The Ladder

My Best Advice

Sometimes it’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint.

Bridgette Paradise
Bridgett Paradise.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Bridgett Paradise, background by Thinkstock.

The Ladder periodically takes a break from solving readers’ workplace problems to ask successful people about career advice: good advice they’ve gotten, bad advice they’ve gotten, advice they’d give their younger selves, and more. This week, I talked to Bridgett Paradise, the executive vice president of human resources and chief people officer of the publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.* Before joining HMH in 2014, Paradise spent 22 years in human resources at Microsoft.

L. V. Anderson: Did you get any advice when you were growing up that stuck with you?

Bridgett Paradise: Some of the best advice I got was from my dad, who was in a nontraditional profession. I grew up in Southern Virginia, and he had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. His rule of thumb is: Everybody’s important. He wasn’t impressed by hierarchy or money or stature. I think I’ve subscribed to that advice most of my life. 

What profession was he in?

He was a professional foxhunter. In the United States, it was never a blood sport like what was banned in the U.K. In his profession he was very renowned: They wrote books on him and made movies and other things. His name was Melvin Poe, and he passed away last year at the age of 94, and he rode up until his 93rd birthday. He was a legend—certainly in the part of Virginia that I grew up in, and frankly on a worldwide basis. And the thing that you’ll read about him is that everybody was important to him. 

What advice do you give people who are managing a team of employees for the first time?

It’s important to understand the roles of each of the team members, and it’s important to understand what’s important to the team. First-time managers often are promoted into roles because they were the best at what they were doing—you’re the best salesperson or you’re the best engineer—and then that skill enables you to move into an advanced position. And my advice to young supervisors is to—again, it goes back to my father’s advice—listen a lot. Understand what’s important. Be sure that you’ve got clarity around the goals that the team is trying to achieve and that you can articulate that and that the team has bought into that.

Is there any advice that you think is really bad advice that people should ignore? 

People used to say a lot in the high-tech arena, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” I would tell people, when I was trying to reinforce the importance of work-life balance or I was trying to moderate some young employee who was frustrated with the pace of change, I would always come out with that. “Try to pace yourself.” The thing that I’ve learned now, as I reflect back, is that’s probably not a correct statement. Depending upon where you are in your career, whether you’re trying to advance, the pace of that race is going to vary.

And I think you need to be deliberate about what race you’re running—what’s important for you in your personal life and your career trajectory. Maybe this is the time that you need to be in the office 14 hours a day, or maybe that’s not necessary, and it’s more important for you to be invested in your family at that point. It’s going to vary.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a common piece of advice and thought, “This is not applicable to where I am in my career”?

Certainly I’ve received bad advice. Early in my career, I got some advice in one of my first reviews as a manager, which is something that really sticks with you—that feedback that stings, that never really goes away. And the manager was somebody who at the time I thought really dispensed great advice. Certainly she’d been successful in her career, so why wouldn’t I look to her as an example? In one of my first reviews, her advice to me was that I was very folksy, that I spent too much time talking to my team, and that it wasn’t important for people to like me—in fact, it was better if people didn’t like me, because it would make me more effective and help me command respect.

But the fortunate or unfortunate thing was, I couldn’t really take her feedback because it was counter to me as an individual, it was counter to what I believed in. And so I moderated my approach, but I didn’t stop connecting. Great leaders are people that can connect with others, that can rally teams to do things that are beyond their own capabilities, and you only get that if you connect with people. And you can only connect with people if you are willing to have conversations and to ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. I don’t think respect and likability are mutually exclusive. I think the key is to be an authentic leader. That’s the advice I wish someone had given me early on: Be authentic.

That was my next question, actually: What advice would you give your younger self?

Here’s what I would tell you about that. Early in my career—actually, if I’m honest, throughout a lot of my career—I suffered from impostor syndrome. I had the privilege of working in amazing organizations where there was tremendous growth. I worked with very smart people, committed professionals who were playing at a higher weight class than I was. It’s like when you play tennis with someone that’s better than you, you tend to play better. And I benefited from that, but I wondered if somebody was going to discover that I wasn’t as good as they thought I was, or I wasn’t worthy of the responsibility that had been given to me. So I worked that much harder to make sure I didn’t get discovered. And that’s a waste of energy. If I had to tell my younger self something, I would say, “Believe more in yourself and your capabilities. Don’t be afraid to fail. And don’t constantly worry that you have to prove yourself.”

I can relate to that. The thing about impostor syndrome is that it helps to realize that so many people feel the same way.

Once I realized that—you get to breathe a bit easier and then focus on making yourself a subject matter expert, then focus on being the best that you can be, building on your strengths and being aware of your weaknesses and trying to develop your way through that. But it can be a big cloud, and I think it can be suffocating. It’s certainly not productive. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*Correction, Feb. 3, 2016: This article originally misidentified Bridgett Paradise’s position at HMH as senior vice president of human resources. She is executive vice president of human resources. (Return.)