Work Lessons 101, with Sabrina Woodworth
There are so many things that are not taught to children growing up or while attending school. Project manager Sabrina Woodworth aims to bridge this gap by writing Work Lessons 101, which gathers all the essential things people should know even at a young age. Joining J.R. Lowry, she talks about the most important lessons everyone must take to heart in their first decade, from building themselves as effective leaders, designing a healthy frame of mind, to putting emotional intelligence to work. Sabrina also shares her insights as a professional engineer about the current state of the mining industry and its direct impact on the supply chain and climate change.
Check out the full series of "Career Sessions, Career Lessons" podcasts here or visit https://staging.pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://staging.pathwise.io/podcasts/sabrina-woodworth
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Work Lessons 101, with Sabrina Woodworth
Project Manager and Professional Engineer, Fluor Corporation
My guest is Sabrina Woodworth. Sabrina is a Project Manager and Professional Engineer with Fluor Corporation, where she has worked for many years. Along the way, Sabrina also launched Work Lessons 101, which started as an effort to codify everything she'd learned in the first decade of her career. These lessons were ultimately compiled into a book and Sabrina continues to dispense work lessons and provide career and leadership coaching. She graduated with an Engineering degree from the University of British Columbia, and she and her family live in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Sabrina, welcome. Thanks for doing the show with me.
Thanks for having me.
Let's start with your work at Fluor. Tell our audience about what you do for them.
I'm a project manager, so I essentially run the project. I work in the EPC world, so engineering, procurement, and construction. Fluor Corporation has multiple business lines, but they primarily work in the industrial industry and resource industries, so oil and gas and mining. I have worked in both sectors, but I am running and leading a concentrator plant for zinc and lead out of Arizona. It's going to be finishing up the feasibility study. I am leading that project and we are about to get ready in September 2023 to go to their board to get sanctioned for the project to build it. We do the engineering, then procure all the engineering and the equipment. It's a major industrial equipment.
We do the logistics and everything to make sure it can get to the location of the site where the mineral deposit is and then we build that process implant. What a process implant does for the audience that doesn't know what that is we process ore. I'm a metallurgist by trade so we get the ore body, which will have percentages of different minerals. In this case, zinc and lead. Zinc is a critical mineral. That's the important one. We then process it through the plant to get it down to a certain 28% zinc and then it goes out through the door and it hits a refinery. That concentrate will get turned into metal at that point.
You went to school and got your degree in Engineering. You have your professional engineering designation, which not everybody who gets an Engineering degree gets. I didn't. I never bothered.
You need four years here in Canada. It is like medical school. You can't be a doctor without a medical school. You can't be a professional certified stamping engineer without your four-year. It's eight years. A lot of people do the degree and then don't realize that there's a whole four-year practicum, but at least you get paid for doing it.
When did you decide that you wanted to be an engineer?
I always laugh at that because I never wanted to be an engineer. I was good at Math, so I knew my multiplication and division tables at the age of four. My brother got bored one day and decided, "I'm going to teach my little sister some Math and Science." That was at four. Around six years of age, I got diagnosed with dyslexia and I was severely dyslexic. I couldn't read until I was nine because they had to deprogram my backward alphabet and how I wrote it. It took years to do that. I was behind my classmates when it came to the reading and writing side of education, but I excelled like I was four grade levels ahead of my Math.
My father encouraged me from this age onwards to go be an engineer. It got embedded into my mindset that when I finished high school, I was going to go off and do my Bachelor of Engineering degree. They were immigrants and they were quite poor by Canadian standards. That was a stable job. I don't want to paint him in the wrong picture. My father is one of my biggest fans in life, but he encouraged me to go in that to the extent that I almost didn't think I even had a choice. I liked Math. It wasn't like I didn't have an interest in it, but I think in retrospect, I probably would've been a better scientist than an engineer, which is the far more practical application of science versus research and theoretical science from a pure interest standpoint. I'm very good at Advanced Mathematics.
It was illogical at the time. Coming from a poor background by Canadian standards, it was a stable job. I went in it at eighteen not having any big plans for it and it’s working out for me. That's why I'm no longer an engineer. Everyone is going to wonder why I'm a project manager. Eight years into my career, I did four years of my practicum. I got my professional certificate. I did another four years. I did an international assignment in Mongolia for a year and a half. We commissioned a copper mine over there. It increased the GDP in Mongolia by 30%. That was a Rio Tinto project. Rio Tinto is a huge copper distributor in the world. It’s a big company.
I got exposed to big corporate operations and different cultures. I lead there and realized that I like the engineering industry but I don't like being in a practice. I still kept my ticket though. It's very powerful to have your ticket as a project manager. It gives you a ton of credibility as a metallurgist and as that. I can still review and stamp drawings. I've never lost the skillset, but I have advanced more on the management side of these big projects versus doing the process.
Being a process engineer is pretty wicked. You learn the entire process of what we buy and build. I did have a bit of a secret advantage over some of my counterparts in the industry because I did the process, which is essentially the plant. If you don't have a good process, you don't get the recovery and our clients don't make the money they need to make to make these projects viable. Having all that technical ability has helped me be competitive in a very competitive industry. A lot of project managers don't have the technical skillset ability. They can't put two hats on. The very early study phase is very process metallurgy driven. I can easily do that and be a project manager at the same time. You're like a double or triple threat.
When you talk about the process piece like this project that you're working on in Arizona, is the customization of the process dependent on what else is in the ore that you're pulling out of the ground? Therefore, you have to figure out how to optimize getting it to a certain degree of clarity.
There is a lot. It takes at least ten years from a discovery of a deposit to production, a minimum of ten years. When these chips and all these supply chain issues started to show some cracks in the foundation during COVID, everyone always has to remember that mining is the beginning of the supply chain. You will not have BEV technology in the world by 2030. We will not all be driving electric cars by this time. There are not enough minerals coming out of the Earth. These are rare earths too, and they're rare earths right in their name because they're rare, the deposits aren't easy to find. They are not being produced at the demand to meet the physical demands.
