Hear how to make the most of your choices, at work and in life
Meet Christina Sistrunk, former President and CEO at Aera Energy. You are going to love listening to her wisdom for thriving in the male-dominated energy industry. As Christina will share with you, she found that the hardest problems to solve usually were the ones around how well people work together, or don’t, that made the problems more complicated. She explains how figuring out how to bring people together and enable them to be as successful as they had the potential to be was the most challenging part of being a leader, especially a woman leader. A lot to learn!
Watch and listen to our conversation here
Your ability to think independently actually creates opportunities
One of Christina’s main joys at this stage in her career is helping people understand how they can be more effective, not only in their career, but even in their personal life, about seeing the opportunity to make different choices. Better choices create better outcomes, whether at work, or at home. You can connect with Christina on LinkedIn or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more guidance about career choices and following your passion, start with these:
- Blog: How Can You Thrive As A Woman In A Male-Dominated Industry? 5 Steps To Follow
- Podcast: Vicki Baker—Isn’t It Time For You To Power Through To Your Next Career Stop?
- Podcast: Claire Harbour-Lyell—Disrupt Your Career To Reach Even Greater Heights
Additional resources for you
- My two award-winning books: Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business
and On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights
- Our website: Simon Associates Management Consultants
Read the transcript of our podcast here
Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide. And as such, my job is to help you get off the brink. I want you to soar again. And sometimes you need some new ideas, a fresh approach, interesting ways to see, feel and think in new ways. Remember, we decide with our eyes and our heart. And all of a sudden you say, “I don’t know where I’m going.” I keep hearing over and over among my clients, even my colleagues, my friends, “What’s next?” So it’s important for you to begin to see what is next, regardless of where you are on your life’s journey.
It’s good to have a vision for yourself, a personal one of what you would like to see happen as you go through life. It’s better than figuring it out on the fly, and it’s better than trying to make decisions without any direction. But it’s always interesting to listen to wonderful people who have had great journeys. And they want to share them with you so that you too can see how life can move along and take you to great places.
So today, Evelyn Medvin is a wonderful woman who has a chapter in my book, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Businesss. And Evelyn is just wonderful. Her story’s wonderful. She celebrates being a geoscientist when there are many women there. So she introduced me to Christina Sistrunk. Now, Christina has had a very wonderful career. Let me tell you about her, then she’ll tell you about her own journey. But listen carefully, because she has grown up in a world where women aren’t usually successful. And when you begin to understand others, and they become your role models, you begin to say, ah, that’s how we do it. And of course, I can do it. And next thing you know, remember, if I can’t see it, I can’t be it. So see her as somebody who you too could be.
So here’s Christina’s resume. Over 30 years, Christina has held management and executive roles, focusing on assessing and delivering next level performance. And that’s always an interesting term. She’s led organizations across EMP industries, both IOC and independent, ranging in revenue from two to ten billion. She was CEO of Aera Energy for five years. I’m going to let her tell you a little bit more about what EMP means and what the CEO of Aera Energy was like. But I’ll finish her resume so that we can get into her story of how she has experienced organizational turnarounds, including cash management and restructuring.
Her focus has been on value creation, through the development of effective strategy, execution, improved leadership capability and accountability. Now, you know that I have several leadership academies out there. And one of the themes for leaders as followers, and how do you hold them accountable? And how do they get inspired to want to do this, so that they’re giving the gift of giving back, as opposed to waiting to be told what to do?
So her expertise is extremely relevant, regardless of what industry you’re in. She’s improved cash flow and profitability while creating step changes in safety and environmental performance and stakeholder engagement. Prior to her CEO role, she was a VP focused on, of all things, deep water production, and then the Arctic strategy, which is sort of interesting all by itself. Now, she started her career after earning a BS in Chemical Engineering from Ohio State University. But she’s ready to tell you more about who is Christina Sistrunk and why it’s so wonderful to have her on today. Christina, thank you for joining me.
Christina Sistrunk: I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for making the time for me.
Andi Simon: You have a great smile, we’re going to do a lot of smiling today. I know the audience wants to know about Christina, your journey. How did you choose to go into this field? I have a hunch that there weren’t a lot of female role models who were embracing it and tasting it. But you’re an explorer, and one who’s willing to take on all kinds of new stuff, solving complex problems in different ways and giving a great twist to the journey that you’ve been on. Who are you and tell our audience all about you?
