BioBuzz by Workforce Genetics

My Journey From Receptionist to C-Suite – An Object Lesson in Perseverance

Written by Jill Hoyt, Executive Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer at Novavax
Originally distributed via LinkedIn

Late last year, I was lucky enough to present at the Novavax Women’s Leadership Forum where I talked about my journey from receptionist to Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). Although not a traditional one, my story seemed to go down well. So when a few colleagues suggested I share my journey with others, I thought I’d finally make use of my LinkedIn profile. Here we go! 

Be ambitious 

When I was in my late teens, like a lot us, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I knew one day I wanted to have kids and look after my family, but no particular job direction appealed to me. And this lack of direction showed when I dropped out of pursuing my degree in education. But my parents weren’t going to give me a free ride, so I found a job as a receptionist. The job just happened to be in the HR department – and the rest is history. Within three weeks I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. I now had clear ambition. 

The first thing I needed to do was complete my education. I was so driven that I finished my degree in two years, while commuting three hours a day and holding down a part time job. Then I enrolled in grad school and completed a masters in HR. I also took a job – one way beyond my comfort zone. My company had opened a new office location, and I was the first and only HR person in that office. I had never been on on my own before. I was scared but determined, so I reprioritized, made sacrifices and worked hard. And do you know what? I never looked back. 

Challenge yourself 

Those who know me know I thrive under pressure, so after many years of rising through the ranks in HR, it was time for a new challenge. I set about looking for a role that would take me out of my comfort zone once again, but this time I wanted to combine my passion for HR with an even greater sense of purpose. I wanted to work for an organization that was making a positive contribution to the world. Enter Novavax. 

Be persistent  

They were hiring, but there was a problem. Due to my lack of biopharma experience, I wasn’t invited in for an interview. So I applied again. And again. I guess, I’m just not very good at taking no for an answer.  

Eventually, I told my recruiter: “Just get me in front of them and I’ll take care of the rest.” I knew if I had the opportunity to talk to them, they would love me. I don’t know how she did it, but I finally got my interview. And I kept my part of the bargain too. Fourteen years later, I’m Executive VP for HR, overseeing a multi-national team. Not bad for a girl who – once upon a time – didn’t have a clue what she wanted to do with her life. 

Believe in yourself 

As I said at the start of this article, my career path has not been traditional, and neither has it been easy. But it has been rewarding and, speaking with the wisdom of hindsight, I don’t regret a single challenge, rejection, or long commute.  

My advice? If you’re lucky enough to grow up knowing what you want to do, that’s great – pursue it with everything you have. If you’re not sure, then explore. Find something that excites you and when you do, stick with it and aim high. It’s vital to have an ambition – not only to know what you want to do but where you want to end up.  

Once you have a goal, don’t keep it to yourself. The world won’t hand you your dreams on a plate. Let people know what your ambitions are and ask for help! Ask what you can do to get a step closer to your dreams. You’ll be amazed at how responsive people are to an honest request for support and advice. 

Finally, don’t let anything get in your way. Don’t make excuses, don’t take no for an answer, and don’t doubt yourself. I know it’s easy to let imposter syndrome creep in, and women in particular are often taught not to speak up or ask for opportunities. I get it. But don’t accept it. Good mentors can help you overcome all of those self-imposed barriers and help you build your confidence, so make finding one a priority. I can guarantee they’ll help. 

Long story short, self-belief is the rocket fuel to your ambitions. It may take time to develop that belief, but you can do it. Trust me, I’m living proof.