For all you investors tuning in, follow the mining market, lithium, and these rare earth commodities because there's going to be a massive demand in the market for these and there is not enough coming out. Anytime you have a massive demand and not a big market coming up, that's when things skyrocket. For the mining industry, for the very first time in my career, and I've been here for many years, I've been waiting for this super cycle to start and I think I'm starting to see the infancy of it. Being a metallurgist is a huge advantage. Every ore body on the Earth is 100% different. That is what makes your skillset so unique. You have to size and create the process to process that ore body. That is why nothing can be standardized.
This big thing with AI and this big movement in tech is super cool. I follow it. I'm an innovator at my heart, but it is very hard to apply to these industries because they're so unique. There are certain things you can standardize like a pump foundation or a pump sits on a pump, but all pumps are different. All of them are different powers, different uses, and they produce in it. To design a pump, how high they're pumping material to is a huge factor in how it gets sized.
It's all these unique factors, and then your throughput. What I mean by throughput is not every mining project is the same size. Zinc, for example, is a completely different mineral than copper. Copper's worldwide demand is gigantic. It also controls the price a lot more because there are a lot more people in the game. Zinc, which is a very smaller demand, there are not as many projects. Therefore, people aren't exploring the deposits. The Biden administration of the United States is a great example. I'm assuming Canada, at some point, will follow behind and Australia has already done this.
It's the critical mineral list. These are critical minerals that you need to run a complex society. China, for example, owns a lot of this. Russia is a huge mining company. With the war going on and all these sanctions that we can't buy from Russia, that's not going to change soon, even if the war ends. They have put all these different constraints on these markets that aren't producing. There's not a zinc project in the United States that produces zinc, for example. That's why the project I'm working on is pretty important because it relies on us to not have a dependency on North America. I look at the United States as a very close ally. When it comes to this type of discussion, I don't see two countries. I see a continent and that you're trying to be self-sufficient.
That's where people always talk about war and the future. They go on these long things about oil, water, and minerals. They're pretty important for our society. They make us the unbelievable quality of life we have in the first world. That's why I have power at my house and hot water that heats the water. All these infrastructures come from a very constant supply of power. You see issues with droughts and issues with Europe going on when they're dependent on the pipelines from Russia. That's all about power, and I mean literal power, not political power. I'm talking about physical like you can turn on your lights, power, or heat your house in the winter power.
Gas prices in Europe are high right now. That's primarily the reason. When people say critical minerals and rare earth, it's all in the title. It's interesting that you're seeing a shift. We have this huge climate change argument going on at the same time and a ton of permitting applications in these huge countries like Australia, Canada, and America. When I started my career in '06, this permanent process didn't exist. It's a critical path on almost all our projects and it has the power to shut down a project. You have to be. The mining industry has to be responsible.
I always say that I'm proud to be in the mining industry because I truly believe to my core that if the mining industry and the oil and gas industry are not brought into this discussion on climate change, climate change will never happen. We will not put in the right sanctions. We need to maintain our way of life. That's pretty much a non-negotiable in my opinion. I think you live pretty much in a delusional world. If you think people are going to sacrifice, they're people, unless we're literally at the end of the resource bell. We're not. We're nowhere near that.
We need to work as the industry in bringing the economy argument because there are very poor countries in the world that will never compromise their economy and their people for climate change because they don't have the luxury of the first world and see it from that perspective. I think it is an extremely naive, very first-world-ish, very rich, and entitled perspective for you to put your rights onto them. They don't have the luxury of this free healthcare that we have in Canada and this maintenance of life. Since I travel to very poor countries by Canadian standards, many of these places are democracies. I don't want to insult the countries by any means. They have a decent quality of life, but it's still not the same level.
I always find sometimes that we're very spoiled and privileged here. Unless you recognize by going to these places in the world and being absorbed, the hardships that they have to go to and if you can't feed your child, you don't care about the economy and climate change. That's worse. If we don't start to equalize that playing field and start to realize that oil and gas are not going anywhere and if you think we can live without oil, you do not understand the supply chain of the world and the complexity of the economy.If you think we can live without oil, you do not understand the supply chain of the world and the complexity of the economy. Click To Tweet
A huge reason I work in the mining industry is I'm extremely passionate about the environment and I have it from day one. I feel like I have done so much change on the inside, making more sustainable designs and how we execute our work. We’re recycling water and trying to minimize the footprint using solar when possible. My client at South32 is one of the most ethically advanced clients on this matter. It's wonderful working with a very forward-thinking client like that. We're getting there, but you can't be so naive to shut all these minds down. At the end of the day, if you don't have a supply chain, you don't have a house, TV, iPhone, battery, or Tesla. You don't have any of the minerals.
Think of an iPhone. Don't quote me on this, but it has 47 minerals in it. A lot of people don't understand the complexity of how an ore body feeds and then how long. A lot of the mines we build have 30-year lifespans. They're going to be supplying the world for the next 30 years. At the same time, for the last few years, we've had a lot of mines start to come down and none coming up. You're starting to see the start of some of these issues. COVID pre-empted them due to shutdowns of warehouses in China and stuff like that, but that's just the start. There's a much bigger issue there about trying to secure stocks.
I use BEVs as a big example because all the politicians in all the world are making these statements about 2030 and 2050 but we're not producing enough minerals to hit these targets. If they want to put everybody in India into a battery electric tech car, that's not going to happen. We also don't have the grid power plants that supply that power because that too is fossil fuels and minerals.