Christina Sistrunk: Well, thank you so much. I think I’ll start kind of at the beginning, right. So I was raised in a town of 7,000 people in a rural part of Ohio and neither of my parents graduated from high school. And so thinking about what I wanted to do career-wise, I went through public school and really had an interest in science and math. And actually, at a fairly young age, my recollection is, it was sometime around when I was about 12, my dad, who worked in a union job in a factory, sat me down and said, “Look, every time you come home excited about what you might want to do, what you want to be when you grow up, it requires college.. You have to understand, we don’t have the resources to do that. We’ll do everything we can to try and support you, but that’s not something that you can necessarily count on. So you’re going to have to figure out how to make this work if that’s what you really want.”
So I got very focused on academics and what I needed to do and where there were opportunities for scholarships. And just as I talked to people, and I talked to people that were a couple years older than me and as I got closer to college, I talked to friends who were in college about different career choices. I realized that the interest I had in science and math probably put me on a pathway to better financial stability. And I’d also seen my father work in a job for decades that he didn’t seem to like or enjoy. And so I wanted to find something that I could do that I could support myself, that would also allow me to have a satisfying and rewarding career.
And so I decided to go into engineering, partly because I was torn between advanced math, education and engineering. And a friend who was a little older said, “Well, here’s the thing. If you go into education, and you figure out you don’t like it, and then you want to switch to engineering, you can’t do that and get out of college in four years with your scholarships right now. But if you start in engineering, decide you don’t like it and want to switch to education, you’ll still be able to get out in four years. The first complex problem to solve, what’s the backup plan?”
And so I started engineering, went to Ohio State University, partly because of scholarships that were available to me there and the affordability of that as an institution, because I didn’t want to have a bunch of debt when I got out of school. And had a great education and had a lot of opportunities because of making that choice. But also, I never met an engineer until I got to college. So the worst engineers that I ever met were professors at the university. So I committed to studying something that I really didn’t have a good understanding of. But the more I learned, the more excited I got about the opportunities that were open. And in fact, how many opportunities were available.
If you studied engineering or other STEM fields of study, the choices were much different than had I chosen other disciplines to start with. And that kept me very excited. I then did some interning while I was still in college, got a better idea of what was involved in various aspects of the industry, and in fact, did an internship after my sophomore year in exploration and production in oil and gas. So that’s the part of the business that figures out where to drill the wells, how to drill the wells safely, how to get the oil and gas out of the ground, and then deliver it to pipelines, where it then goes to be made into a variety of products.
But the upstream part of the business kind of lets go of it once it goes into the pipeline, and others take over from there. And it was like a giant puzzle every day trying to figure out where the oil was. How do we get it out in the best way possible? How do we figure out what’s going on with the wells? And so it always felt like a puzzle where you try to figure out what was going on, sometimes three miles away from you underground, to keep the process flowing. And I really enjoyed that.
As I went through my career, I got an opportunity to take on a lot of different kinds of roles. And then I started to see that, as much as I was originally drawn to the business because of the technical challenges, I found that actually the hardest problems to solve usually were the ones around how the overall system worked and how people work together, or didn’t, that made the problems more complicated. And that actually figuring out how to bring people together and enable them to be as successful as they had the potential to be was an even more challenging part of the business.
And that’s when I started to move into supervisory and then managerial roles, and ultimately winding up as a CEO running a California oil and gas company for five years. And, it really was about taking things step by step, thinking about often, “If this were my business, whatever job I was in, if I was a supervisor, or a department manager, if this were my business, how do we actually deliver value?” And that’s just not financial numbers. How do we make the business safer? Or do we make sure we’re developing our employees and do the employees feel valued in what they’re doing? So how do we deliver that value? Better than we did last year? And where are the opportunities? Where are the risks? And how do we unleash the capacity that we’ve got to make a difference in this part of the business?
So, honestly being a woman in oil and gas for over three decades, I won’t tell you that everybody I worked with just embraced me with open arms and expected me to succeed. But I will say, I think many more people did than the industry often gets credit for. I think what helped me be successful was, I almost came from such an odd background. So my parents didn’t have a lot of expectations about what I was going to do educationally. I had to figure out why I was there. So I had always had an underlying desire or compass that was driving me about figuring out how these things worked, and figuring out how I could make a difference.
