Life is Long: Work Hard, Take Risks, Have Fun

If you’re
not changing
and evolving as a
professional and as a
human being every day-
in a biological sense-
you’re dying.

Brenda SkeltonBrenda Skelton

Sometimes the humblest of beginnings can create the greatest impact. Just ask Brenda Skelton, principal of the Milwaukee-based Brenda Skelton Consulting, a strategy and consulting firm that counts Alverno College and Marquette University among its Wisconsin clients.

Tracing her 30-plus year career path from poverty to running her own business, Skelton shared her compelling story as well as lessons learned in a keynote address at the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership (WWHEL) conference held at Carroll University WI in October 2012.

“Nothing in my upbringing prepared me for a successful career in business,” she said. Yet, this married mom of two daughters took the lemons that life handed her early on and turned them into a sweet lemonade.

In a story that rivals that of Horatio Alger, Skelton was the youngest of 10 children on a “dirt-poor dairy farm in the Ozarks.” She attended one of the last two-room grade schools in Missouri; each room had four grades. Her mother was the school cook and her aunt was a teacher there.

Successfully transitioning from being one of two in her eighth-grade class to a high school of some 400 students, Skelton eventually went on to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Missouri, following eight of her siblings.

Giving credit for her future success to a college advisor who convinced her to add a journalism major to her home economics curriculum, Skelton attributed her early achievements to a combination of pluck and luck. Her parents always told her: “Show up, have a positive attitude and work hard.”

That advice coupled with her mother’s words when Skelton or a sibling felt under the weather—“Get out of bed and sweat a little and you’ll feel better”—would carry her through job and career changes, motherhood and eventually lead to her starting a consulting business.

Seven keys to success

Graduating with honors from the University of Missouri, Skelton had two job offers, one in Phoenix, the other in Des Moines. Choosing the Phoenix offer, she discovered two weeks later that the position was unfunded and the Iowa job was filled. She returned home until a public relations job in Indianapolis opened.

• Moving to a state that she had not even seen to a job that she hadn’t considered, Skelton found the first of her keys to success from Missouri native and writer, Mark Twain. “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” It’s the rare person who doesn’t get hit with bad circumstances at some point in life. “It’s okay to lick your wounds for a minute—but then move on,” said Skelton.

• As she would eventually discover, there is no one right path in life. We all play the hand that’s dealt to us with varying degrees of accomplishment. Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra pointed out her second key to success: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Other than a few of life’s big questions where there is only one right answer, it doesn’t matter which option you pick. You’ll find ways to adjust, adapt and succeed wherever you are. Taking a better paying job to pay back her student loans, Skelton encountered a curmudgeon named Elmer who was being forced into retirement. She worked with Elmer for a 90-day transition period without him ever speaking to her.

• But she worked hard, was pleasant to her new coworkers and was successful, proving that an old Ozark saying: “You draw more flies with honey than with vinegar,” as her third key to success. Leaving the ad agency with a great office and a Saab as a company car, Skelton made a lateral move to Midwest Airlines, where she found an organization that truly fit her skill set and personality. “I wanted to get in a business I could grow with,” she said.

• In moving to Milwaukee, Skelton was following the advice of actress Katharine Hepburn and her fourth key to success: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” It’s a long slog to retirement so take risks and have fun, she advised. “Think about what you’ll learn and how you’ll grow, not the money.” When you’re lucky enough to retire, you will have put in more than four decades worth of work. During some of those years, there’s a tendency to “nest,” to become too comfortable with where you are and not continue to challenge yourself.

• Taking the advice of Katharine Lyall, the first woman president of the University of Wisconsin System, her fifth key to success is to “fight the professional nesting instinct in order to keep learning.”

The final 18 months of Skelton’s tenure at Midwest Airlines saw the original owner, the Kimberley Clark Corporation, spin off the airline and take it public. Meanwhile Skelton was pregnant with one of her daughters and experiencing pre-term labor requiring bed rest. At the same time, her mother was dying of cancer.

Her daughter was born 11 weeks early. When she returned from maternity leave, she was promoted to senior vice president and joined the airline’s board of directors.

“The events of that 18-month period were sort of an outof- body experience,” she said. “I was there and it was really happening but it wasn’t really happening to me, the little girl from the Ozarks.”

Skelton made the decision to walk away from that high profile job, money, position and power without another job lined up. “I didn’t need to be the richest grave in the graveyard,” she explained.

• Skelton had learned her sixth key to success: “Integrate your work into your life and not the other way around.” Or as author Anna Quindlen stated, “Don’t ever confuse the two: your life and your work. The second is only part of the first.”

She knew she would never have the chance to be a great mother if she continued at the pace she was working. “I had to define for myself what appropriate boundaries were around work/life/family balance,” said Skelton.

That balance differs for every one of us and much of it revolves around managing the concept in “your own head.” For Skelton, balance meant spending time with family.

That desire led her to work for a professional soccer team, become a foundation director, serve as managing director of marketing for a financial services company and finally to create her own consulting firm.

Skelton helps schools and nonprofits “advance their organizations through brand building, marketing, communication, stakeholder relations and fund development services.”

• Her skill set and willingness to embrace change leads to her seventh key to success, an observation by Charles Darwin: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one that responds best to change.”

Said Skelton, “If you’re not changing and evolving as a professional and as a human being every day—in a biological sense—you’re dying.”

Leadership toolbox

Skelton encouraged women leaders to:

• Focus on the people around you. Hire the best people you can. They will only make you look better.

• Take time to have the human connection with people. People are not machines. Despite the culture’s emphasis on “it’s all about me,” it’s not.

When Skelton left Midwest Airlines, her staff gave her a bound book of contributions from company employees. The book, “What I Learned from Brenda,” included a note from a young worker in San Antonio noting that he had saved the congratulatory note she sent when he received a promotion.

Engage others at all levels before making decisions. Top-down decision-making may be efficient, but today’s workers need to be part of the process.

Don’t let your ego get you “too big for your britches.” “Organizations led by leaders “displaying humility and an unwillingness to take personal credit for the organization’s success were more likely to have sustained success than those headed by ‘the presence of a gargantuan ego.’”

Women have an advantage in being oriented toward building relationships, rather than a title or power.

Develop self-confidence and try things you haven’t done before. Or, as Skelton noted: “When you’re going looking for Moby Dick, pack the tartar sauce.” Don’t doubt yourself or be intimidated. Seek out those interesting and challenging assignments.

Be courageous about speaking your truth. For Skelton, the difference between leading and managing is simply courage—the courage to speak up when necessary. This can be hard for us since we’ve been brought up to be people pleasers. But an appropriate choice of words and timing can do much to shake up the status quo.

Get involved in the broader community. Making time to help others reaps rewards. Never underestimate what a powerful legacy you can leave with your life’s work.


Santovec, Mary Lou. (2013, January). Life is Long: Work Hard, Take Risks, Have Fun. Women in Higher Education, 22(1), 1-2.

Back   |   Read Archive