There is no such thing as not having a carbon footprint. Not in this society. With all the medical advancements, all of that takes power, cost, and minerals. It's very complex stuff. That's why I love reading about it. I love hearing about it. I wish politicians were more educated about it. It's like that buzzword right now. Carbon-free doesn't mean it is. Those battery electric are plugged into the grid. It's all fossil fuels. There might be less footprint in the big picture once we get the full infrastructure set up, but that infrastructure takes years and it takes a lot of money and energy to do it.
If everybody plugged in their vehicle at the end of the day at 6:00, there would be a massive surge on the grid. You need to make sure that the power and the grids are designed to be able to hit that influx. Unfortunately, with renewables, they don't have that complexity to them. They can't do that right now. We should be researching this technology, so that in the future, it is good enough, but it's not good enough right now. If your governments are investing highly into these things, I'm worried because it's not going to work. If they're not ready, they can't handle a complex society. What I mean by complex society is multiple different surges on the grid. That's what I mean by having not just one in one out. That's simple. That's not how humans work in society.
Talk about Work Lessons. How did that come about?
I was on maternity leave. I guess the inception of the idea came earlier than that. I just wasn't very fulfilled. It's maybe a few years into project management at this time. This is true. There's a label. When you're working in the cubicle world, on the ground floor, or in junior positions, you have a lot more day-to-day talking with your colleagues. There's a lot more teamwork there. Once you go into management, which is great because you can make decisions and influence outcomes. I still would not change, in any way, my career path into management, but I didn't diagnose it at the time.
I started to feel this real big void in me that once I moved into management, I wasn't helping anyone. I wasn't mentoring anyone to the level I was when I was surrounded by the team and hearing all the gossip every day and hearing this and that. I wasn't involved. That's the inception of the idea. When I get into any depression in any way, I always reflect and try to diagnose where it's coming from. I don't ignore it. I think ignoring it and thinking about it, it's not going to go away. It makes it come out even bigger in the future. I went through some old resumes and I eventually found my old work journals. I used to write a lot more when I was younger simply because I've always written and I've always loved to write. It's a hobby of mine. It de-stresses me. It's my outlet.
I found stuff I used to write and my old journals from Mongolia. It was filled with all these lessons in it. It's filled with all these like, "I learned this in this way. I witnessed this." All these life-changing discussions I had with some wicked mentors I met over there. It started this light bulb that went off. I said, "What if I transform this into a book?" This was, at the same time, Instagram was taken off where content creators became a thing.
I read a couple of books. This is kind of reverse mentoring at its best. I'm mentoring these young engineers and they're like, "Have you heard of Gary Vee and his Crushing It! book?" I'm not a fan of Gary Vee anymore but the book Crushing It! changed my perspective on how to create content and it taught me how to do it. I'm very grateful. I think the book is probably outdated at this point. Content creation is way more complex nowadays than it was a few years ago when I started because there are so many more people even doing now.
I got into LinkedIn when no one was on LinkedIn, so I got the wave. Now there's a lot more competition with content. I had this void from not mentoring everyone and then I realized that my mentoring has changed. I don't work with new grads much anymore being in project management. I'm working a lot more with the intermediates and the soon-to-be senior leads who have it to go into project management. It made me see things from a perspective.
The books are far more targeted to the newer grad or up to about ten years of work experience, depending on the industry. It teaches you those hard knocks you learn. I don't think school properly prepares, not that I want to criticize education. I had an excellent education, but it didn't prepare me. In Mongolia, it didn't prepare me for how to work with multiple cultures, the emotional intelligence level, how to communicate effectively, and how to influence decisions. It didn't teach me how to sell my capabilities as a professional. It didn't teach me how to handle a bully in the workplace or even how to recognize a bully in the workplace because it's not the kid who pushes you at the playground. It is far more sneaky than that.School doesn’t properly prepare students on how to work with multiple cultures, communicate effectively, and sell their capabilities as a professional. Click To Tweet
That's when I started to write this book and share it with colleagues. They're like, "This is good. This would help people." That's when I decided when I walked away from my corporate career for a year when I had my son. In Canada, you can take up to 18 months, so I ended up taking 14 months when I wrote it. I ask a lot of other people, "How do you write a book when you have an infant? That's impossible." Nothing is impossible, but nothing is also possible. You need to look at the time you have to dedicate to any goal you have in mind.
Little babies don't necessarily sleep for long periods, but they sleep often. My son did a lot of these little cat naps, like 20 to 30-minute naps. That’s how I broke down the work and that's why it's broken down into work lessons, which are maybe 200 to 300 words at any given time. It took me no more than half an hour to write each one of those lessons, then I go and edit it after. I could always write one little lesson. I broke them down into themes and then hit them out when he napped. I wrote every single day. I don't think I wrote 6,000 to 7,000 words per day, even though I'm very capable of that if I have the time, but I did have maybe 2 or 3 pockets of hours. I broke a couple of those little cat naps into work lessons. Over the entire year, 80,000 words were written.
This is why I say baby steps can hit big milestones, but you need to be very organized and understand your time restraints. Being consistent and determined is probably the more important element of a goal. Not the quality. The quality will come with practice. As a writer, you become better the more you write. It's one of those skills. Not every skill is like that, you may never be great at basketball and you can practice every day. When it comes to certain cognitive skills like writing, you will get better the more you do it at how the skill and the brain work and how the neurons connect. That's how it works.
When you do that, that makes you better. It makes you efficient and faster. The work lessons became more refined. You might even see it throughout the book because I wrote that book in chronological order. I think my writing is better later in the book than it was at the beginning of the book. At least when I've reread it, I see that as a writer, but maybe it's normal to criticize your writing. Anyway, that's how I did it.
