Squiggle Careers | Meet Elizabeth Manning

Like many great stories, this one starts with a joke…

A communications grad, professional choreographer, and a bank teller walk into a global midsize pharmaceutical company…

Ok, so there is no joke. All three people are me. The punch line was how it unfolded to be a random, seemingly nonsensical, beautifully squiggly, and have-to-laugh-so-you-don’t-cry (but-still-gonna-cry-a lot) kind of journey! 

Let me try to explain... 👩‍🏫

At university, I studied Interpersonal and Organisational Communications. That education was only a back-up plan — the smart thing to do that I never actually thought I’d need to fall back on it. I’d just always known my purpose was as a dancer, choreographer, dance coach; which I was doing successfully at the time. Repeatedly elevating the competitiveness of new dance companies by 2-3 levels within about 2 years (e.g. from bronze to gold or platinum award-winning).

I received numerous awards for meaningful choreography beyond simply the turns and kicks. But what I was proudest of, was cultivating confidence in body and voice for hundreds of young ladies I coached.

However, there were two major problems with that life plan.

Imminently, and the one I was conscious of - it didn't pay enough so I had a string of random 'day jobs' to pay the bills while I was teaching full time at night and on the weekends. And eventually, one I didn’t see coming, I would learn that my body wasn't actually going to hold up for the long haul I'd envisioned.

The first major day job I landed was as a bank teller. Jokes on me — 100% NOT the gig for me

(in a sentence: there was a mandatory pantyhose requirement).

Thankfully I was curious and audacious enough to ask a customer about her company because the title on her pay-check sounded interesting.

I ended up working for her as a meeting planner at a company that focused on big pharma clients. Fast forward past a few more stops on the random path but with a developing pharma thread, and I eventually took a temp administrative gig directly at a pharma company.

Mind you, if you’d asked me in college where the last place I would end up, I probably would’ve said a pharma company, or anything related to science. And here I was not just in pharma but on the R&D side in a Neurology Medical specialty group at that!

On my first day, I was taught how to answer and forward the phone, how the file folder structure worked, and then left to wither and die... By lunch, I had called my husband, who convinced me to “at least give it 24 hours”. 

So, I started to get curious……

Naturally, I immediately began to brainstorm how I could help (they weren't great at putting those two and twos together).

I spoke to people ‘above me’ without appreciating the supposed boundaries of hierarchy. I asked questions they weren't asking, suggested ways to solve problems they didn't realize were actually the problems and threw out ideas that were foreign to them (not realising they were foreign).

I was not like the others (around me or before me) and eventually, that began to be an asset and a liability; supplementing where they weren't naturally inclined, but a square peg in a round hole who made people uncomfortable and even angry by not staying in my lane.

Think ‘umm who do you think you are….?’

I was a disruptor, before there was such a term, and before it was necessarily a good thing.

Later that year, my world would be the one disrupted. My back and body had gotten so bad that my legs collapsed underneath me while I was teaching. I quickly realised that who I knew myself to be and what I knew to be my future was no more. While I shattered personally, I had to make something out of this day job professionally.

At that time, the company was turning the role into a permanent position but not considering me because I was "highly overqualified and likely wouldn't stay long".

I'd developed a relationship with the manager and was already known for being a straight shooter so I shot my shot, "If you can find ways to keep me challenged, and I promise to keep finding ways to add new value, and let’s see what we can make of it?"

Well, more like 17 years later...

I’ve carved out my own career journey as a top strategic initiatives leader partnering with global executives and c-suite leaders to drive the most transformative efforts the company would embark on.

Every role after that entry-level admin gig had been created specifically for me based on new value propositions I was able to provide.

I became a go-to person for big questions without answers, problems without clarity or solution, opportunities without a path.

It's humbling to look back and see that I left a legacy of entrepreneurship, increased representation for non-traditional employees (not called Generalists yet), and a culture that began valuing diversity of thought, disruption, human-centred innovation, empowerment regardless of hierarchical status and bringing previously siloed organisations together to see what’s possible.

But it was complex and complicated; inspired and inspiring; energising and burned me out. I was loved for it. I was hated for it. I was promoted and externally awarded for it. I was also attacked and shamed for it. And some reasonably argue I was eventually let go for it (yes, there’s more to that part of the story).

But I learned from it and am hugely proud of it. Not many can claim to have had as unique an impact — at the individual, corporate and industry levels — in one of the most change-resistant and risk-averse industries as pharmaceutical medicines development. 

And none of it would’ve been possible if I hadn’t eventually realised that my identity, my sole purpose, wasn’t as a dancer but that dance, was simply a stepping stone, if you will.

My superpowers translate — getting people to see and interact with the world around them differently, enabling individuals to achieve potential far greater than they realised they had, coaching teams to become greater than the sum of their parts, inspiring and driving change on a deeper and broader scale than what was ‘normal’.

It wasn’t until this square peg round hole experience though, in pharma corporate America that I realised how I saw things and spoke things and made things happen wasn’t actually normal. It was special.

When I was first called a Generalist, I felt insulted.

I wasn’t just general — people didn’t get it. I was specifically and uniquely impactful across diverse subject matters, dynamics, and challenges.

But thanks to the Generalist World community, I now feel a growing sense of pride in claiming that I AM A GENERALIST WHO SPECIALISES IN CHANGE AGENCY. And I am happy to explore any questions or points of curiosity you may have.

Thank you!

BONUS!! A few deep careers aha’s:

  • The artificially binary paradigm of Strengths and Weaknesses is one of the most socially acceptable and disguisedly weaponised tools in the corporate world.

  • Truth, Identity, Reality all actually only exist in the plural; the belief in their singularity is one of the most widespread, deeply rooted barriers to growth, fulfilment and innovation.

  • Our bodies and minds are so much more in tune than our consciousness can manage and translate; learning to listen to the wisdom that resides there and to prioritise being in integrity with one’s whole sense of self brings an enlightenment and fulfilment we are unfortunately never taught to seek in a performance culture.

  • “Letting it go” doesn’t mean approving of it but it means removing the burden from ourself that was never ours to solve for. It means prioritising yourself in situations where prioritising the other or the problem would not only be unfruitful but likely become counterproductive, even harmful.

Business topics of interest: Strategic Communications and Facilitation, Culture Evolution, Change Management, Cross-functional Collaboration, Employee Activation, Team and Leadership Coaching, Patient Engagement and Advocacy, DEI, Digital Business Transformation.

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