One of the great things about working in a technical field, even if you don’t see a lot of other role models that might look exactly like you, that commitment around understanding those challenges and contributing to those challenges, and your ability to think independently, maybe partly because my background was so different, actually creates opportunities. And it’s about kind of having your “Spidey sense” up to say, “If that opportunity isn’t going to be available to me, where else can I go, and contribute and learn what I need to learn next?” And usually, there’s some other place where somebody’s looking for talent, and we’ll be happy to have you come join if you’re committed to making a difference and helping people around you be successful. We might have to take a little different path, but if you just keep looking for those opportunities, you will find them.
Andi Simon: Let’s emphasize that there isn’t a straight line between where we start and where we end up. And if you think there is, perhaps there was at one point, but no more, and I don’t really think there ever was. It isn’t about others making the path for you. It’s about you being able to control and accelerate your own growth and curiosity, and know yourself and tell a story that is embraced by others and not threatening.
I hear a lot of this is around collaboration, this is creativity, this isn’t about an ego that needs to soar. This is about a woman who wants to build. I need a few illustrations because I’m just a curious person. So as you’re digging for oil, in the underground deep water area, and then the Arctic, lessons learned, insights to share? I’m just curious, what was it like and how did you live there?
Christina Sistrunk: Well, you know, it looked different in different times. So you know, a parallel path on this journey: I actually met my husband on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Oh, that’s a great step. I think any woman that is going to be successful in business, you make lots of decisions that help you along the way in business, but I’ve got to say, who you choose as your spouse, and the level of support that they’re willing to put on the table to make your partnership work, to make you successful, for you to make them successful, that is a really important choice. And it can make the road a lot easier, or it can make the road exponentially more difficult.
And so that’s an important choice I made career-wise as well, we’re also trying to balance, you know, we had a child fairly early in my career. And because my husband worked away from home about 50% of the time, there were times in my career when I knew I wanted to limit how much I wanted to travel or what kind of roles I wanted to be in for a period of time, because our child needed a level of stability at home that I wanted to make sure we could provide.
And, so you think that that might automatically change what you have the potential to do. And it probably did. But a career is a very long runway. And so, again, the path may take some jogs in it, but it’s about how you are true to your values. How are you true to the talents that you start to realize that you’ve got, or that you have the ability to develop? And what’s your plan for what the next one looks? And the next after that? And how do you start to gain the skills and experience that you think you’re going to need? If you were the hiring manager, what would you be looking for? And how do you put yourself in that position?
So you know, at one point in time, I’ll tell you about a story when I was actually working as a VP in the Gulf of Mexico, for Shell. And we had done a lot of good things in the organization, but we had seen our safety performance plateau. So compared to where we had been five years before, we were doing great. But when I looked at the number of people that were still getting hurt and going home hurt in our operations, day in and day out, the number was really too high. And when I had come into that role, I had worked in the global headquarters, leading a big safety improvement effort, so I knew all the things to do technically. And we had done all those things technically. And we had still kind of hit this wall. We weren’t getting any better, we were doing everything we knew how to do, but it wasn’t good enough.
And I went home over the holidays, had to look myself in the mirror and say, “My people are generating the level of performance that my leadership is asking for, and so what is it about the way I’m leading that has got to shift if we’re going to get to a place where everybody in our operation is going home safe?” At the end of every shift, I had to do a lot of soul searching, I had to reach out to some people and ask for help. So I could look at some people, some other organizations that were making faster progress. You know, were they willing to talk to me when I picked up the phone? They absolutely were and to share their story with me.
And then it really was about sitting down with the leaders that reported to me and saying, okay, here’s our performance. We’ve got to own this. And it was interesting, because I asked them to do some things that were pretty pressing on their parts and their plates were already full and I was asking them to spend a lot more time working with their people in this area. And it wasn’t clear what was going to come off their plate to enable that. And one of the more senior people that worked for me, looks at me, and he says, “Well this is all well and good and we’re all bought into what you’re encouraging us to move forward on. But you know, you’re asking a lot of us and we don’t see that you put any skin in this game.”
Now, the interesting thing was that, coincidentally, as I’ve been thinking about how I could lead differently, I actually already had an action plan that I had planned to put in place, but I hadn’t shared that with the rest of the team. And I said, “Well, here’s what I’m going to do. Everybody makes fun of how busy my schedule is. And it is. And I’m going to tell you every single time somebody gets hurt anywhere on one of our operations as long as I’m in the United States. So if I’m somewhere in Europe at a global leadership team meeting, I can’t honor this, but it’ll just take me longer on set as long as I’m in the United States. Within 48 hours, I’ll sit down with the operations manager who was based in the same office I was in with the actual site manager, with the supervisor, and the person who got hurt. If there’s anybody else in that kind of chain of command, we’re going to have an open and honest discussion about what we missed, what we have to learn and what they need.”