I always say people are trying to work out and lose weight, but they're like, "I can't get to the gym." I'm like, "Squish the gym. I can't get to the gym. I don't have a gym membership, but I work out every single day." What I do is high-intensity and interval training. It's twenty minutes a day. I can always dedicate twenty minutes a day, whether it's on my lunch hour, first thing in the morning, or before I go to bed. It's easy to find 20 minutes, but I'm determined to always find that 20 minutes. It is much harder to do an hour. Especially with kids, kids complicate everything. That's why I say to younger people that life is unkind sometimes. You have all the time in the world, but no experience.
That's part of the book. It's to help guide you a little bit through some of the stuff that might, as a young person, consume you like if your boss isn't happy with you. If you have a bad boss, there is a good one. Bad bosses right out of your career are unlucky. I feel bad for you because it can take the way you see work. It has a ton of power and influence over your perspective. Anytime you can influence a young person's perspective and the negative, it's a really bad thing.
I'm very concerned about that. That's why I always say travel. I know a lot of people in North America are super against that gap year at eighteen. I'm for it because the more you travel and the more you see the world, the more you realize you're not all that different from each other. You can start to realize that the people that are born with less of a disadvantage than you are not all that different from you. I think that perspective at 18 or 19 years of age is going to help you more in life than anything else.
If you're going to be a leader one day and manage teams, not just be a man and the leader, be a proper, effective, good leader and that's who I want to produce. I want to produce leaders. Leaders are selfless in many ways. Leaders do things and see the bigger picture. They are not naive. They have a ton of common sense and emotional intelligence but it takes a lot of experience to be able to be those effective leaders. You can have natural leadership ability, but still not be a leader because you don't have that element of wisdom yet.
You can be leaders at your level. I was a captain of my hockey team because I knew hockey. I started playing hockey when I was five. By the time I was 15, I had 10 years of experience in hockey and then all the time watching it, roughing it, and coaching young kids, I was an expert in my later teenage years by this point on hockey. I'm just saying at your level, you can be very much a leader. Leading these projects that I lead, it's very hard for someone at the age of 25 to do because you don't have that technical big-picture ability. It's because you haven't executed a project yet.
Just so people understand what I'm saying, these projects are in the billions of dollars. These are not $1 million to $2 million projects. If you're talking to someone who's eighteen, they'd be like, "$1 million to $2 million, that's so much money." It's all relative. I said, "My company is completely tainted me on how I see money." Not individual investment money because that, I don't have. From a project perspective, $2 million's not very hard to get banks to give you. $1 billion is pretty hard.
That's why the mining industry is interesting because you have these inflation rates and high-interest rates around the world now. Mineral prices have yet to go up. All the costs of building these projects are super high with the inflation and the supply chain issues that have plagued since COVID, yet the mineral prices haven't gone up. Everyone is like, "That doesn't make any sense." I'm like, "You're right, that doesn't make any sense." It's funny. It's interesting times in the resource industry.
I've never seen the world in this particular situation because usually when oil prices go high, a recession quickly follows. That's why '08 was so detrimental. I can give any advice to young people now because I know you have no money. You might have a huge student loan, so you're not even thinking about it. This is the time to learn your finances, how to invest, how corporations work, how banks work, and how to read a stock portfolio and the charts because one day, when you do have money, all that knowledge gained will be highly effective.
When '08 happened, I started my financial education. I made some pretty good stock investments that paid my down payment for my house. Once I started to go when COVID happened and one of these things, you could make some good financial decisions because you have lickable cash, which is always powerful. The most important thing is you know. Never be scared to learn. I have met so many adults, older than me and around my age, that are scared to learn about the financial industry. They're scared to lose money. I was like, "By doing nothing, you are going poor safely in my opinion."
This is some pretty easy stuff to learn. It's all online now. Formal education has changed so much, but informal is advanced so much. There is a lot of garbage out there too. That's why sometimes reading a few books that people you work with have made money and by learning the skills there. Some of the good ones to read are Rich Dad Poor Dad. That's a perspective book. That gives you the perspective on how the rich think because that's the CEOs. If you ever get into Corporate Elite America, that's exactly how people like that think. I've been around them. It's brilliant.
The Wealthy Barber is the basics. It’s how to save 10% of your salary and how to invest it. Little things that worked out well for me is, every raise I ever got in the first five years of my career, I saved. I never stop living off that base salary. As soon as you get money on that paycheck, it goes to something frivolous or something you don't need. If you never see it, it doesn't get spent. Again, that's me. I'm good at managing debt because I've never had money.
I've always been good at paying credit cards, lines of credit, and student loans off. Once I started to get into the positive, I started spending it on stuff because I never had it. I then realized in the '08 collapse that I was not setting myself up for a future. It's because the market crat and it would've been an amazing year to buy real estate. I didn't have a down payment saved and that's my stupidity. Again, notice it. Don't get too hard on yourself. Just change it. Change so you don't make the mistake again.
That's what I did. I started putting all that money aside, started reading these books, and then I ended up doing my securities course. What that means in Canada is that's the course that allows you to trade stocks. I had no ambition to manage other people's money. That's a very stressful job and I did not want that responsibility. I'm glad I did it because it taught me how to do my own money. It taught me how to help my family and set my parents up very well. That's what I did. I would recommend to everyone that as soon as you start to notice yourself running away from something, get on it. That's where you got to dig into it and learn, but finance is a common one. I always see young people, especially people that come from not wealthy families.As soon as you start to notice yourself running away from something, get on it. Click To Tweet
You've focused on a lot of different things in the book. As you say, you aimed it at people who are in their first decade. Some of it is about your financial future. You cover that and it sounds like you're very passionate about it. More generally, it's not my generation, but there's a sense certainly of that generation that is in their 20s and 30s.
The people who are older than them have screwed the world up and made it not that progressively getting better every year for every generation place, as you say, that you were promised. There's a lot else in the book about making a good start and coming to terms with what it's like to be in the work world. You had a bit of that time in Mongolia. How did you learn those lessons? How did you build that experience base that you now dispense out to other people?
