Living Your Best Life: 4 Key Lessons that Will Advance Your Career

Shanthi Flynn, former Fortune 500 CHRO, keynote speaker, HR expert and leadership advisor talks about her incredible career journey, the unique career advancement challenges she faced, how she made better choices, stayed true to her values and has lived her best life.

Caroline Pfeiffer Marinho
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After three years away from the corporate world, Shanthi Flynn knew she was ready to take a step forward in her career.

A former top executive at some of the world’s largest and most iconic companies—including Ford Motor Co., The Boots Company and A.S. Watson Group—Flynn had taken three years off to focus on her family. It wasn’t clear when or even if she would return to the corporate world.

And then one day, she uttered seven words that would ultimately serve as a turning point in the evolution of her professional career.

“My older daughter, who was three at the time, kept biting her younger sister on the face,” Flynn said recently in an LHH Conversations Series live-stream event. “I found myself saying, ‘Stop biting your sister on the face’ repeatedly. It’s not something that I ever thought I’d be saying.”

The desire to return to the corporate world was getting quite strong. However, Flynn conceded that it wasn’t clear she could return to a senior job with a large corporation, something that she very much still wanted. “When I took my career break out, it tested my value proposition,” she said.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got three kids now, it’s hard to step back into a separate world.’ I had been used to making fast decisions and I was confident. Being out of the game for three years created doubt in my ability to return. My confidence had a dent for the first time in my career.”

Unexpectedly, a headhunter contacted her about a high-level job with Walmart Asia and—within months—she was back on her career track once again. “I’m a strong believer that if you make the right choices, you’re competent in what you do and can tell your story in a compelling way, then it won’t matter if you take time out to do different things.”

Flynn would go on to work five years for Walmart before striking out on her own as a strategic leadership consultant. In early 2016, she accepted the position of chief human resource officer with the Adecco Group in Zurich. Two years ago, she went back to her own consulting practice, with a focus on keynote speaking and advising executives and boards, leveraging her deep and broad HR expertise as well as business leadership.

Through her varied, three-decade career as an HR executive and business leader, Flynn said she learned many important lessons about how to manage a career, how to thrive as a woman in what is still largely a man’s world of business and, last but not least, how a well-structured network is your best lifeline at key career inflection points.

How women can thrive without giving into the temptation to ‘act more like a man’

Flynn started her career at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, a suburb of East London and a seminal monument in the history of United Kingdom labor law. It was there, in 1968, that 187 female Ford employees walked off the job for three weeks. The strike was a catalyst for the 1970 Equal Pay Act which attempted to prohibit the inequitable treatment between working men and women.

“My choice to join Ford Motor Company in the UK was probably my most foundational choice,” Flynn said. “I spent nearly 10 years there; my first three years were in a car plant where there were probably about 30 women and about 10,000 men. So, as you can imagine, it was a pretty male-dominated environment.”

Although the atmosphere was generally tough for the women working there, Ford was a “truly global company that invested heavily in its people.” Flynn was able to move very quickly through several jobs, which not only built out her resumé but “helped me build my confidence.”

The lessons acquired from being one of the few women in a male-dominated company still resonate today. “As a woman, you can be tough and decisive,” she said. “Those are not male attributes. You just have to be yourself. If you try to copy all the men in the room, you’re not bringing anything different to the table.”

If you learn anything in your career, learn to be opportunistic

Flynn said that even with all the best laid plans, no one can completely predict the course of their careers. Especially today, when so few people spend their entire working lives with one organization. The trick for those people who want to get ahead is to focus keenly on what kind of job they ultimately want to hold, and then look for those opportunities to realize that dream.

That will mean using a broad interpretation of “opportunity.” Don’t get hung up on obtaining a particular title, or on the idea that every move you make needs to be upward. Try to assess the potential in every opportunity, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time.

“If you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, then your career path needs to be much more deliberate,” Flynn said. “You need to know all of the steps you have to take on that journey. Look for those opportunistic moments that allow you to make a different decision or take a different course.”

No matter where you go or what you do, keep building your network

When Flynn first went to Hong Kong in 2002—she followed her husband who had received a teaching position—she admitted to having a huge gap in her career network. Back in the UK, Flynn said she had developed an extensive, high-level network of contacts who both sought and offered support.

In Hong Kong, however, it was like starting over. “I had absolutely no network in Hong Kong,” she said. “So, I went to a headhunter and said, ‘I’m not looking for a job, but I would like to know who are the best networkers in Hong Kong in my space. Ultimately, the headhunter helped connect me to a network with nearly 200 people.”

After developing a new network, Flynn said she set about applying best practices to allow her to get the most out of the people she was meeting. At the top of that list was to not rely solely on connections made through social media. 

“LinkedIn is a blessing and a curse,” she said. “With social media, sometimes you can be in contact with people and not really in contact with people. You have to meet people and have a tangible conversation to develop a network connection. Go for a coffee or try to have a phone or video call, to build presence.”

After building presence, it is important to also remember to be deliberate in what you want from your network. “Before you reach out to your network, you have to have an idea of what it is you want from them in terms of advice or even sponsorship. ‘I’d like to work for the company you work for, how do I do that?’ You have to have some questions that you need answered.”

The best advice I’ve ever received

Flynn said that one of the best parts of cultivating a solid professional network is that you are exposed to some truly sage advice. Of all the things she has been told over the years, Flynn said advice on being “bold and fearless” stands out.

“Sometimes, people overthink things. You have to think through your career decisions carefully but there’s always an element of leap, where you cannot know everything, you cannot gather all the facts.”

Now having moved from an operational role into an advisory and consulting role, Flynn said she still tries to practice a bold and fearless approach to her life and career. She will never stop learning new skills or challenging herself. Her focus, as always, is to help others grow.

“I don’t think I would change anything about my career,” she said. “I very rarely ever look back. Learn from the past and always look forward.”


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