And so at first, quite honestly, I was kind of going all over the place, and breaking into my calendar a couple of times a month which sent a loud message to the organization. And in fact, one of the times I actually went to the site was on December 23, and I went home on Christmas Eve because that’s when the injury had occurred. And boy, did that send a message to that crew about how serious we were about wanting to understand what was going on and how we needed to change so that they could go home safe to their families at the end of every shift. And that was a real turning point, because for me, as a female leader in an oil and gas company, you don’t know all the answers. And in fact, we’re going to experiment. And we’re just going to keep at it until we figure out how to make this better. Yeah, that’s not a traditional way to lead.
Andi Simon: But control going on?
Christina Sistrunk: No, a mentor of mine many years before this has said, “You know, your value for safety has to be higher than your discomfort at what you’ll need to do to change.” And I thought I understood what that meant at the time. And I thought, well, of course, my value for safety is higher than that. When I had to look in the mirror and say, “Am I willing to walk into my guys and say, ‘I don’t have the answers, but this is what we’re going to try next and we’re going to figure our way through this.'” Yeah, we learned together. That was, you know, that was a moment of truth for me.
Andi Simon: And the results were?
Christina Sistrunk: We reduced the amount of injuries for the next two years by 60% every year. That’s a big deal. And when you think about every one of those people, even if they were going home with a few stitches in their hand, it might have been much more serious and that was going to interfere with their life when they got home. So whatever it is that they chose to do in their free time, whether they had kids or they didn’t have kids, it was a disruption in their life that they didn’t deserve to have to deal with. So it was a very big deal.
And again, we can talk about policies, and we can talk about values til the cows come home: the question is, what are we doing to really demonstrate them? And how do we send a message to people about what’s important, and how important they are to us without saying a word? You know, just by them being able to see how you show up is really important.
Andi Simon: Now, as you know, this is a rich conversation, and I’m enjoying it. But some of the things that we’re looking at for your next phase in your journey is, how do you take all of these lessons learned, experiences that many other people will never experience? And you’re no longer the CEO of a company, you’re looking at the next phase in your own life? And what’s the multiplier here? Because just that you did it, and your group did, it was great. What do you want to see next? Because I think that’s where the reflection is turning into for yourself. What matters to me, in my next phase of my journey here? What are you thinking about?
Christina Sistrunk: If I could wave a magic wand, I’d like to help people understand how they can be more effective, not only in their career, but even in their personal life about seeing the opportunity to make different choices. And having that creates better outcomes, and that can be at work, or it can be at home.
So I think one of the hallmarks of my career, and it looked different at different phases, but one of my hallmarks of my career was learning practical ways to bring people together to solve problems that seem too complex. So these are the kinds of problems, maybe you’ve tried two or three easy answers and they haven’t really given you the results that you want or the improvement that you want, or it may actually have created new problems for you. So how do you kind of break that cycle and see opportunities to solve problems differently.
So when I worked for Aera, Aera had built a very strong problem-solving capability. They were a company that ran Visual Lean Manufacturing. That’s the way of designing work processes and solving problems that Toyota had created, and then they applied it to the oil and gas business. So they had a lot of discipline about solving problems. But if you don’t think about the why, and I’d say, “Employee, a few things that I want to share with you,” you can almost become so rote in the way you think about problems that you don’t actually get to the root of the problem and actually solve it. You just paper over it, so to speak.
And in fact, one of the things that I saw that cropped up in that system, for a little while I think got around it, was that if you have a particular set of questions that you ask, you can actually reverse engineer that process to implement a solution that you think the solution is the right answer. And I’ve been in a lot of organizations where people think they’re solving a problem, but what they’re actually doing is advocating for a particular solution without defining the problem in front. And that usually is not as successful as it needs to be.
So the key is, I think the first question you have to ask is, why do we even need to work on this at all? Now, it may be a pet peeve for you, but is it really worth the time and the effort to take it on, to think about what the real problem is, to create a few collaborators, which will probably be important. If it’s a complex problem for you to fully understand it, others will need to be impacted by it as well or they’re not going to put the time into helping you solve it.
So first, why do you need to solve it at all? Is it an irritation? Or does it really need to be tackled? And why now? So how do you define it in objective terms? What is this costing you, or what opportunity is precluding it from happening? And taking the time to kind of go, “Relative to everything else that we’re working on, why would this go to the top of the list?” Just thinking about those things before you get started.