You got to be an open-minded person. You got to ride things through. You don't call the Super Bowl at halftime. You got to realize that about yourself. You got to know who you are as a person. There is a self-awareness element. That comes from reflection and learning from your mistakes, but own into your mistakes and bringing that accountability. If you want to blame the Baby Boomers for screwing up the world, you go right ahead and blame the Baby Boomers. How does that help you? It's all I ever ask people. How do you blame anyone help you now in your future?
You absolutely might not be at fault. You might have been given an unfair poker hand, but you still have all the control in the world over how you react to it. It's sad sometimes that it may be the secondary prize, but it is what's in your control. I had that natural resilience driven into me by sports, by being cut for teams I felt like I deserved to be on, and from very resilient parents. My mom came here from Italy in the '60s. She had no money. They had $20 in their pocket. They slept on couches of people who sponsored them to get over here. They had it rough. They didn't even have electricity when they were kids in Italy after the war. It was horrible compared to the standards that I grew up in.
My mom did write her memoir in COVID so I learned a lot about her. That is how they raised my brother and I. I was dyslexic too at the age of six, so I wasn't smart like the other kids were. I was different right from the get-go in a very small way. When you're six, that is a big deal. You only have your little six-year-old perspective of the world. You don't have your 40-year-old perspective of the world. I learned so much from raising my son. I got to see the world through his eyes. That gives me a different outlook.
That has helped me be a better mentor and coach to young people because they're only seeing it from their 22-year-old eyes. Don't insult those 22-year-old eyes. They only know what they know, so help them see what they're missing. That comes from you. You have to be open-minded. I always took that outlook. When I went to Mongolia, the first nine months there sucked. I was the only female. I'm blonde. I'm 5'4 and 110 pounds. I'm tiny. People didn't take me seriously because they looked at me. This was many years ago, so everyone was like, "That is sexist." You're right, it is.
Nothing was very obvious. Everyone gave me a hard time. The construction world is rugged, to begin with. It is full of men, but it's full of tough men. Not just the alpha males. I don't want to paint these men in a negative way. Some of them are extremely good people. Little things. When I was in the middle of Mongolia, safety was a concern. My now husband who was my boyfriend at that time, and my father, of course, are always very concerned about my safety because you're in this other part of the world and all these things.
A lot of the men walked me back home every night to my room, very gentlemanly, like chivalrous. That too is technically sexist, but let's have enough common sense here. That is a good thing. That is a behavior you want to reward and that's how I'm going to raise my son. I'm very grateful that they went out of their way to look out for me because physically if someone wanted to attack me, I wasn't going to stand much of a charm. My way of proving myself was never going to come from a physical element. It was going to come from an intellectual one. It was going to come from solving difficult problems.
For the first nine months, I knew I was going to have a hard time. Again, you got to draw that line. You always deserve to be treated as a professional, which I was, but they gave me a hard time. What I mean by that is they wouldn't give me real work to prove myself. One time, this one little thing came up. Something broke at sight and no one wanted to go fix it, so I volunteered. I had no idea how to do it, but I volunteered. I get away with that doubt and fear, say yes sometimes, and then I went and solved it. I got to ask for help too. I got a lot of people helping me, but it's also how you ask for help. It's who you call on, who you know, how to build relationships, and get favors.
I call on a lot of favors. There's a lot of people out there that owe me things and I owe a lot of people things, but this is how it works. That's how the world works. That's how a network works. You build these relationships by being good people and being authentic, but delivering your word means something. When I say I promise or you got my word, people can take that to the bank and cash it. It means everything to me. That is my reputation. That is value. No one can take that away. No employer can take that away from you. When they lay you off, you got a rep, a network, and credibility, you'll get a job somewhere else. You can call in a network and probably have a job by the end of the week. That's how things work. That's how the world works.
By going into Mongolia and saying, "They're being tough on me. I'm going to go home." I would've lost out on an amazing opportunity to prove myself. Some people are saying, "You shouldn't have to." You always have to prove yourself, and that's for men and women. No matter what, you have to prove yourself. You got to solve difficult problems and you got to be accountable. That always stems from you taking on that challenge.
The first thing in any amazing journey in life is saying yes or you say no to take another journey. It starts with whatever decision you make. It starts with you and how people treat you. You're in control. How people treat you, you can train them to treat you better. I don't judge too quickly, I've learned. I've realized there are sides to stories. There are different sides of stories and how people communicate is also a product of the environment they're raised in. If a man is a little sexist, maybe it comes from their upbringing.
I dig into it a little differently. Am I the person that comes across their life that can change their outlook on something? I give them the benefit of the doubt, especially if I have time to, in Mongolia, so I did. I built a lot of relationships there and I turned a lot of people's opinions around. Again, that's how I see it. If I see an enemy, I want to make them a friend. That's how I look at it. There are people that I hit right off because some people cannot be saved. The more you work with people, the more you try to help people, and the more you try to teach people, you become a better judge of who is capable of change and who is not.
As a coach, there are lots of clients I will not take and it's because I don't think they're ready for a coach or I'm not the coach for them. I am very big on accountability. If you're someone who wants to hire a coach to say that you hired a coach, and then blame me when nothing changes in your life, I'm not interested in wasting my time on you. Even if you're paying me, that's a waste. I don't coach for money. I coach for gratification at the end of it. I help someone that didn't have access in their own life to someone like a mentor or a coach or a family member that needed to help them a little bit or if they're not getting it from their parents.
The common story I see with people is, a lot of times, their parents are making them do something they don't want to do because they're either funding it. Some of it is building the confidence that they can walk away from that so they can pursue something they want to. A lot of people are forced into medical school because they're intelligent enough to do medical school, but they hate it. You always have options. It's the harder road. It's much easier to take the money and do that, but you will regret that decision when you're older.
