Rethinking Success: Steelcase’s Nancy Hickey on evolving your career

9.16.2013 Article, Leadership, School News

Nancy Hickey is senior vice president, chief administrative office for Steelcase, Inc., a global leader in the office furniture industry. But you might be surprised to learn about her first job after college.

“I became a really good writer [in college] and I clearly remember the day my dad was driving me back for senior year,” Hickey told the Master of Arts in Management students in Broyhill Auditorium. “He said this time next year you’ll be supporting yourself.”

That’s how Hickey became a high school English teacher. She credits her liberal arts education for helping to find her passion, and says she loved teaching for four years. But around that time, she realized she wanted a new challenge. So how does a high school English teacher enter the business world?

“The breakthrough came when I could tell what teaching meant to me,” Hickey said. “My job was to get students focused on learning – what I was communicating to them. I had to find different ideas and make them see the value of learning. I wasn’t just teaching, I was selling.”

Hickey told students to take the same approach – think about their skills and experiences and consider how they can promote their abilities to a prospective employer. Above all, she says, students should take some risks and seek new experiences to develop new skills.

Hickey suggests three key attributes companies look for in a future leader:

Competence and confidence
“Be trusted and someone who cares about being good at what you do. Believe in yourself and know that you’re not always perfect. Be vulnerable and have the confidence to be honest with yourself.”

Curious, connected and committed
“Be willing to take a little risk – believe that you are going to learn something through your curiosity.”

“Authenticity is the number one attribute of a leader. If you can’t be who you are where you’re working, then you’re probably not making the best fit for yourself. A leader who is honest about shortcomings inspires others to think they can be leaders too.”

Hickey says good leaders not only have presence, but are fully present and engaged.  “At the end of the day, I may not have spent as much time with the people I want, but I was involved. What I did, I did genuinely. “