What’s been your career defining moment?

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For anyone that’s been part of the workforce long enough, there’s likely a career defining moment or two along their timeline. Whether that was a moment when the light bulb went off on a great idea – and taking the risk to implement it – or a decision to switch jobs that literally changed “everything.” No matter what, if you call it defining, it’s a biggie.

This month there’s a new book on the shelf titled Tough Calls: How 40 CEOs made Their Career-defining Decisions by Harlan Steinbaim. Here’s a quick video from Harlon on why he wrote the book.

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton he shared some great stories that made it into the book including this one:

I heard an interesting story from a man by the name of Joseph Plumeri. Plumeri today is chairman and CEO of Willis Group Holdings, the third-largest insurance brokerage firm in the world. He was born on the east side of New York and went to New York Law School. He went to school in the morning to learn the academic side of law, but he needed a job in the afternoon to learn the practical side and also to support himself. The first day of class, he went looking for a job with a law firm.

Plumeri had heard that the really good law firms had three names. So he walked into a building, looked up at the directory and saw three names: Carter, Berlind and Weill. He went upstairs and said to the receptionist, “I’d like to apply for a job.” So she sent him down the hall to see a Mr. Weill.

Plumeri walked into Weill’s office and Weill said, “What can I do for you? Please sit down.” Plumeri said, “Well, I’d like to apply for a job. I go to New York Law School in the morning. I want a job in the afternoon in a law firm to learn the practical side of law.” Weill said, “Well, what makes you think you can learn the law here?” Plumeri said, “Well, this is a law firm, isn’t it? You have three names.” Weill chuckled, and Plumeri was very embarrassed. He sat down on a couch, sort of sank down. As he stood up to leave, Weill said, “No, sit down. You interest me.” They spoke, and Weill offered him a part-time job.

Plumeri’s first office was a closet, literally a closet. His first job was going to get people’s lunch, to get their laundry, to get their cleaning. And Weill turned out to be the legendary Sanford (Sandy) Weill, the person who built Citigroup and Travelers Primerica.

Plumeri’s defining moment came when he walked into a brokerage company looking for a job in a law firm. It’s the most important decision he ever made, because here’s what happened. Eventually Plumeri went on to become CEO and chairman of Travelers Primerica Financial, with responsibility for 150,000 brokers. He also became president of Smith Barney Shearson, and then Shearson Lehman Brothers. He then became chairman and CEO of Citigroup North America, with 450 retail branches. And now he is chairman and CEO of Willis Group Holdings. Plumeri’s advice to people is, “Just get up off your duff, go out and do something. Go play in traffic. You never know what’ll happen. Look at what happened to me.”

It’s not always the choices that lead to great things that can be defining. Sometimes it’s taking a wrong turn that ultimately leads to that light bulb going off. For me, some of the early mistakes I made on the job here at Alstin (we’re talking almost 17 years ago, jeez I am getting old) really helped me see the light when it came to developing my account management style. Plus, quite often learning about how others have handled tough decisions in their lives and careers can be so enlightening and this book sounds right up that alley.

What about you? If you had to share a career defining moment, would it be easy to pick just one? We’d love it if you would share – thanks!


About Annette DeHaven

Annette DeHaven, Alstin's Vice President, Operations, serves as right hand woman for an impressive roster of clients. Known for addressing problems head-on, Annette, who's led by example for more than 15 years, remembers crazy statistics, regularly spouts off mind-bending metrics, and recalls just about every field description for birds you've never heard of.