Career journeys can begin anywhere. For 1987 CMU alum Melanie Kalmar, it started in a wastebasket.
Looking for an internship, Kalmar asked her advisor for a lead. He reached into his wastebasket and pulled out a crumpled advertisement for an information systems internship with the state of Michigan. That internship was the first step in a journey to a position on the executive leadership team of the world's largest chemical company.
As vice president and chief information officer at The Dow Chemical Co., Kalmar leads more than 2,000 employees in the information technology, facilities and Dow Services Business teams around the world. In her 30 years with the company, she has led some of the largest and most complex technology transitions in its history.
“In my life, there
has been no greater investment that I’ve made than my education.” — Melanie
During her frequent visits to the CMU campus, Kalmar is often asked about the secrets to her success. Here's some of her best advice for students:
Kalmar admitted she spent much of her early career struggling with confidence. "I questioned whether I knew enough about the field I was passionate about. I often second-guessed myself." Students know more than they think they do, Kalmar said. She said she returns to campus for events such as the College of Business Administration's Dialogue Days because she wants to get students fired up about careers in technology and inspire confidence in their abilities.
Kalmar said she chose to pursue a career in IT because she has a passion for solving puzzles. "The whole IT landscape is like a big puzzle. A huge company like Dow is a big puzzle. You look at all of the pieces and try to figure out how to fit them together." Throughout her time at CMU, Kalmar was reminded that work takes up a huge part of every day. "You're going to spend a lot of your life working, so you'd better love it."
"I have always been motivated by people who tell me they think I can't do something. I like to prove them wrong." That motivation kept her on track to finish her degree, even when it meant taking a full course load while working three part-time jobs. She was able to finish her degree in less than four years while paying her way through college. "You have to find the thing inside of you that is going to motivate you to stay on track."
The book "The Power of Full Engagement," by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, helped Kalmar put into words a philosophy she's held since high school. "When you put your whole self into something, it becomes addictive. You start seeing success, and that success breeds more success." To achieve big goals, Kalmar said students need to commit their time and energy to the things that matter the most.
Build a great network
Kalmar remembers hearing as a student that she needed to start networking, but she didn't understand what it meant or why it was important. Now, she said, it is a part of her everyday life. "In the IT field, in particular, it's important to have those external networks, because things change so fast. My team has relationships with leaders in other large tech companies, and we're always keeping our eyes open for ways to link in and learn from them."
Seek new perspectives
"I've learned the most in my career when I've looked beyond my team and had conversations with managers and leaders in other areas, like sales or marketing." Kalmar suggested current students find someone in the same class year who is studying something completely different to bounce ideas off. That person's education and interests may let them see solutions to challenges that might otherwise be missed.
Gain a 360-degree view of your company
Don't underestimate the value in lateral moves that give you a greater understanding of your company, Kalmar said. "New employees often seem to have a plan to get to the top as quickly as they can," but many of Dow's top leaders moved around within the company, frequently taking roles that broadened their experience on their path to leadership. Kalmar called this "getting a 360-degree view" of the company and said it makes employees even more valuable.
Don't depend on PowerPoint
Kalmar said learning to listen and collaborate is one of the most important skills students can develop early on. "We've gotten too comfortable going in with our slides and presentations, thinking we need to have all the answers," she said. "We discovered it was better to go into meetings and take the time to listen, learn and build relationships. We needed to have good conversations and good dialogue." She said that some of her greatest successes, including a partnership with a team from the Saudi Arabian company Sadara Chemical, came from setting aside the slides and pulling up a chair to learn more about the people across the table.
Pause and reflect
Take time at least once a year to consider what you've accomplished and what you've learned, Kalmar said. "At Dow, we are doing so many things, and things happen so quickly, that often we finish something big and are already on to the next thing," she said. Kalmar instructs her leadership team to pause to reflect on their successes and lessons they have learned at least once per quarter.
Take advantage of CMU
"In my life, there has been no greater investment that I've made than my education. I can't overstate the value of that college experience. I was creating a foundation for learning and understanding that has been so important in my career," Kalmar said. She said students today have the chance to join professional networks while they are in school, join organizations that will give them hands-on experience and form relationships that will carry them through their careers.