That's the thing. It comes down to who. I do reflection and exercises where I try to think of what myself in ten years will wish I did now. That's why I say the financial thing. Don't be scared to learn finance when you're 22 because the 32-year-old version of you is going to love the 22-year-old version decision. They're going to love you. They're going to be so grateful. I remember when I start saving all these raises, it was $3,000, $5,000, or $8,000. What the hell can you do with that? I can't buy a house with that, so there's this little number.
All of a sudden, it started to eventually grow into hundreds of thousands of dollars. You're like, "I just got 10% last year." That is a huge increase. That snowball is big. It's collecting a lot of snow as it's running down that steep hill. Sometimes it takes a decade to get that momentum going. Now I'm at a point where I don't have to put anything in my 401 or my RSPs, depending on what it's called in your country. You're fine. You can walk away. Now you're in this position where you make high salaries, you have the skillset and the confidence to leave your job if it's toxic in any way.
You're at this point financially where not only do you have lickable cash, you have investments and portfolios. I have high-risk portfolios with exploration mining companies, which is pretty much-pissing money away, and then there are the dividends at the blue-chip companies that I bought when they were low. The dividends give me a steady percentage every year, and this is it. I'm 41. It doesn't get like this until you're in your 40s or your late 30s. When I was in my 20s, trust me, I did say, "What's this all for? Why am I doing this?"
Sometimes being patient pays off dividends. When it comes to the investment world, that's what it does. If you're not born into wealth and you're like me, you got to grow it all. My son will end up reaping more of the rewards of what I've done. It takes a generation to build it, a generation to maintain it, and then a generation to blow it. You got to teach your kids resiliency and determination by remaining open-minded. It comes from a strong set of values. If people want to know, confidence in who you are does come from a strong set of values, understanding your deal breakers, and what you're not going to do.
It's easy to quit a job when you know what you're willing to quit a job for. It's easy to stick up to the client that wants you to do something when you know you're willing to be kicked off the project. When you have that strong sense of value and self-awareness, you know all these answers before any of these situations arise. People always ask me how I'm so confident. It's because I spend a lot of time thinking about what-ifs and how I would react to situations. I taught myself not to say anything right away. I like to solve problems.
That's a strength in many cases, but it can also be a weakness when sometimes you need to shut up. Let whatever you're in happen organically and let other people speak up so you can gather information and understand what's going on. Lots of people will try to trick you. As a project manager, you will have clients or team members try to get you to say an early yes without you having all the information. It's common. It happens all the time.
It’s like, “You said you'd get it to me, but I didn't know this, this, and this when I told you that.” That's why not committing, asking lots of questions, and that open-mindedness, saves you in so many aspects of your life if you pause and ask questions. Everyone is like, "I got to give an answer." I was like, "Why do you have to give an answer right away? Is there a deadline? Did they tell you the deadline? This is a big serious decision. If they're not giving you 24 hours, then it's a no. It's that simple." I was in a situation where I had to give an answer, and my answer was no if I had to give an answer right away because that was what my instincts are. That's another thing. The older you get, the more you trust your instincts.
Yeah, and it's that clock. Sometimes your brain is a few seconds behind your instincts. It's the flight or fight response. Sometimes you're already doing the action, but your brain is still a few seconds behind like, "What just happened?" If you train yourself, you become an expert in it. You become that pause. You don't always have to pause, but if you always do it, then you're never going to be wrong or never going to say something too early. It's like playing poker. That straight face, sitting back, and not giving up any information. That's not a bad idea. It's wisdom.
That's how you can tell someone is young. It doesn't mean an age thing. There are lots of older people that aren't wise. That's when they make massive generalizations. If I've learned anything in my life, there's an exception to everything. I understand that exceptions very rarely apply, so sometimes deciding for the greater good is the right decision. You can't make that judgment typically right away. If the civil team who's doing all the earthworks that say, "I need an extra week to do this," that seems pretty minor, but you don't know necessarily if that one week is connected to something six months down the road by doing that decision now.
If you never reflect on your decisions, you'll never learn from those mistakes. You'll go forward thinking you did it. The problem with these mega projects in the industry that I work in is they're 6 to 10 years long. You rarely start a project to finish a project. I've done that in Mongolia. I started and finished that one to start up. I'm hoping the one I'm on right now, I get to build and startup too. That'll be my second. I'm seventeen years into my career and I've done it once technically.
Some projects get canceled, don't get me wrong. Generally, you get promoted and moved off of them. That’s a different team and different skillsets. There are project managers that are better at studies than detail and execution. There are different skillsets for different tasks. Sometimes it happens, but it's rare that you're on a project for that long. You need to sometimes go back to the projects that you had finished or someone else has taken over and, "How is it going? How is the schedule going? Were you able to execute that?" “No, we weren't.” That's when I'm like, "What happened?"
If I don't learn that lesson, then I'll keep executing forward under this false knowledge that it worked well. Eventually, you'll plateau. I'm a big optimist. Once in a while, we do naturally plateau. We can only be as intelligent sometimes even with gain knowledge and everything. The great thing about emotional intelligence is I do believe it's exponential. I do think you can constantly create a higher EQ on that. I'm not even convinced you can't increase your IQ by gaining knowledge, learning, executing, and becoming smarter that way.
They can feed each other to level you up into a very highly intelligent and effective leader that can make effective decisions. Part of making effective decisions is asking the right question, gathering the information, and getting the right people on your team to fill in your knowledge gaps. That also stems from that self-awareness. That's why these leaders are hard to find because there are lots of skills that go into being a leader.
Do you consider yourself to have natural emotional intelligence or did you have to learn it?
I had natural to some degree, but I needed to learn to listen. I still remember it. I was about seventeen and I remember not understanding my actions. I had repercussions for other people. That one was instilled by my mother and that one I did. I was almost slightly narcissistic. They say it's very natural when you're going through adolescent growth to be very narcissistic and self-involved. I wasn't narcissistic in the sense that I wanted to look in the mirror and all that. I was very confident and never doubted myself but at an ignorant level. I had no life experience or any reason to be confident, and I was just arrogant.
