Learning how to persevere

Gunnar Hood, WSI-Summit

My career history, like that of many other people, is a bit of a wandering journey. What I do now isn’t related to what I studied in college at all. It’s not anywhere close.

But at every step along the way in life and in career, I’ve learned the importance of perseverance and moving forward. After a few career pivots and many life lessons, I was able to take the skills I acquired in the corporate world and transition into entrepreneurship.

Early lessons in perseverance

My father was in corporate finance and his jobs took us from Chicago to rural Michigan and then Mexico City, where I spent my high school years. I was very much a fish out of water in pre-NAFTA Mexico. I had a choice. I could resist what was unfamiliar and uncomfortable or I could adapt to my new circumstances. In time, I learned to adapt to the language, the culture, and the environment of a different country. Little did I realize how valuable that experience would be later in life.

As a teenager I wanted to make money. Since I wasn’t eligible to work in Mexico, I spent my summers back in Michigan working typically teenager jobs. When my senior year of high school rolled around, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My brother attended Texas Maritime Academy, and I enrolled there as well. I studied marine transportation, which has little relevance to what I do today.

At a maritime academy, summers were spent at sea learning all aspects of merchant shipping. It was during these years that I learned many life lessons. When you’re in the middle of the ocean, there’s no emergency number to call when something goes wrong. So, you quickly learn problem solving and creativity and working with what you have.

As a deck officer we were responsible for navigation, cargo and maintenance of the ship. While at sea, we could sail for days without seeing another ship. That was offset by very busy times in and around ports. While at sea, I learned another important life lesson from one of my captains. He told me, “When you have time, you need to plan for when you don’t.” Even when there’s nothing on the radar, you have to anticipate when it will be much busier and how you’ll respond. That lesson applies at sea and in the business world.

Shifting priorities

I met my wife just before I graduated college, and it changed my course a bit. After all, spending three months at a time at sea on a research vessel or other ship doesn’t lend itself to new relationships. I wanted to be home more often to date the woman who’s now been my wife for 33 years.

For a while, I was working for an offshore drilling company. It allowed me to be home more often but also still pursue a higher rank in my career. The oil industry was eye opening and forced me to once again adapt and expand my comfort zone. The oil industry crashed in the mid 80’s and I was laid off just four months before I got married. The adversity of losing my job was also an opportunity for me to make a career change before I became too dependent on the income and lifestyle of a mariner.

My father introduced me to a very successful stockbroker who needed administrative help, and I jumped into the financial sector. I learned some quick lessons about what not to do, and when that broker changed firms I opted not to move. Instead, I sought to become a broker trainee. I suppose you could say it was my first big sale, convincing the office manage to put me through their broker training program, despite the fact that I had no sales experience whatsoever.

My first day as a broker was the peak in the market of 1987. The good news was I didn’t have any clients that were hurt by the big crash. Convincing people to invest after the crash required far better sales skills that I had. After 2 years, while I failed in my role, I didn’t fail to learn from it. I learned I liked operations and was able to transition to another brokerage firm where my career would take off.

Creating new opportunities

The next 13 years allowed me to grow from a solo contributor to managing teams and ultimately leading over 600 brokers and multiple customer facing operations. The culture in this organization was amazing and felt much like a startup, nearly doubling in size every 2 years. This afforded many ‘intrapraneur’ opportunities which I found addictive. I also learned the importance of developing systems for scaling growth that integrated people, process and technology.

Technology was my friend, and success came from learning new technology the fastest as opposed to learning old technology the best. The markets are cyclical and there were several events around the turn of the century that caused investors to back away from investing. I was forced to make another transition. I moved away from investments and into insurance and landed in Oklahoma City. While there are similarities between the industries, there were many differences too. Once again, I found the need to adapt to new circumstances. 9 years and several awards later, the division I was in was sold and I was ready for a pivot.

When I looked back at my career, what stood out to me was the range of experiences I’d had—setting up systems, creating new ways to use technology, and staying ahead of the technological curve. I could have easily stayed in the corporate world, but the thrill of the challenge was gone. It was time to be an entrepreneur, which is certainly a journey where perseverance is critical. Everything I had learned and experienced to this point would determine my future success.

Whether your career has been a steady course in one industry, a mix of different industries and roles, or a combination of corporate and entrepreneurial experience, chances are you’ve learned some lessons about perseverance along the way as well. How are you reflecting on and using those lessons to shape the next step in your journey?

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