Editor’s note: Each blog post in this “Career Pathways in L&D” series shares a learning leader’s story and ends with his or her tips and advice for training professionals.

Have you ever stopped for a moment and wondered, “How did I get here?”

I recently took some time to reflect on my career and my unconventional journey into L&D. I did not graduate with a degree in education or a focus on human resources. I’m not a trainer or an instructional designer. I have a degree in history. Where does a history degree take someone? For me, the janitorial and sanitation (jan/san) industry.

If you’ve never heard of jan/san, don’t worry; most people haven’t. But I can guarantee that you use the products and services we support – think facility maintenance or, better yet, clean, safe healthy facilities. But this blog post is not about the industry I’ve found myself in for the past 16 years. It’s about how I became the director of training and development for a 112-year-old national manufacturer/distributor of cleaning supplies and equipment.

What does a recent history graduate do when searching for a job? He leaves all avenues open! During my search, I interviewed for an operations manager position with a jan/san distributor. I must have impressed the hiring manager, because I got the job – and I was off and running: learning the ropes of managing a warehouse, customer service, equipment service departments and a staff of 20. I learned my way around those responsibilities and discovered a knack for managing people and a desire to help others improve and grow professionally. That’s where I began to develop the foundation that led me to my current role: helping others improve and grow so their team can reach its goals.

After a few years with the company, I decided to try something new: sales. Perhaps some experience in the field selling products and services and effecting process improvement would help me grow so I could keep moving up the ladder. I spent about two years in sales, learning the needs of our customers and learning how to coach and consult with the people who were paying me to help them improve their cleaning results. As a sales representative, I aimed to be my customers’ trusted advisor – the person who could assess the situation, develop a plan to improve and define the desired outcomes. Sound familiar? Sales is a lot like learning and development. Training professionals also sell ideas, thinking one day they can become actions that lead to results and improvement.

My sales role led me to an opportunity with a larger company in the jan/san industry, the one I now work for. I entered as an operations manager, but this time I came into that role with a better understanding of the total dynamic in which I worked, including operations, sales and customers. I also went back to school and earned my MBA. It never hurts to keep learning and continually improving, right?

My next move was from operations manager to a corporate office role supporting sales and marketing technology. I delivered education on sales automation and technology to employees and customers and developed training tools, videos and documentation to support those efforts. Essentially, I spent my time educating others on how they could improve. After five years in that role, the opportunity of a lifetime came my way: the director of training and development. For the past four years, I have been learning and growing – and then learning some more!

If I could have given myself advice at the start of my career, I would have said:

  • You rarely learn from the people who agree with you. You learn from those with different perspectives, so listen to them.
  • Your way isn’t the only way.
  • Enjoy the journey. Soak it all in.
  • Learn all you can, from every job and in every role.

For people who are beginning or developing a leadership career in L&D, I would recommend:

  • Surround yourself with the right people, and then get out of their way.
  • Find people who complement your strengths and, in turn, whose strengths you complement. Then, empower them to make decisions and challenge the status quo, and encourage them to develop and grow.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. Failure is almost better than success, because you find out what does not work and what not to do.
  • Seek out mentors and advisors – people whom you can trust to be honest and candid. You’ll accomplish so much more that way.
  • Learn to see things from the eyes of your audience, the learner, so you can understand the impact you have on them.
  • Accept that things always change. Be flexible and champion change.
  • Build support throughout your organization.
  • Strive to align learning strategies to business goals.
  • Communicate, especially with the C-suite.
  • Like most things in life, have a plan.

It’s a journey, for sure – one with lots of twists and turns. If you are willing to take a path into L&D, there is no telling where it might go. If my career tells me anything, it’s that there is also no telling where it might start. Rise and grind!

Download the free e-book “Career Pathways in Learning and Development: Perspectives and Strategies for Your Training Career”: