An important message underlines Monica Wilkins’ stellar career path.
She’s currently vice president of quality systems and business at Abbott, but has worked for a hospital, a healthcare consulting firm and a federal agency–and not all of her moves have been straight up the career ladder.
In fact, Wilkins shares that challenge is more important to her than the amount of a paycheck and that she once changed jobs with a significant drop in pay and a less prestigious title on purpose.
“If you are good at what you do and excel, you will move up quickly,” said Wilkins.
She explained that she has long had a “vast curiosity” that has led her to pursue positions that she determined would be immensely challenging, as well as interesting.
Wilkins, who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, has worked at IBM as a manufacturing technician advancing to technical leader, at a hospital starting as an emergency room technician and moving through the ranks to become director of patient financial services, and as a medical device national expert with the Food and Drug Administration.
At Abbott, a global company specializing in nutrition, medical devices, diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals, she started as director of quality compliance in 2007 and was quickly promoted to senior director and then divisional vice president.
“It’s been an easy transition,” she said, noting that her job is to “make sure our customers get good, quality products that meet their needs.”
Doing so requires Wilkins and her staff of five in a group of about 17 to understand the complexities of quality standards, regulations, and requirements in global markets and ensure that systems are in place that gives Abbott the flexibility to develop and market products. With products in more than 135 countries, Wilkins is globetrotting 95 percent of the time.
She offers sage advice to young professionals and those who haven’t yet begun to chart their careers.
“Be true to yourself,” she said. “Be sure you are seeking the thing that will make you thrive. You need to make sure you maintain your passion and desire. What that means will change over time.”
Wilkins also said young people–even before they enter college–should begin to understand the types of positions and career areas available.
“Reach out to others; ask ‘What do you do? What do you enjoy about it? How do you get there?'” Wilkins said, adding that despite keeping a demanding schedule, she makes herself available to talk to young people seeking answers.
She also offers this: “In order to achieve, you have to be willing to put in the work. Don’t do it to get rewarded. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Too many times people do things as the means to an end. I’m not saying it’s not good to have goals.”
Staying focused on the work and thinking outside the box to come up with solutions and new directions is important, according to Wilkins.
“Whatever you do, whatever you elect to take on, make sure you are focused,” she said.
And don’t be afraid to make lateral moves that may even be perceived by some as a step down if it brings the opportunity to gain valuable knowledge or experience in an area, she said.
Wilkins also emphasizes the importance of sharing knowledge as well as disappointments.
“Accolades will come on their own,” she said.
Wilkins has achieved recognition, both from within her industry and outside of it. She won the Women of Color STEM Career Achievement Award in Industry, a professional achievement honor, in 2015.
Although she describes herself as one who doesn’t thrive on getting recognition, she called the award “significant” and “very rewarding.”
She said she often observes young people who start their careers with the expectation of getting a sky-high salary, adding that many young professionals are simply not ready for high-ranking positions. “There’s a lot of responsibility, important decisions–they don’t have the background and knowledge yet.”
Wilkins said, “Don’t expect to come to the top. You have to work your way up.”
However, Wilkins also said that young people shouldn’t allow their youth to prevent them from excelling and propelling themselves past co-workers-even ones that are older and have more experience. She recalls a time in her career when she was a younger, less experienced member of a team who immediately demonstrated her intellect, confidence, ability to learn quickly and innovative problem-solving skills.
Rewards quickly followed.