Actually it is really important because you can’t do 10 major things at one time well. You can probably only do one or two if they’re really significant. So why that problem? And why now? Then once you get thinking about it, can you really explain the problem? I would challenge from at least two points of view. So what’s the problem? Why now? And how does it look to you? But how does it look to somebody else in the organization? Maybe who vehemently disagrees with you. You’ve got to see the problem from at least two very different points of view, or you don’t understand the problem.
Then you start to work with others and actually trying to understand that other point of view, go into somebody else in a different part of the organization or somebody you know that would actually disagree with you, and just listen to him talk about what it is that you think is a problem. Where’s the commonality? Look at it through their eyes, or, you know, if you’re seeing the problem because that group is so screwed up. Well, I bet it looks entirely different in that other group. What are they saying about that and taking the time to understand that? Well, then the question is,How do you think about what options there might be to solve it? Push yourself to come up with multiple ways that you think you might be able to solve this again, work with others, test what you see as the problem statement, the points of view around what this encompasses and what it doesn’t encompass.
And then, you know what?, what are different ways that different groups would suggest a solution? And then which one do you think is the right one? And why? And I think a really important part of this is, if you’ve done your homework, the perfect solution is very rare. If you don’t think about it very robustly, you’re going to know what the answer is pretty quickly and it’s going to be easy. But if this is a complex problem, you’ve probably heard one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Sowell, the economist, is: There are no solutions, there are only tradeoffs.
So when you think about the multiple solutions you would have to this problem, where are those tradeoffs? And so which one do you think gives you the best performance for the least amount of effort, or the best performance that is consistent with your company culture, or the most effective long term solution because it’s actually pragmatic enough that you can implement in a minute, maybe it gets you 80% of the way there.
But if it’s relatively easy to implement, maybe that takes away the pain and actually gets you where you need to be in the last 20%. So thinking through those kinds of tradeoffs so that you can have an impact. You do it in a way that it’s not just you telling people what the right answer is, but you’ve worked with others to really improve quality of life satisfaction with the work environment, and you’ve had a positive impact on how everybody involved in this process actually contributes. And you’ve learned some things along the way.
Andi Simon: When you do come to a decision full of the paradox of choice that Barry Schwartz writes about, where you end up feeling like, “If I had just a little more time, I can figure out a little bit better decision. And so I won’t decide now, because the abundance of options are overwhelming. So why decide because whatever I decide won’t be right.”
Anyhow, I love what goes on in the internet world where you buy stuff more than you need, and probably test different sizes. And then you send most of it back. And then you go back on to see if you could have gotten it cheaper someplace else. And the shopping experience is a pretty complicated decision process at times, where you’re never convinced that your decision was the right one. It was just one of those options, and you had to finally decide.
But the world has so many options today that sometimes you feel stalled or stuck trying to figure out which one will my boss like? Or which one will I have the least problem doing or which one’s going to be the most complicated or the most simple? And I do think his opinion is correct, that it’s just too many options. And how do we decide? What did you learn?
Christina Sistrunk: Well, I think I learned a couple of things. One is, the more complicated your solution is, the less likely it is to succeed. And even if you can implement it, you probably can’t sustain it because other things will come along to draw attention. So I have learned to really think about it, but if we go ahead and implement this, how dramatically is it going to change how we work? And how much energy is it going to take to keep this solution in place right over time? And so I think a little pragmatically, and if you’ve got, you know, an equal chance of being successful, err on the side of the simpler solution.
You know, I think the other advantage to that is that, if you think you can get a good way down the road, with a pretty simple solution that’s easy to sustain, go ahead, do that. You’ll learn a few more things in that process. Maybe then you have to tweak a few things on the back end. But it’s much easier than trying to implement something wholescale that maybe you think was perfect but not very pragmatic.
And so part of it is knowing the organization, part of it is knowing the resources that are available. Even those questions about why are you solving it and why are you solving it now will help direct you to know what that right answer is, as you as you measure some of those tradeoffs. There may be something just so critical that you’re working on that actually the whole company needs to reoriented to either capture that opportunity or prevent that risk from being actualized. There are times like that but they’re very few and far between day to day.
Andi Simon: Yeah, you’re sort of on the edge and moving, now don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. How do you look to the edges, as opposed to trying to create a whole new sandbox? That’s often what I find as I’m working. So as you know, I’m a corporate anthropologist, and I work with organizations that need or want to change.
