In the past year, there’s been a lot of conversation about immigrants. All this talk made me think about my parents, who emigrated from the Basque region of France and Spain and started small businesses here in the U.S.
Growing up in Northern California, I was often embarrassed. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but as a teenager, I was all too aware of the fact that my parents weren’t educated and spoke broken English, and that my father didn’t wear a suit to the office. I didn’t realize how wonderful they were until much later. At the time, all I could think was that while other parents looked clean and professional after work, my father was dirty and smelly when he came home from his gardening business.
However, when I spent a year in Paris with a French family, I started to appreciate the skills my parents instilled in me; they’ve helped me navigate my life. Now that I’m in the business world, I’m even more grateful.
Although my father’s gardening business was entirely different from the cloud-computing industry I work in, there are more similarities between our jobs than you might think. I learned many things from my parents that have carried me throughout my career, including how to position myself for success and how to treat customers.
These lessons still help me today in my job as senior vice president of marketing for small and medium businesses at Salesforce. Here are five things my immigrant parents taught me about being successful in business.
1. Make every moment count.
Being an immigrant isn’t easy. In most cases, people who’ve just arrived in our country need to learn English – and it can be challenging to build a life in a new environment. You also need to get to know your new community, make friends and learn the nuances of a new culture.
Running a small business is also challenging. There’s much to do to find customers, make the sale and meet expenses; and it seems there’s never enough time in the day.
My mother was always busy. If she wasn’t learning English (her native tongue was Basque), she was working on the business, or strengthening ties to her new community by volunteering or nursing sick neighbors. She made every moment count.
My father, who spent some time as a shepherd in Wyoming and was bored stiff, realized that he wanted to continually learn. Today, at 84 years old, he still reads Barron’s or watches CNBC.
This philosophy has stayed with me. When I don’t have a specific deadline for my job, I can always find something worthwhile to do, like volunteering, exercising or professional development. It’s helped me stay challenged, motivated and fulfilled.
2. Ask for what you deserve.
Although my father was the face of our family’s gardening business, my mom was the person who made things happen behind the scenes. That included managing the finances and having the hard conversations.
When I was in elementary school, my father maintained the garden of an estate in the next town over. The man who owned the estate became the U.S. secretary of defense and moved to Washington, and my father continued to maintain his property. The bills didn’t seem to follow him east; and after several months, my mom grew frustrated and called the Pentagon. After a few transfers, she got him on the phone and received the check four days later.
Don’t expect that you are going to get paid or recognized for the work you are doing. You have to ask for it – and be persistent. Set clear expectations with your manager both for projects and promotions; and keep a record of your achievements so you’re ready to ask for an upgrade in responsibilities, more recognition or a bonus.
3. Find mentors and advocates.
Many people were helpful to my parents when they were starting out in the U.S. One of my father’s customers, Mr. Paul, who was as American as apple pie, took an interest in our family and helped my mother practice her English. He later took her to the DMV to get her learner’s permit so she could start driving instead of biking around town. Having left her own father behind, my mother saw Mr. Paul as the father figure that she needed to make this country her home.
Mentors and advocates are invaluable in the work world as well. They can offer perspective on your performance or career that you won’t get from someone in your immediate chain. You can join a networking group, meetup or community organization, or you can find an individual, either within or outside of your company. Be open to different opportunities and establish relationships. They may already exist in your life without having that formal title – like Mr. Paul was for my mother.
4. Pay it forward.
My parents’ story would have been very different without the opportunities that Mr. Paul and others created for them. My mother has continued to pay it back her entire life. She’s 83 years old and still making meals for sick neighbors and visiting people who are lonely. This sense of purpose helps keep her going too.
Paying it forward is important in the work world as well. I’m a firm believer that we all, especially women, need to support each other. We need to make time for coffee, lunch, conferences and meetups to share our insight and advice with others.
You get as much out of being a mentor as you do a mentee because it’s a great opportunity to get different perspectives on what’s happening in the world.
5. Be true to yourself.
Although it sometimes bothered me while I was growing up, my parents were always unapologetically themselves. My father wore his gardening clothes like a badge of honor. He never pretended to be anyone other than who he was. And, almost to a fault, they were truth tellers. They were known as people who were honest and trustworthy.
Being true to yourself is critical for business leaders as well. You need to establish trust if you want people to buy into your vision and support your team. I learned from my parents that I’m much more relatable and trustworthy if I bring my authentic self to work. I share my interests, challenges and vulnerabilities with my team. Building rapport in this way has helped me build stronger relationships and become a better leader.
This post was originally published on Business News Daily.