Laura Duda isn't where she is today just because of grand plans and vision boards, though ambition and goal setting did play a part. As senior vice president and chief communications officer for Goodyear, Duda has learned that her best career opportunities are the ones she didn't plan for, the ones that challenge her to adapt, change direction and evolve both personally and professionally.
During a Women of the Rubber Division workshop, hosted virtually in conjunction with the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference, Duda joined Carin Helfer, a research assistant professor at Ohio State University, and ChemRep Inc. President Jessica Petras for a panel discussion about the value of adapting and evolving. The discussion was led by Yan Maschke, strategy and leadership adviser for Yan Maschke Group.
Initially, Duda expected to follow a career path into journalism, but her propensity for procrastination in college led to missing deadlines for internships and work experiences. Instead, she applied for opportunities in marketing and communications, and she found that was a better fit for her in the long run.
She also never expected to build a successful career at one of the world's largest tire makers, but she followed unexpected opportunities to find that Goodyear suited her perfectly.
"I got to fall in love with tires and be able to say the word rubber without giggling," Duda said with a smile. "… I would not be where I am today if I had not adapted and evolved and followed my career path."
Professional evolution takes many forms, and for Helfer, it meant tailoring her education and her career in ways that allowed her to best balance work and family. At one point, it meant leaving a career with a respected company. At another, it meant doing her post-doctoral work part time, something that seemed nearly impossible at the time.
But she did it, she said, holding tight to the idea that she wanted to focus on her family.
"When you look at your whole life, the time you spend with your children is shorter than the amount of time you will spend working," Helfer said. "I felt that should be a focus for me."
There are many ways professionals choose to balance work and family, and there are no wrong answers in the approaches taken. Some choose to pull back on their careers while they raise their children, while others seek additional supports to better balance work and family. Some choose not to raise children at all.
"My way of balancing it was not to have children," Duda said. "And that is a choice, it is a perfectly valid choice."
What matters, Duda said, is that companies and colleagues support women at all levels of their careers, validate their choices and provide them with the resources and opportunities they need to thrive, no matter how they choose to build their careers.
"Carin referred to days in the past when it wasn't easy to have a family and have a job, and while I believe it is not perfect, it is getting better," Duda said, adding the challenges presented by COVID-19 have proven some work-life balance initiatives fit the company and the individual. "We are seeing that hybrid work environments are possible, and there are different ways of doing things than sitting in a chair from 7 to 7."
Work-life balance means more than finding ways to manage a career and family. It also means finding time to take care of yourself. It's easy to get caught up in the stresses, challenges and successes of work. Finding time to decompress is just as important, she said.
"It is not something that I look forward to and love or naturally gravitate toward, but there is something very healing in physical activity," Duda said. "My way of dealing with stress is cardio activity. Sometimes, it allows you to break the cycle of whatever you have been grinding on that day, it allows you to come out the other side."
Petras seconded the value of self-care, which for her, takes the shape of giving herself permission to fail. Failure, she said, is an inevitable part of a career.
"Nobody plans to fail," Petras said. "Failure is uncomfortable, but if you don't fail you can't grow."
And that growth, she emphasized, is the key to professional evolution.
"It isn't a big deal to fail. But when you fail, look at yourself and be honest," Petras said. "Be kind to yourself and be honest about where the mistakes came from. Do your best to correct it and move forward."
So often, the panel said, women strive for perfection, rather than reaching for excellence. They may set standards for themselves that they can't achieve or struggle to achieve. When that happens, doubts surface.
"We have to stop that little voice in our heads that says 'you can't do this,' " Helfer said.
Stopping that voice, Duda said, means affirming your strengths and abilities to yourself. It means tapping into your authentic self and finding the courage to be exactly who you are. After all, she said, your strengths, ideas and perspectives make the company stronger.
Petras agreed. Authenticity, she said, matters.
"You can do your best work when you are comfortable with yourself," Petras said.
There have been plenty of times when Duda found herself sitting at a conference table, the only female in the room. In those instances, she said, it's tempting to blend in or not draw attention by not sharing ideas or perspectives.
But that doesn't help the company, she said.
"I'm not saying rock the boat," Duda said, "but I think you have something to offer, and if you don't offer that, you are doing a disservice to your organization."