And as I’m listening to you, I’m saying, you have a couple of clients who are at a point in their growth where growth has stalled. And these are strange times. And so the question becomes, do I fix what I have now so I can do better at it? Or do I try to move it into new market spaces in different fashion? Or change the sales story? Or what do I do to accelerate growth again, united?
And those are not small questions, because usually the trend lines have been going along, and then all of a sudden, they’re in the wrong direction. We worked with one university that went from 12,000 students to 8000. And I said, when are you going to call us? I mean, that was the wrong direction. There are some timelines where you have to reinvent what you’re doing. But often, you just have to be on the edges trying to see what’s possible through a fresh lens so that you can do better.
Christina Sistrunk: Well, and I think that’s the real key. So, you know, I’ve seen examples in the course of my career where people want to adopt a new strategy and it’s all going to be hearts and flowers, and everything’s a hockey stick to the right. We just go do this and magic will happen. But you’re not asking the tough questions about, well, what are our underlying capabilities? So is there a match here, if you only have to build one or two new capabilities? That’s serious, but doable.
If you focus on it, and you really think strategically and resource strategically to build those capabilities, but if what you’re trying to create actually requires the culture of the company to be different, your talent pool to be completely different, and requires several capabilities that you don’t currently have, you may be able to draw a plan out that in theory looks great, but your chances of actually delivering that are pretty darn slim.
So, you know, again, I haven’t found a formula, but I do think it’s about what you pragmatically think about. How much change can your organization handle? Some organizations are very comfortable with a high pace of change, and some aren’t. So if you really need to make a change, maybe part of that is really recognizing what you have to do to start to build a level of resilience and comfort with change in your organization that doesn’t exist but that will absolutely derail what you’re trying to do if you don’t take that head on.
And it does mean, you have to engage with your leaders differently. You have to bring in some opportunities to develop them differently. And in some cases, you may find that you’ve got some leaders that were great for the journey you were on before, but maybe they’re not in the right role anymore. Or maybe this organization where it’s headed may not even be where they want to go. And just being honest with that, treating them respectfully in that space, but being willing if the right thing for your employees, your stakeholders, and your business is moving in a given direction, then everybody’s got to get on board to help make that happen.
Andi Simon: I’m thinking about the enterprise agiltity conference, a global conference on building a culture for fast changing times. And the times are just moving very fast. They are and change fatigue is not uncommon. But people don’t quite know how to change. And they haven’t figured out how to put it into their happiness sphere. You know, it’s a habit where they immediately can sort through the options available in a systematic fashion, and begin to be comfortable that the choices they make are small wins going somewhere. And it may not be enormous.
You don’t always need a pandemic to change a little bit. I had a client who was giving remote work as a benefit to his employees before the pandemic. And now he has them all working remotely and can’t get them to come back to the office. And I said, “Well, it was a benefit to them but now it’s a penalty box. Now look how interesting the meaning of something has changed.” So be careful how you interpret what the benefit is to somebody. How will you change them? But this is a fascinating conversation.
Christina, one of the things that you and I had chatted about was that the problems that you’ve learned to solve may or may not be in the toolkit or the interests of young people looking at the STEM industry, engineering, oil and gas, but anything in the science, technology, engineering, math, and even, you know, some people add the arts in there, because I do think creative arts are tied into how we think you’re talking about creative problem solving. It’s real, whole brain storytelling, really understanding. And once you understand that, it isn’t a technical skill, it’s a perception of reality that works.
How are you advising? What do you see, because there’s so much literature on how women aren’t sticking out in STEM. And so it’s not a place where people of color find themselves comfortable, moving up through the hierarchy is difficult. But, part of your own mission now is to begin to identify these folks who may not want to move into this zone, but who really could find great gratification. What are your thoughts?
Christina Sistrunk: Well, you know, I just like to spend time talking with young people as I have the opportunity. This is part of problem solving, what are your real choices? Something that I learned a long time ago, and I try and encourage young people around this as well, is, early on, I think you’ve got to get really clear about whether that voice you’re listening to is one that’s based out of fear, or based in a place around the vision of what you’re trying to create for your life and others. And I promise you, you will never reach your potential staying on what you see as the safe path. Right now, that doesn’t mean you should be taking life threatening risks, but often, when we unpack what we see as risky, it’s because it makes us uncomfortable.
But I have never learned anything, I have never grown in the course of my career, where it felt safe. I didn’t know the answer when I started. It means sometimes you’re going to, you know, you’re going to scrape your knee and you’re going to clean it up, you’re going to put a Band-Aid on it, you’re going to keep going and that’s okay.
