smooth path. And bigger obstacles appear the further your journey gets.

In soccer, you drive down the field and score a goal. If you don’t score you can’t go up to your coach and say “There were five guys in my way so that is why I didn’t score.” We are all results driven. There is no credit for how hard it was. Figure out what you can do with what you have and own the outcome!

Have you made mistakes that you turned into valuable career and life lessons? Please share below and we can all learn from each other's mistakes!


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