Class of 2020: May You Find the Opportunity in Crisis

Written by:

Katie Mehnert

Twenty three years has passed since I graduated from Louisiana State University. That day was filled with so many emotions, hugs, tears of joy and butterflies in my stomach about entering the real world. I was on top of the world and life couldn't have been better. I moved to St. Louis, Missouri and started my new life in a marketing job working on a top client account. I had it made.

About a year into the job, I was asked to come to my bosses office. Security lined up the door with boxes and shuttled It was the biggest blow to my young ego. I was so upset about being one of the many picked to be walked out with a box by security officers. They treated us like criminals.

That layoff was the best thing that happened to me. I didn't know it but it taught me about having grit, being resilient, and rolling with the punches.

When I think about 21, I don't have to go back too far. I'm 44, so I’m not old enough to say this, but the world has changed tremendously. We’ve shifted from an industrial life to an intellectual interconnected society where change, ambiguity, volatility and crisis are the norm.

So it’s fitting my one piece of advice I offer graduates and anyone in transition today is...

Never Waste a Good Crisis

I’ve had an amazing life because of crisis. Crisis is the heart of transformation and usually produces change. I’m not suggesting you create one, but you need seek opportunity—not security. It takes time to live through a few and come to see the gifts a crisis produces.

Crisis #1: My First Layoff

After a year into my first job, I got called into my supervisor’s office. We were being “let go”. I got a box and 10 minutes to pack. And since no one was left around, security officers escorted us out. I was humiliated and didn't want to call home to break the news. I worked extra hard. Those “slackers” got to keep their jobs while I had to look for a new one. It just didn’t seem fair.

The company ultimately shut its doors after a series of fraud investigations.

The Learning: A layoff generally is more about a failing business in a down market or bad leadershipthan it is about you. Don't take it personally. committed that day I would build a strong networkYou have to always be building your village. So, I took my box and began to fill it with business cards. (Back then we didn’t have LinkedIn!)

And speaking of boxes, I got a few in those early years….

Crisis #2: Y2K and Enron

Y2K was an uneventful yet profitable crisis. People feared every computer would crash and cripple business. Except…it never happened but we all enjoyed the work it produced.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. They sure were right!

Just as Y2K work was winding down, I got a call to move to Houston to join Enron.

I packed my bags immediately and went “down the bayou”. A few months later, I got sick with cancer. That same year 911 rocked the planet and Enron imploded. It was a tough year. And while everyone was looking for a job, I remained brave I’d find my way despite my fear.

The Learning: When it looks and sounds good too good to be true, it probably is. And when the world truly is falling apart around you, be brave and surround yourself and lean-in to that village you've been building.

Crisis #3: The First (and only) Time I Got Fired

A local firm recruited me to join their team to transform their dinosaur-dated supply chain. After a glowing review, I was unexpectedly issued a performance warning. There were no specifics except the letter stated I had 90 days to improve or I’d be ‘terminated.’

And 90 days later (to the date), I was escorted to the door. I was confused and it stung. This time it was very personal.

I later discovered my exit was purely political.

The Learning: As you rise, it becomes less about your competence and everything to do with how you navigate the field, get to know the right coaches, create fans, and play the game. I called my Dad sobbing. He grinned and told me I had now earned the right to put “seasoned professional” on my I did!

Choosing Crisis

Layoffs, my 'Donald Trump' moment, and falling ill before 30 taught me a lot about the opportunities you gain through crisis. I had plenty of failed relationships and experiences in my 20s. These crises all created opportunities for me to learn, grow, share, and prosper.

Crisis #4: Jumping Ship

I decided to jump from a very comfortable career track at Shell to help BP, shortly after becoming a new mom in 2012. For the first time, I meaningfully moved my own cheese. BP represented the perfect opportunity to leverage my experience and lead with purpose. I wanted to help my neighbors, industry and the world overcome and improve.

There were days, though, I wondered why I chose hell over heaven.

While at BP I discovered so much about my own personal leadership. I learned from talented people...executives, engineers, ex-military leaders and a former US astronaut. And, we moved the needle amidst ongoing divestments, organizational restructuring, and litigation.

The Learning: Everyone wants to be the leader when things are going swell! But no one signs up for the hard stuff. When I left to go to BP, I was branded “crazy” and even called a “traitor”. But, some of mentors never left my side. If anything, they were there to listen and coach. This experience has made me who I am now: pre-retired at 38 crisis-hunting!

The good news?

This new world is full of crisis and opportunity! And yes, the market is tough. It’s transforming and we are in the thick of some interesting and amazing times. It’s for the committed, the brave, and the savvy. It's for the ‘crazy’ ones who never, ever waste a good crisis.

My hats off to the class of 2020 and to everyone in transition, whether you're 21, 41 or 61! May you find the fortune of opportunity in crisis.

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