Andi Simon: But you have to say that many times. I love Oprah and her advocacy for small wins, because I preach the same. I say, you cannot turn a battleship with an oar. But you want to either do what you really want to do or find those small wins that move you forward so that you can learn what works and what doesn’t without great risk, but enough risks so that you’re testing and trying and learning. And these are all, you know, the whole world of mistake-ology, what you learn from making mistakes and that’s a really big thought. So as you’re working with these young folks, up and comers, what are you finding?
Christina Sistrunk: Well, you know, one thing that I’m finding is, I hate to say this, but I’m not sure that they’re always getting good career counseling, which really disappoints me. So when I was high school age, as I mentioned, I didn’t have a lot of resources at home helping to guide me. And even then, the guidance counselors that we had back then, I remember the one that I had to deal with telling me that, you know, nursing or teaching was a perfectly fine thing for me to consider, but why think about engineering? I guess I was so naive, that I didn’t think that it was going to be an issue. Thankfully, I didn’t see the risk there. And so that kind of propelled me forward.
But, part of that is really getting people to say, okay, so what are the real choices that intrigue you? And why? And how is that likely to play out in the quality of life that you’re hoping to have? So I do think there’s this mystique that all college degrees lead to a certain outcome and a certain lifestyle, which they do not.
To what extent are you a person that’s really turned on by challenge? To what extent do you like to be comfortable or like to feel like you have mastered something? Those are important questions to ask because some fields are easier to do that in than others. But also, I think it’s very legitimate to have real candid conversations with people and say, you know, if you go down this path, these are some of the life choices that you’re going to face. And these are different life choices that you can be exposed to on a different path. And so how do you factor that in? Although you might be really passionate about this, does it lead you where you ultimately want to go 20 years from now, or 40 years from now?
I think it’s Mark Cuban who talks about when he talks to young people, he says, if somebody is telling you to follow your passion, it’s because they’re already wealthy. I don’t think that’s entirely true. I can say I had the luxury to follow my passion, and I think a lot of people would have told me that there was not much chance of that becoming a reality for me, at different phases of my life. But I do think helping people see it’s not necessarily a binary decision; there can be multiple places where you can be challenged, you can learn things, you can figure out a way to contribute. And some of them will open up different kinds of financial and quality of life issues for you than others will.
And I think it’s just about being pragmatic about how you make those choices. And not saying I’ve got to be miserable, or I can be happy, or I’m only passionate about that. Well, why are you passionate about that? Are there some other fields maybe that can give you more of the total package that you want in your life that you might also feel passionate about?
Andi Simon: You know, it’s interesting, because I’m helping one woman, and she has a nice job, but she doesn’t get the kind of gratification out of it she thinks she should, although I’m not quite sure what she thinks she should. You know, it’s sort of like, what would you define to be the right kind of work that you can do? You can raise your two children, you’re making a nice living, you’ve got enough flexibility so that you don’t need to be in the office all the time, you’re really in control. You’re almost a freelancer without calling it that and you got good benefits. So tell me what would be a replacement part for this that would raise you to the next level, what’s missing?
And I have a hunch what’s missing is somebody acknowledging what she’s doing and giving her a sense that she has a good purpose there or something that gives it more than just tactical and practical, but something that matters, and she matters to them in some fashion. And I do think flexibility is in isolation. You know, and I often laugh because we are enjoying this flexibility, but solitary confinement in prison is the worst place to be. And I’m not convinced that is in creating these kinds of reactions. Your thoughts?
Christina Sistrunk: Well, I even frame it a little differently. I mean, it’s great. A work environment anticipates what you need, and gives you what you need. In all honesty, I can tell you that certainly is often not the case in the course of my career. And I will say at one point, I was advised by someone who was a mentor of mine, and who I have just a ton of respect for, and he basically only had time to have a very short conversation with me and told me to apply for a job that I did not want at all. He told me it was an IQ test, that for this job, this is what you need to do. It was the lowest job on the list that I could have thought of. Even though it was going to be a big promotion for me, I just didn’t want it.
So I went home for a couple of days saying, how might I change this job so that I would want it and so it would be a job that I would find to be highly rewarding? And when I sat down and had a conversation with the hiring manager, I said, “Look, if you want me to do the job the way it has always been done, please don’t put me in it because I will be miserable and you will be miserable. But here’s my vision for what I could do in this role, and why I think it makes sense to approach the role this way. And, you know, this is what I think I could add, how I could add value by doing it in this way and why it would be important to do so,” and I got the job. And in fact, it was one of the best jobs I ever had. I learned so much and I learned about a different part of the business and in different parts of the world.