That's where I didn't recognize that other people struggled. I was always very caring to people. I was never a bully. I was always someone that would fight the bully. I was always the David that would go after the Goliath. I hated bullies from day one. That was my parents with the values they taught me because they were at a disadvantage being so poor and they built their empire from nothing. Having a close family and friends’ group of people, I was rich with the people that I got to share dinner with every day. I have a lot of love.
That rubs off on you, so I feel very sad for people who got raised in a toxic and abusive environment as a child. I feel so bad for them because of that perspective. It goes back to changing that perspective at such an impressional part of your life that's very hard to undo when you're older. The people who were supposed to teach you how to love and enter the world were maybe not your greatest and biggest fans.
The great thing about being a parent is that your kid might not appreciate it. I appreciate it now as an adult what my parents sacrificed, but I went through a period of time where I thought that was entitled and everyone had that. It was a little bit of a wake-up call when I went off to university and realized. I started dating. I think that was a big one. My parents are celebrating 48 years. My in-laws are 52 years married. My parents went through some big financial problems in the early ‘90s. They’re almost losing their house. There was a lot of argument and stress, but they stayed together.
I think a lot of people nowadays wouldn't stick together through bad crap like that. My brother and I are both very happily married people, but we picked people very value-oriented like us in our foundation. I married my opposite on the surface. If you looked at us, I'm a massive extrovert and he's a massive introvert. We're night and day. When you look at our values, they're the same. We got raised in very stable families. If you look at any statistics, the kids that grow up in a steady stable home have very good statistics to go off to be fairly happy adults. I do feel if you did not have that outlook, you can learn and heal from it, but you're not starting from the same spot I started at.
I think that's what I had to learn. I don't think I quite recognize that. Everybody has privilege. I wasn't privileged in the financial sense, but I was very privileged in the support system. I can take risks now because I have a safety net. My parents financially now are doing quite well for themselves like many Boomers have with real estate. It took a very long time to get there for them, but it doesn't even matter. As long as you have a house in the family, you have somewhere to go. You're never going to be on the streets. You have to set the tone right.
There are some people out there that could be on the streets if they tell their boss to eff off. They don't have the privilege that some people do. They have to be a little bit more organized and have a bit more of a plan, but you should never stay in a toxic environment in the long-term. You should always see it as temporary. You should be working in the background to get your butt out of that. It's always my advice to people. You should never settle for what you're not worth and that self-worth is controlled by you. It's very hard to see it sometimes if you were raised and told you weren't. I've met a lot of women that have come from that type of background.
I'm very grateful that I didn't have to. That's why everyone is like, "Why don't you always give someone the benefit of the doubt?" I don't have as much time now to sit with every one of my team members, but I do walk around the office a lot and observe people. You won't know the team right away from the get-go, but as the year goes on, you will notice the people that chit-chat and socialize more. When, all of a sudden, they're not doing that, as a PM, part of my role is pulling people into my office and talking to them. Not about projects, but to make sure they're in a healthy frame of mind because that's also what sometimes keeps people employed at your company. It’s that leader that cares a little bit. It can make a huge difference.
I don't do it for my company. I've stayed with the company for many years, so I'm very loyal, but I don't do it for the company. I do it because I intrinsically think it’s part of my job, but it's a core value of mine. It goes back to that foundational value standpoint. If you believe in mentoring and you should help someone, if you are able, then that creates a vibe about you as a person. It creates an environment around you that the people that want to work for you tend to absorb from you as well.
Over time, that's the leadership team. We're all similar in that value standpoint. Decisions can get made a lot faster when those are the types of people around you. You have to also be a little bit careful that you don't suffer from groupthink. There's enough diversity of thought in there that some of these people would speak up. That's also creating a safe environment where the people to speak up are allowed to speak up. I learned this lesson over and over again.
My team called me into a team's call one time right when I was in the middle of doing something else and I'm about to go on a three-week vacation. I'm trying to get it all done. Here, they are calling me and I ended up apologizing to one of them because I felt like I acted in that call, "What you're bringing up is a burden to me." It was, but it always is. It's always a burden, but as a project manager, my job is to be interrupted. You don't ever want to create an environment where your team is not telling you something is wrong. That's a way worse scenario than being interrupted at an inconvenient time.You don’t want to create an environment where your team is not telling you that something is wrong. That is a way worse scenario than being interrupted at an inconvenient time. Click To Tweet
When you want to reinforce this behavior in your team, you need to live and breathe it as a leader. You need to enforce it. As soon as you send them a conflicting message like that, you have to correct it. Maybe not then and there because you might not be aware of it, but I reflect on my day for at least ten minutes a day. I usually do it when I'm running or exercising. I went over that and it rubbed me the wrong way on that call and it was all on me. It had nothing to do with the team.
They're all like, "You were like that at the beginning of the meeting, but by the time you ended it, you had calmed down. You were fine with us." That's exactly how it did happen, but I'm still mad at myself or more disappointed at myself that I picked up that call like, "Why are you calling me?" That's so the wrong attitude. That's so not what I stand for, but I haven't been noticing as the project goes more advanced and I advance up into the company. I'm entering new ground right now so I am a little more stressed than I normally am. That's when you get tested and that's when you have to be better than that.
Even the best of us have better days than other days. Some days, you go home and reflect, and you go, "I didn't handle that well. I wish I'd done something instead." Some things, you can't get back. Some things, you can go back in the next day and say, "I didn't handle that well." You talk it through and at least make peace with it. One last question I would ask you. You work with a lot of younger people, probably in both a formal and an informal way. What are the 2 or 3 biggest pieces of advice you would give them in terms of how to be thinking about the early part of their career?
