The Path to Leadership is Not Always a Straight Line
Jennifer Williamson
Jennifer Williamson
Senior Vice President,
Corporate Communications
Sodexo North America

In relation to Women’s History Month, a junior manager recently asked me “what inspired you to become a leader?” I had to ponder her question because there was no silver bullet or magic moment for me. I did not start my career with specific goals or a well-laid plan or even a desire to lead others. In fact, my career progression into senior leadership was not a clearly defined step-by-step move up the proverbial corporate ladder. Instead, it looked more like the up, down and across pattern of a lattice.

As a child, I certainly didn’t dream about an executive leadership role in a large corporation. Let’s face it, in the 1970s—the formative years of my childhood—there simply were not role models or social cues for women in senior leadership positions. I remember the popular board game for girls called “Tressy Career Girl.” Players had to navigate a path to be a successful “career girl” by becoming a nurse, secretary, teacher, model, dancer or actress. There was no mention of accountant, doctor, engineer or business executive.

I graduated from college with a degree in education and a plan to get married, have a family and teach high school history. I stumbled on my current career with Sodexo quite accidently when I picked up a waitressing job to pay for my master’s degree in education. I was promoted to assistant manager, attended management training classes and realized that I could combine my love of this industry (I worked in food service throughout high school and college) with my passion for teaching into a fulfilling career. I changed my major to an MBA with a concentration in Human Resources and continued on my career path with Sodexo. I am so thankful for the many outstanding colleagues, supervisors and mentors who have helped me realize that I could take on more responsibility and succeed as a leader.

It may surprise you that I am not motivated by climbing the career ladder. Instead, a theme of my career has always been looking for the opportunities to make a difference and add value. Be a leader—no matter what your job or level—don’t wait to become one. When you see something you can positively affect, take the initiative. This will set you apart as a courageous and confident leader. When it’s time to take on a new role, you don’t need to have all the answers but you do need to have the drive, passion and commitment to take on the challenge.

Always remember that collaboration and working with teams is essential to being a successful leader. Actively learn from your team members and create an environment that supports them in learning from each other. At my level, I have to put the right people in the right roles and then create an environment that facilitates high performance. Creating an environment where people can fully contribute means that in the end we all advance our collective wisdom and skills. Most importantly, shine a light on and celebrate your team members’ successes.

Finally, make sure you are taking care of yourself and your loved ones. Recognize that it is OK to say no sometimes, both professionally and personally. Say yes to what inspires and motivates you. For me, that is taking time to exercise every day and setting goals like running a half marathon and maybe one day the full 26.2! It also means balancing my family’s needs and being present for them, as well as being a role model, especially for my daughter.

All those years ago I couldn’t have imagined I’d be where I am today in my career. Success is not always a straight line—there are ups and downs, twists and turns. Leaders develop through challenges, experiences, setbacks (dare I say mistakes!) and a willingness to grow. Always remember to focus on your strengths and recognize the value you bring to your organization, team, family and community. Be determined to find ways to improve processes or make a breakthrough change. I hope along the way I’ve inspired and encouraged other women, just as so many others have done and continue to do for me.

Jennifer Williamson is Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, Sodexo.


10 comments on “The Path to Leadership is Not Always a Straight Line

  • Jodi Davidson says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Jennifer. Appreciate the reminder to focus on purpose filled work while nurturing relationships with oneself and others to do good work together. While you did not become a teacher in the literal sense, your education has served well on all these fronts. I remember when you were finishing up that degree how many years ago? Best wishes.

