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Student Experience

How To Be Your Best Professional Self

Career lessons from credit union executive and keynote speaker Mollie Bell

By Paul Smirl | Photography by Paul L. Newby II

September 17, 2019

Mollie Bell speaking in front of screen and podium
Mollie Bell presents at a TEMPO Madison event at the Wisconsin School of Business. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

Mollie Bell brings her authentic self to work every day. She knows her values, celebrates her unique strengths, and works hard to understand others and strive for inclusion.

The chief development officer for Ent Credit Union, Bell has been at the forefront of the credit union movement for over a decade. She’s also a former attorney, teacher, consultant, and business owner.

Bell visited the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for an event hosted by the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA Programs in partnership with TEMPO Madison. TEMPO Madison partners with the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs to support, advise, and foster relationship building among women leaders.

Bell’s talk, Ownit. Earnit. Giveit.™, was full of advice on career advancement, overcoming challenges, and facing the joys and disappointments throughout one’s career.

Speaking from her own experiences, Bell shared some key tips for reaching your potential as a leader:

Write a mission statement for yourself

Organizations spend a lot of time writing mission statements. Why not do the same for you as an individual? Writing a mission statement helps you focus on driving your career in the direction you want it to go.

Ask yourself what your values are—those things you truly hold dear.

“Every time I ask people this, everybody wants to go to those things like honesty and respect and integrity,” says Bell. “Those are great values, but I want you to really push yourself. If you could only list three things—it’s going to go beyond those things that we all value. Not the table stakes.”

“If we can’t understand our own values and what’s driving us, it’s really hard to give ourselves the gift of trying to discover that about somebody else.”

Force yourself to take on the thing you never thought you could take on. Do the things that scare you … What frightens you the most? Explore it. Peel the onion. Stretch yourself.

—Mollie Bell

Understand how your values differ from other people

Bell says the times in life where she’s been most frustrated, defensive, or didn’t get along with someone, it’s been because their values didn’t align.

For her, independence is key. Bell jokes that she prefers to fail on her own. When she started a new executive position and her boss micromanaged a project she worked on, she couldn’t help but call him out. He questioned her actions down to the minutiae of a spreadsheet, and Bell felt that there were items of greater importance that needed her attention as an executive.

In this moment, Bell’s and her boss’ values were not aligned. Bell did not value hierarchy and her boss didn’t value Bell’s autonomy. Bell wanted to focus on what she perceived were larger tasks, and the boss was focused on details.

After the situation, Bell apologized and spoke with the boss about their values and how they could move forward knowing their differences.

Set goals and truly stretch yourself

Mollie Bell gestures while speaking

Ask yourself: What do you want to achieve? How do you want to achieve it? Then push it even further.

“Force yourself to take on the thing you never thought you could take on” says Bell. “Do the things that scare you … What frightens you the most? Explore it. Peel the onion. Stretch yourself.”

For Bell, that was leading the HR department in her current role. It wasn’t a natural fit for her, but she trusted her ability to stretch herself and learned the skills to be successful.

Goals are undoubtedly hard to set, both personally and organizationally, but Bell says lifelong learning will help you achieve what you want. No matter if you’re an entry-level professional or a CEO, learning how to do new things will help you accomplish your goals.

Create a personal board of directors

Personal boards of directors are an emerging concept. Bell says it’s not about holding formal meetings, but surrounding yourself with trusted advisors who invest in your success.

“Think about how you build the most impactful boards: the most impactful boards bring you a diversity of thought, they’re thought leaders, they’re people you can trust, and they’re people who have your best interest at heart,” says Bell. “Those people who you can reach out to for career advice, to foster your network, the people that know other people.”

Be a sponsor, coach, or mentor

Bell says the best mentorship relationships begin organically. If you work at building a network, you’ll have a lot of opportunities to mentor others and help them work on the tools they need to succeed.

Being a sponsor is different. Sponsorship is truly putting your neck out for someone else. It’s promoting someone to other people, broadcasting their strengths to people who could help them, and connecting them to opportunities.

Coaching is yet another type of relationship. You can coach someone by drawing up plans with them, talking through mistakes, and guiding them when they’ve done something wrong.

Helping other individuals grow not only gives you skills that you can use at work, but it fosters an overall sense of community. It helps provide opportunities for people who might otherwise be overlooked.

Bell says you need to pay it forward: “We are never going to build our diversity and our leadership capabilities unless we foster that.”

She says you especially have to reject the notion that there is only one seat at the corporate table for women. Creating environments where women can succeed helps all women and gives them the chance to represent in greater numbers in corporate leadership.