Put Soft Skills First and Other Career Advice We Don’t (But Should) Hear Early In Our Careers

Sponsored by Ecolab, Inc.

Erin Jungmann, associate financial analyst at Ecolab

Photo courtesy of Ecolab

May 20, 2024 at 2:2AM UTC
As we hit different stages in our careers, the lessons we learn and the things we prioritize (or should prioritize) shift. The advice you can most benefit from hearing when you’re starting out, then, compared to the advice you consider most valuable when your career path has had some time to develop, may differ. 
What’s important is that you’re given the tools and resources needed to grow and feel supported, no matter what stage of career you’re in. For Natalie Blake, director of global polymer platforms, and Erin Jungmann, an associate financial analyst, both women say this has been true of their experiences at Ecolab. 

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Blake, who first came to Ecolab in 1988, and Jungmann, who joined in 2018 after a summer internship there, say they’re finding the support they need to evolve professionally, across career levels at the company, which provides water, hygiene, and energy technologies and services globally. Recently, the women shared their most memorable pieces of career advice to date, the impact they’re making at Ecolab, and what they’d choose to tell themselves at the start of their careers. 
When did you join Ecolab and why? 
Jungmann: “I started out at Ecolab in January 2018, just after graduating from college and interning the previous summer. I decided to join full-time because I knew that, being very early on in my career, I wanted to gain as much experience and learn from as many people as I possibly could. I knew from my internship experience that Ecolab provided the opportunity for both. I joined in the Finance Development Program, which is a three-year rotational program that provides its associates with three different roles, each for a one-year rotation period. Currently, I am in my second rotation and I can honestly say it was the best decision I have made so far in my career.”
Blake: “I originally joined the company in 1988 after getting my PhD in Chemical Engineering. I liked the idea of working on industrial water at Ecolab (Nalco at the time), improving customers’ operations and profitability while working on something important. I also liked the availability of other opportunities and took advantage of that, moving from roles in RD&E to various positions in sales, marketing, international assignments, Mergers & Acquisitions, and more.”
What do you do in your current role? What impact are you getting to make?
Blake: “I lead our Global Polymer Platforms team, which is looking at polymers and their use across the enterprise. Polymers are used for paper and mining processing, as well as treatment of fresh (incoming) water and wastewater across many of our businesses. My role encompasses day-to-day working with supply chain to ensure we have enough capacity to produce what is needed, to determining our long-term strategy and everything in between. This includes working with: our global RD&E and business teams on innovation; the business teams on forecasting and market dynamics; and with the regions.
“Our polymer business is sizeable globally for all our Water and Energy businesses. Through facilitating projects and teams, in 2018 I helped increase our global polymer manufacturing capacity significantly, resulting in increased global sales and 10% incremental new business. Our team has also provided the first full look across the business groups for polymer sales, which has allowed a better understanding of areas that need more support.”
Jungmann: “My current role is on the corporate planning & analysis team, where I serve as a liaison between our region, division, and function finance teams and corporate executives for the upcoming 2020 plan cycle. The main scope of my work is consolidating, analyzing, and building the story around our financial metrics to help our C-Suite make key business decisions for 2020. My direct impact at Ecolab is centered around crafting and clarifying the financial story of our businesses. I am also lucky enough to be involved in the recruiting process for the Finance Development Program, helping out at career fairs and our informational sessions.” 
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
Jungmann: “Feedback is a gift — listen intently, accept it with gratitude, and say thank you. Many times, people can act defensively when receiving feedback, particularly when it is unflattering. They may think people are malicious in their intent to give feedback, but it is actually the opposite. The people that take the time to give you feedback are the people that see the potential you have and believe that you can do better. So, (1) always ask for feedback, (2) listen intently with an open mind to what they are saying, and (3) accept it with gratitude and say thank you, because feedback is a gift.”
Blake: “That’s a tough one, because I have gotten a lot of advice over my 31 years. One theme that has come through is that relationships and collaboration are key, and you need to make sure your soft skills are front and center. On top of that, you have to be authentic, understand and respect everyone’s position as you collaborate (even if you disagree with it), and make sure that your intent is very clear.”
What approach toward work do you expect to carry with you throughout your career, or that you wish you could share with yourself when you were starting out?
Jungmann: “My personal goal or philosophy in every role that I take on is to find my breaking point of what I can and cannot handle. Whether that be taking on additional work, new work, or even things completely unrelated to my work, I always want to know what else there is to learn, to do, and to improve. If I can find and understand these things early on in every role, I can identify my boundaries and start pushing myself to strive to achieve my highest potential, personally and professionally.”
Blake: “Soft skills are even more important than hard skills. You need to develop them (if you don’t already have them) to ensure you can build the right relationships, network, and be a part of effective, collaborative teams, regardless of what role you play in the company. Hard skills are ‘table stakes,’ just as achieving results is the bare minimum expected of us all. Soft skills are what allow you to influence people and decisions and make sure that the points you’re trying to make are the points your audience gets and reacts to. No matter how technical or detailed you are in your position, realize that collaboration and connection is how the work gets done, especially as the workforce changes.”
The main takeaways? 
Everyone learns their own unique lessons through different career stages and experiences. Reflecting on what you’ve learned is important, and taking in key advice from others can also help you navigate the expected (and unexpected) twists and turns throughout your career. What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
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