This is probably the advice I'd also give my son.
He's four so it's a little early.
I mean as a young adult. What I would be instilling is stumbles, failures, mistakes, and however you want to phrase them are a part of life in general. You're going to date the wrong people, choose the wrong company potentially at a time, you might even choose the wrong career, and that's okay. It's never okay to stay in that situation once you become aware and you're not always aware. I dated my first boyfriend for five years. In retrospect, I should have probably known pretty quickly that he was never going to be the right guy, but I had nothing to compare him against and nothing to learn. Once I realized it, it was on me to get out of it.
Life is totally like that. You only know what you know. You might not be aware of what you don't know. That's how life works. You need to have that open-mindedness to ask those questions. Don't be too hard on yourself and understand that you aren't perfect. You will never be perfect. What makes you pretty special is probably those imperfections. Never be that stubborn person that can't change, can't listen, and can't take constructive feedback. Sometimes the people giving you constructive feedback, their opinion wasn't asked and maybe they don't have the best benefit. Your judgment, as you get older, will be able to see whether you should take this advice or not, but you should always at least listen is my point. You shouldn't get too defensive right away.
If you become those people that people don't give feedback, they'll stop caring. You don't want to be that project manager, like the example I gave that shuts their team down because they got you at an inconvenient time. What is that? You don't do that. You need to be always willing to listen. When you stop listening, you stop learning. Please don't take it too hard on yourself if you make mistakes. I almost think they're inevitable. To be honest, I even think regrets in life are inevitable.
If you question self-aware and reflect on those decisions, own up to your mistakes, and then learn from them and fix them, you rarely make them again. They make you so much stronger. The older you get and the more advance in your career you become, you will make less mistakes. That's so wise because mistakes can cost you a lot more later in your career. They nearly cost you nothing at the beginning.
I'll tell you a little secret. To all the new grads tuning in, I don't expect much from my new grads. I see it as my job to train and mentor you. I don't think of this question as being stupid. This is your "get out of jail free card" guys. Use it as much as you can because there'll come a point in your career where people will have higher expectations of you. It'll be harder to make mistakes then. It's still forgivable because again, your mistakes might not be as big as you think they are, but that is my whole point. If you keep that listening and open-minded, that one is a big one. It builds that resilience and determination in you.
The second one would probably be to find your three biggest weaknesses, and three biggest strengths, and understand that when the situation inevitably changes, they too can be your three greatest weaknesses and three greatest strengths. I'm a good person in an emergency. I take action immediately, but I am not so good when it's not an emergency. I needed to train myself to pause and be patient because how I screwed up early in my career was an environment that I should allow to happen organically that I forced because I was impatient. That cost me.
Thank God I learned that lesson eventually. That one was hard because it gets my nature. You don’t want to have a personality. Personality traits are the hardest to change because then there's a lot of this advice right now that's saying, "Be yourself." Being yourself and being authentic are two completely different things. You should always be authentic, but your personality should be curved to the professional environment you're in to some degree.
I say to people you got to be true to yourself, but you also can't bring all your baggage to work every day because that's not what work is about.
As a PM, I have met people over my career who always got drama around them. After a while, you do recognize it's almost all self-inflicted. I'm always so grateful for the fact that there's no drama and my life is boring. There comes a point where boring is awesome. I know that you never see that in the news and media because it doesn't sell and it's boring. I'm so happy. I don't think happiness sells either. Be very careful who you choose to be your mentor and take advice from. If they are not living the life that you want, then don't listen to them unless they're telling you what not to do.
Realize that your weaknesses and your strengths can interchange. I don't believe at all that there's one great strength. I think communication can be a weakness in certain environments where maybe you shouldn't be selling. Maybe you should shut up and listen. Your time management skills are ding-dong. What do you do at a time when you know you need to let someone else?
My impatience has made me a bad mentor at times too because I'll go do and fix it for them. I did this a lot with my son. I would go fix this problem immediately because my son is crying. Mothers don’t want to hear their kid cry. I realized that I was creating a lazy kid and a very codependent person. That's exactly the opposite of resilience. You're like, "The biggest thing I want him to learn is resilience. I'm single-handedly a person that's not instilling it in him." It's funny how that can happen.
Some strengths and weaknesses can be interchangeable. You need to learn the environment that you excel in, and then recreate that environment over and over again. It's in secret or in a trusted network, work on those weaknesses in those environments. If you ever get put into it, you blow it away. That's what I always say to people. Play to your strengths. I am extremely good at an emergency so I create all these fake milestones so I can hit them. I'm like the queen of the checklist.
I create that environment so my productivity is at top capability almost at all times because I tend to be a procrastinator if I have all the time in the world. I learned that once super early in my career. Over the years, what I can get done now in a day versus what I could get done at 23 when I started my career is night and day. These skills over decades or years can get refined to a level. You're pretty up there. I know we're out of time, but those are my two very long convoluted examples.
We'll call it there. Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it particularly given that you're about to go on vacation. It was a fun conversation and good to get to know you a little bit.
Thanks, J.R. Thanks for having me.
I want to thank Sabrina for joining me talking about the work she does, life as a project manager, her work lessons, and a lot of other things that we covered in the course of roughly an hour. If you're ready to take control of your career, you can visit PathWise.io. If you'd like more regular career insights, become a PathWise member. It's free. You can also sign up on the website for our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Sabrina Woodworth
Sabrina Woodworth is a project manager and professional engineer with Fluor Corporation, where she has worked for the last 17 years.
Along the way, Sabrina also launched Work Lessons 101, which started as an effort to codify everything she’d learned in the first decade of her career. These lessons were ultimately compiled into a book, and Sabrina continues to dispense work lessons and provide career and leadership coaching today.
Sabrina graduated with an engineering degree from the University of British Columbia. She and her family live in Vancouver, British Columbia.