Colene Blank has what she believes to be “the most unique job around” as Assistant Chief IP Counsel for 3M. As an IP lawyer, her days are full of variety and the chance to collaborate with interesting, technically minded people. The path she took to get here, having originally gone to school for engineering herself, is as unique as the job.
“I saw the engineering degree as an ultimate challenge. However, I never felt like I was ‘good’ at it,” Blank said. “I took a hard look at what I liked about engineering, and it came down to discovering that I really like technical people.”
In her role today, she gets to benefit from everything she enjoys most about technical teams — the comradery and the cool projects — while working within a function that, after 20 years in 3M’s Office of IP Counsel, she knows is her perfect fit. The kindness and care she’s found at work became especially important to her, too, when Blank was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Recently, she told us more about how she approaches work with an invisible illness (trust is key), her favorite career mistake and the advice she gives other women who are considering a career change.
While working at 3M, you were diagnosed with MS. How did the company support you through that process?
MS is known as “invisible” because it has so many hidden symptoms. Also, as we age, so many of those symptoms can seem like the normal course of aging. I feel very lucky that my primary doctor was thoughtful enough to recognize that I’ve had the same issues for a while, and maybe we should just check it out. The diagnosis process can be stressful (brain MRIs, making appointments with specialists, etc.) and having a supportive management system has been good for me. My direct bosses (current and previous) have always been aware of where I was on the path, and I’ve always been able to trust them.
How is this support reflective of the overall culture at 3M?
I think 3M is a place where the first response is: “What can I do to help?” This is true for work projects and for personal issues.
Tell me a bit about your current role. What are your priorities, and what about it excites you most?
As the Chief IP Counsel for a business group at 3M, I oversee all the global professionals who help 3M generate IP assets in the business. There is a lot of Research & Development at 3M, and my team makes sure we strategically protect it. I have a wonderful team who are all very engaged in their businesses and in their own personal development. Managing people at 3M allows me to help my employees find their career paths, making sure they have opportunities that will help them grow professionally.
I get to work with all levels of employees, from lab employees just starting their journeys who are working on their first patent applications to senior business leaders making hard business decisions on a complicated agreement. That diversity of work is what is most exciting to me.
You’ve been at 3M for 20 years! What’s been your favorite aspect since joining?
I have stayed at 3M because, as an IP lawyer, I honestly think it is the most unique job around. Each business and division has business strategies and priorities that are distinct, allowing an attorney to learn to advise in all manner of business climates. The partnerships I get from those seeking counsel is amazing, and I have found 3M to be very collaborative.
What programs or resources has 3M provided that have helped you grow your career and expand your skill set?
I have a general policy of saying “yes” to new opportunities, which has introduced blessings and difficulties. 3M has so many programs that help you develop, and formal leadership trainings have been great opportunities to think about what kind of leader I want to be.
You went to school for engineering but decided not to pursue it as a career. Why did you want to make this change, and what ultimately helped you do it?
When it came down to it, I realized it was the people that drew me to study engineering in the first place. I love working with technical people. I enjoy them and I respect those that are good scientists. My current role in a legal capacity really let me develop my skills of being able to work with technical people and enjoy their comradery, and I get to hear about the cool things they are constantly working on.
What’s been your favorite career mistake that you’ve made?
So many! I worked with a division for years and had some complicated patent issues within that, including litigation. I had built up a trusting relationship with the Vice President, and we got along well. He was the first client who wanted my recommendation, not just the options and risks. One time, however, I presented an issue to his boss before I presented it to him, basically removing him from the conversation — it was not good. Recognizing my mistake, I learned that trust is one step forward, two steps back. You must respect the relationships you build.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
Expect a lot of yourself, but also of your organization. Your manager should be caring, give you feedback, and be willing to help you manage your workload and life. Trust is essential.
What advice would you give to other women interested in making a career change or pursuing a new industry?
Start by figuring out what you like and what energizes you about your current field. Once you know that, it can narrow your options. There are opportunities out there that you don’t even know about!
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