Operating at the edge of your skillset: 5 lessons to build impactful careers from a conversation with CRE pioneer Gwendolyn Hatten Butler

Operating at the edge of your skillset: 5 lessons to build impactful careers from a conversation with CRE pioneer Gwendolyn Hatten Butler March 15, 2022

Recently, I had the honor to sit in conversation with incomparable CRE pioneer Gwendolyn Hatten Butler.

In celebration of Black History Month, the Black Professional Resource Group invited Hatten Butler to share her amazing life story (so far) with us last month -- from her Detroit roots to the grit and determination that has earned her countless opportunities and professional successes, including a role as a former C-suite executive at Capri Capital Partners LLC, and a valued member of many corporate boards and institutions.

The conversation, a company-wide event, continues Avison Young’s commitment to highlighting and promoting diverse voices, and featured words of wisdom from Hatten Butler’s life and career that will surely stick in the minds of every attendee for many years to come.

Her childhood was fueled by a love of learning, positive affirmations, and a drive to succeed

Growing up, learning was a big part of Hatten Butler’s day-to-day existence. She loved school and her thoughtful teachers, which helped create a lifelong-learning mindset within her.

She also had strong and supportive family members surrounding her, including college-educated fraternal aunts who taught her it was good to be smart and let her literally and figuratively learn what it could be like to walk in their shoes.

Through positive support, encouragement, and her own natural ability, she would go on to high school honor programs and earn coveted scholarships to both undergraduate and graduate college programs of choice in economics, business, and finance.

Her career has spanned business, finance, and investment work, where often the next opportunity forced her to fearlessly step into unknown territory, carving paths uniquely her own without much of a roadmap.

Time and again, through pure drive, hustle, and confidence in herself, she’s built a name and legacy that now has her sought-after across industries and verticals for corporate board advisory.

How did she do it and what lessons from her story can we leverage toward our own?

5 lessons Gwendolyn Hatten Butler taught us about finding our own way forward in the world of work

1. Be a life-long learner

Be voracious and varied in your learnings. Explore what knowledge or skills could help take your abilities to the next level and get started today.

Growth occurs from increased knowledge and progress. Learning can also help you see opportunities otherwise unavailable to you.

Consider: what excites me about my profession? What would I love to dig into and discover more?

2. Own your differentness

You are uniquely qualified, just the way you are. Don’t let others make you feel uncomfortable about who you are or what you bring into the room.

If you are comfortable with who you are, own that, and never make yourself smaller for others’ comfort levels. 

If others are uncomfortable with who you are, that is for them to figure out. You just keep on, keeping on.

Consider: what is different about me from others in the room? How is that a strength instead of a weakness?

3. Don’t be afraid to fail

Don’t limit yourself. You never know what you are truly capable of until you try.

It’s so easy to hold ourselves back.

But what good does that do?

The worst thing that can ever happen is you fail. But, through failure, you gain beautiful learnings to apply toward a next time, a next opportunity.

With a small shift in mindset, there’s no real way to lose – go after it boldly!

Consider: what could I do if I was unafraid of failure?

4. Operate at the edge of your skillset

This tip was a clear crowd favorite during the conversation -- and for good reason!

All of us can be inclined to lean into what’s most comfortable, to what we know we can do well.

But, as with learning, growth only happens when we seek out what the next step could be.

Consider: where do your skills and abilities lie today, and across each, what is the next level up? What steps could you take today to start closing the gap?

5. Recognize the role access can play in success, and do what you can to open things up for others

In her talk, Hatten Butler shared that even through her immense success, there have been moments where she said no to opportunities that may have changed her career trajectory, like going after Ivy-league college acceptances.

She said this was because her background and where she came from didn’t allow for her to see a possible path forward to explore these options realistically.

What is straight-forward and easy for some, can be unimaginable for others, and create disparities in career paths and possibilities from career start to finish.

Recognize privileges in paths forward exist across the spectrum, and wherever possible:

Consider: how can I make someone else’s path to success easier than mine was? How can I help others gain access to more for themselves and their careers? How can I convince someone they can have what they don’t think is possible?

As the adage says, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Apply these tips to your own career journey, instill them into a mentee, and see what happens!

You never know what might be possible when you dare to stand, fearlessly, on your current edge or comfort zone and explore, maybe for the first time, what could be on the other side.  

Which of these tips resonate most with you? What steps could help you make greater impact in your personal and professional development? Share your thoughts with us.

Arlene Dedier (she/her/hers) is a Principal and Executive Vice President, Canadian Practice Leader, Project Management Services at Avison Young.