  • mike selicious says:

    Jen this a wonerfull article and even as a a young wowen who i rememeber as my salad prep girl at always were a go getter Anello would be proud..

    your Chef Michael Selicious

  • Debbie Dixon says:

    I loved reading this! My friend read this first and was so excited that you run she told me I had to read it too! I am a fellow runner and have done about 14 or more half marathons, 1 full, and a tough mudder. I am struggling with sharing time like many others! Time at work, time for running, time for the family. Its can be very frutstrating and I would love to hear your tips! In my past 5 years with Sodexo I am almost always around men in the leadership team. Any career advice from someone that has grown like you would be amazing! Thanks for the great article!
    Debbie Dixon

  • Very good article Jennifer. I too had a very similar pathway, and even work for a while in Human Resources. Throughout my career first with Johnson Controls, and now with Sodexo, I have change dirctions from HR, Training and Development, Project Management, Healthcare Facilities Management Operations and now working for the Solution Center in Performance and Operations Improvement. Thinking about the next career steps at this time, and what I would like to do next.

    Thanks again, you story is interesting and inspiring.

  • A very good read. The only part that caused me a lot of thought is,
    “When it’s time to take on a new role, you don’t need to have all the answers but you do need to have the drive, passion and commitment to take on the challenge.”
    Thinking about this, I have all these traits but I also have a family that has been “demanding” of my time. My question to you is, how did you balance family and career?
    My wife, non-Sodexo, also works 50+ hours a week.

  • Jerry Schafetz says:

    Loved reading this article Jennifer. I remember some of the early days in your career – as they were my early days as well. Like you my career has been a “long and winding road”, but the scenery along the way (knowledge gained, friends met) have been outstanding. I always dreamed of, and in fact owned my own business for 10 years before starting my corporate career. Looking back I have no regrets at all, and I am proud to tell people I work for Sodexo as a great company to work for.

  • Mitos Gomez-Douglas says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Jennifer. I love the fact you address living with “purpose”. When there is a purpose, rewarding relationships bloom that produce works which add value and have meaningful impact. Our lifes journey is never a clear straight path, besides what fun would that be.

  • Jennifer Williamson says:

    Thanks to everyone who has read this post and responded with your own personal thoughts, experiences and questions. I want to acknowledge that although I strive for it every day, finding a perfect balance between family and career is nearly impossible. There will always be demands from both areas that I simply cannot meet. I’m not sure that I have the perfect solution, but this is what has worked for me, my career and my family over the years. My first tip is to make your health and well-being a priority. I know this may sound selfish when there are so many other demands on your time, but I look at it this way – if I’m not operating at my peak, I won’t be able to meet my personal and professional responsibilities efficiently and effectively. My second tip is to invest in a really strong support system…and it is an investment! Managing the demands of a busy career and a full personal life means you have to allocate resources in your budget for flexible and reliable childcare and help around the house. I know this sounds expensive, and it is, but for me it is an investment in my career and my family’s future…and I value that way more than a fancy car, dinners out or luxury vacations. The third tip I would offer is to always prioritize and then reprioritize! This requires hard choices and is much easier said than done, so here is my advice: prioritize by the year, month, the week and the day. I try to map my most my important personal and professional commitments and then build my schedule around them. Make sure you and your supervisor are aligned on your work priorities. I have worked for some amazing people at Sodexo and I have found that when I have communicated with them openly and honestly about my work priorities, as well as my personal demands and my plans for managing both, that I have gotten tremendous support. My last tip is this: you have to be realistic about your time and capacity. On occasion that will mean saying “no.” I like to use a “Yes, No, Yes” strategy. I suggest framing it like this: “Dinner with the project team sounds like a lot of fun (Yes). Unfortunately I can’t make it this time (No). The next time you plan to get together, please let me know (Yes).” These are the tips that work for me, and I know they won’t work for everyone. I encourage you to evaluate where you are and develop a plan that will work for you, your career and your family. I wish you the greatest personal and professional success!

  • cynthia walz says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Jennifer. Your story really resonated with me and I share your thoughts and views about what makes a great leader.

    In the corporate world advancement can sometimes be a challenge, especially if the hiring managers do not have great vision, passion and energy to create the environment for change and growth.

    We are sometimes so big that our core values and the vision of our senior leaders are lost in the trickle down.

    Short of telling a great story and truly being a passionate leader with the energy, knowledge and commitment to drive engagement and make a difference. Would you have any advice on how to move your career to the next level.


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