VP of Global CX Adrienne Gormley’s 6 tips for charting a career without a map

Dropbox
Dropbox
May 9, 2019 · 5 min read

Adrienne Gormley is our VP of Global Customer Experience and the Head of EMEA. In April 2019, we asked Adrienne to share insights that have fueled her extraordinary career trajectory.

I don’t have a five-year plan. Never have. And at this point, likely never will. But make no mistake — personal growth plans are super important. Being purposeful about what you are doing and why is essential. But nothing has made me cringe more than those nine little words: So, where do you see yourself in five years? My career path has been charted not by careful mapping, but by diversions, pitstops, and a few happy accidents along the way. Here are six key insights that I have picked up on my career journey.

1. Do things you love (and do them your way)

As the first in my family to go to university, I chose the most (ahem) practical of subjects to ensure I got a great job right out of college: zoology. Specializing in entomology (that’s bugs, to you). In Ireland, in the ’90s. Yeah. My pragmatic parents tried to persuade me to do business, or genetics, or really anything else that would lead to a real job. But I was not for swaying and, to their credit, they eventually supported my decision.

But why zoology? What was my plan? The truth is, I didn’t have one. I enjoyed the subjects. I was curious and determined to study something that interested me. That determination has stayed with me to this day. I want to do things I love, and do them my way. No regrets!

2. Stay curious

I was studying for my finals when I had that aha! moment that would drive everything I did from that moment forward. If I am this fascinated by the lifecycle of a mayfly, or that a cockroach can live for weeks without a head (gross, but true), what else in this big world of ours would I find interesting? The fact that I am so driven by curiosity unlocked something in me. I wanted to know lots about lots! This opened a lot of interesting and tantalizing paths to go down.

3. Get a different perspective

Recap: Zoology. Bugs. Early ’90s. Ireland. Suffice to say, job offers weren’t exactly flowing. So I did what many — so many — Irish did before me, and I left. But instead of Boston or New York, I took off for Germany.

There, I fell in love with the country, the culture, and the language, and for once did something practical: I worked as a translator. What I really loved was that my world tipped, ever-so-slightly, and in order to succeed as an outsider I had to see the world through the eyes of a German. This was a big insight. It awakened me to the fact that there are endless perspectives, driven by anything from where you were born to the body you were born into. Knowing that there are things that you can learn about others — and things that you can never understand — has characterized how I engage with people around me.

4. Find what sparks your passion (and jump right in)

When I returned to Ireland a few years later, I was frustrated looking for German-language books in Dublin. They were impossible to find, and if you did find them they took weeks to arrive. That’s when I heard about this new website called Amazon. A few clicks and few days later, the books were on my doorstep. I knew at that moment that digital would transform everything — and I wanted in. Tech offered endless possibilities that could change everything about how we live. And, the endgame was unknown. I could learn, grow and change right alongside this fast-paced industry.

Jumping into that unknown, I landed my first first tech job in localization at Microsoft. And for the next 21 years, I worked for various tech companies. Five years ago, I got the chance to spin up a brand new customer operations team in a midsize startup called Dropbox. I found an industry that I was passionate about but that also lent itself perfectly to being curious, trying new things, knowing a lot about a lot.

5. It’s OK to let go

This insight was the most challenging one to uncover, and taught me what real leadership means. You see, for me, being a leader meant being in control and having all the answers. Showing no vulnerability. I quickly learned that this approach was ineffective. Interestingly, it was not in the boardroom but in my own living room where I fought and lost a battle that ultimately made me a better leader.

When my daughter was young, I was the “lead” parent, doing the school run, arranging playdates, planning meals, all while juggling my career. When she was four, my husband had a career change, and he took on those responsibilities. I helpfully organized their weekly schedules and gave clear direction on how to do the to-do list that I also created for him. Needless to say, his gamely smile started to fade during our first “feedback session” when I found out our daughter had sausages twice (twice!) in one week.

And it all came out. He asked me straight out if I wanted to go back to being the lead parent. If I didn’t, then he’d need me to back off. We could agree on some principles, but he would do this — his way.

It was hard, but I needed to let it go. His way was different and, I eventually admitted, it might have even been better. Soon I was able to bring that insight into my work. Putting trust in my team made them more accountable and gave them freedom to bring their perspectives to the table. They were empowered, and I was better at my job. I learned how to macro-manage, how to create safe spaces to experiment, and fail and try again, and how to say, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.”

6. Give when you have the chance

I think that I am at an interesting inflection point in my career. I am in a position where I can use any capital I have gained to help those around me thrive. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has long been a passion of mine. I have been involved in Women@ groups in most companies I’ve worked for, and have gotten involved with employee resource groups (ERGs) like Pridebox here in Dropbox. I get huge amounts of energy mentoring female entrepreneurs and trying to redress gender imbalance on boards through the Irish chapter of the 30% Club. And I’m looking forward to a week of volunteer time off in May, supporting our Foundation partner GOAL in Ethiopia, who help some of the most vulnerable people in our global society.

The way we give can be big, but it can also be small. Like making it clear that no meeting is more important than a child’s sports match or caring for a sick parent. So the final insight that I have gained so far from my twisting, turning career journey is to give when you have the chance to do so. At some points in our life, it’s necessary to be selfish. And that’s OK. But other times, we have mental, physical, emotional, or financial capacity to do more. No one has ever lost out because they helped someone else.

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