I mean, I think often it’s almost like, what is it about that job? And there’s white space in every single job I’ve ever had, and I think that most people have had. Where’s the boundary that you want to just nudge? Because it will make you actually not just more satisfied, but probably more productive. And sometimes what that looks like for people is using some of that flexibility maybe to take some of your skills and work in another area where you feel passionate. It may be at a nonprofit that you actually can do that. And that satisfaction is about more than just work. It’s about the totality of your life. How does it line up with your values? What about family and friends? What about your spirituality? What about causes that you feel passionate about and want to contribute to? It covers a lot of the landscape.
I’ve never been at a point in my life where I could tick all the boxes on all those and say it’s all perfect at this moment in time. So it’s a bit fluid, and it goes back and forth. But how do you optimize across all of that to give you the quality of life that you want to live, and it makes you feel good about the conscious choices you’ve made?
Andi Simon: Yes, balance those things. And every day is a gift. Christina, this has been absolutely wonderful. We can actually keep going, but we can’t. So I’m going to ask you for only one thing for our audience not to forget, because I think they’ve heard so many rich perspectives on life, on the problems that we face, in the work/non-work life. They’re equally relevant here. But also that your lessons learned over your career that are now setting you up for the next phase where you want to give back in many different ways, to help people soar who are really on the brink, like I am about what comes next…one thing you want them to remember.
Christina Sistrunk: So I really think that, if you’ve got an area that you see as a problem or an opportunity, be really clear with yourself in terms of what those choices are. And why you might make them and challenge yourself before you just automatically go down a path…to really, perhaps, get some other inputs to help you think through what are some different choices. Make sure you recognize that we always have choices. Now, we may not like some of them, or we may like some of them less than others, which only means that they are right.
We always have a choice. It is very rare for human beings to be in a situation where they have no choices to make, and it’s about that conscious choice that over time actually leads to the quality of life that you can have. And I think it’s a really important way when you recognize this to empower yourself, no matter where you are in your journey. And it is about staying on that journey, continuing to learn, continuing to make good choices. And moving forward. It’s your journey.
Andi Simon: The other part is that you really don’t know what’s a good choice or a bad choice ’til after the choice. And I was reading something the other day and the comment was, Once something has happened, the best thing you can do is just let it happen. Because you can’t go backwards and change what’s happened. But the best thing you can begin to do is learn something from it, move forward past it, and think about what comes next, because that’s all we can do.
Christina Sistrunk: I would challenge that. I think the other thing is giving yourself enough grace to say, did I make the best choice I could with what I knew at the time?
Andi Simon: That’s a very powerful point: what I knew at the time. We’re not clairvoyant, no, but the other part of it is, and then I will wrap up, is that what you hear isn’t necessarily what someone else said, or what they meant. But it is what you heard. And I can’t tell you how often I work with my clients, my coaching clients, about what they really mean as opposed to what you think you heard and wanted from me. Because that’s where the rubs come, and sometimes the tensions as well.
This has been such fun to my listeners in my audience. Thank you for joining us today. Christina Sistrunk has been with us and I know you’re going to have lots of questions so send them along to info@Andisimon.com. Christina, if they want to reach you, I know you’re building your website, but what would be a good email and we will put that on the blog as well.
Christina Sistrunk: Okay, it is email@example.com.
Andi Simon: That’s perfect. And, I promise you, she will get back to you if you have these great questions or ideas where you want some coaching or mentoring. Now for all of our listeners, remember, both my books are available on Amazon. And I’m always very excited to hear your comments on Amazon. Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business has been an award winning best seller, and On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights is how a little anthropology can help your business grow, which is what we do.
So thank you for joining us today. All of my listeners have propelled us to be among the top 5% of global podcasts. That is truly an honor. And so whoever is listening, share it away. And you’re going to want to share today’s talk with people who you work with or you live with to listen about how to solve these complex problems because they’re all around us. And in times that are fast changing like they are, we need room for some skills and a mindset. And in some ways, this is a state of mind as opposed to stuff. It’s not a toolkit, but it is a way of thinking. Christina, thanks again for coming.
Christina Sistrunk: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this. This is a highlight of my afternoon. Thank you.
Andi Simon: You’re welcome. Bye bye, everybody. Thanks for coming to On the Brink.