Brandeis International Business School

042: Letting Your Interests & Strengths Lead Your Career

Courtney Hagen is the Chief Talent Officer for Littlejohn, a private equity firm that invests in mid-market companies. Courtney works with the companies in the firm's portfolio to acquire, coach and develop high-performing talent. Previously, Courtney worked as a senior vice president of human resources for LVMH. And she worked across LVMH's portfolio of 70+ luxury brands to create and execute strategic HR programs to support the talent needs in North America.

Courtney has also worked at PepsiCo. She's done work earlier in her career in executive search and management consulting with a variety of different companies. Courtney's lived and worked in the US, Europe and South Africa. She did her undergraduate work at Wellesley College and received her MBA from Columbia Business School.

From the Dorm Room

When Courtney was deciding what school to go to, she never could have predicted what she would be doing today. She went to Wellesley College, where she double-majored in English and Political Science. This was probably an early indicator that she had a broad range of interests, and that she wanted to work with a variety of different companies. She always enjoyed having multiple things to focus on.

Courtney went to Wellesley not necessarily thinking that she wanted to go to a women’s college. She expected to go to one of the small leading schools in the Northeast. And although she did get accepted to a couple of her top choices, she was so struck by the people at Wellesley, by the strength, intelligence and confidence of the women. She knew that that was the sort of person she wanted to grow up to be, which ultimately drove her to attend that school.

In college, Courtney thought she was going to end up at law school, so she studied English and Political Science. She ended up doing her junior year abroad at the London School of Economics. It was during that time that her eyes were opened a bit to the other jobs that were available out there in business for her to get experience in.

Growing up in the Midwest, Courtney’s father was a lawyer for the U.S. government and her mother taught theater. Her upbringing was very focused on the public sector, and she didn't really know much about the private sector. Although she was studying politics at the London School of Economics, they had an extremely-economics focused way of teaching the subject. She thought it might be interesting to learn about how business works by going inside a business.

One of the misconceptions that college students have, Courtney says, is that your first job is going to make or break you. It can be an amazing experience. It can be something that sets you on a course for the rest of your career, but it can also be a place that you go in with the mindset of learning as much as you can and deciding if it’s right for you or not. It's very difficult to determine that when you're coming out of school and you haven't really worked in a place before.

To the Boardroom

Courtney’s career trajectory has been quite a ride getting to where she is today. Besides the professional decisions she had to make, she also had to decide what jobs in, their respective locations, would fit in best with her personal life.

While she was studying at the London School of Economics, Courtney ended up meeting the man that she would eventually marry. Because of this, one of her main goals was to find a job that would allow her to move back to London. She would pretty much interview for any company that had a London office, and there wasn’t much more of a plan than that. She started talking to management consulting firms and realized that working with them would be a great way to learn more about business. By being on projects with companies in a variety of different industries, she would have a greater knowledge of the field. This is how she chose to join Renaissance Worldwide, based in Lincoln, Massachusetts but had an office in London where she transferred to after a year and a half.

In London, she had a really amazing time in her international role as a consultant. She lived in South Africa for about six months working for a bank as a consulting client there, and the international experience in her early career was incredibly fulfilling.

Courtney and her boyfriend were based in London, while she worked in South Africa and he worked in Singapore. Eventually, they ended up making the decision that they needed to move somewhere together full time, so they decided to move to  New York.

It was during that time that Courtney realized that going to business school was going to be a good idea if she wanted to advance her career. She didn't have much exposure to accounting or finance and knew that she wanted to get some of that foundational experience in order to move forward in her career. She ultimately chose to go to Columbia Business School.

Courtney loved the people part of her strategy work the most. She loved working with a variety of different companies to solve different kinds of business problems. She realized that solving business problems with people was always a thing that she had loved to do most in her career. And so, she joined the New York office of Russell Reynolds to work on searches in the consumer sector, as well as to work on corporate officers, heads of marketing and heads of HR.

Going into Russell Reynolds as an executive search consultant was the real light bulb moment where Courtney realized this career was going to really draw on her strengths and be something she could excel at. From there, she was recruited for PepsiCo.

At Pepsi, she saw how a successful company operates: How does a company continue to grow? How does a company change its strategy and respond to changes in the marketplace? She learned a lot with Pepsi, but it was going to be difficult to expand into broader HR without a physical geographic relocation, and Pepsi kept her tied to New York.

When a former colleague of hers, who currently worked for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, called with the opportunity to come there, she knew that it would really feed into her strengths and allow her to grow. The sheer variety of business models gave her incredible experience, but also kept her interested. It was an interesting puzzle to solve.

Eventually, when the opportunity came within Littlejohn to come in to a private equity firm where she could have a much more direct impact on the companies that they own, she couldn’t resist. The level of interaction that she has every single day with the CEOs and the Board of Directors of the companies that are in Littlejohn's portfolio were the reason she ended up there. Based on every lesson her past jobs have taught her, she knew this was the right fit for her.

Courtney suggests that people spend less time thinking about where they want to work, and more about what they are going to be doing every day. Ask yourself, what is it that you love to do? Do you like to write? Do you like to read? Do you like to do research? Do you like to talk to people? Do you like to be in meetings? Do you like to work alone? Do you like to work with people? And then, really thinking about the role, not just the company, that you want to work in. What are the roles that are going to let you do things everyday that keep you engaged?

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

College students hear the advice to follow your passion all the time, but it's really hard to know exactly what you're passion is and how you're going to translate that into a career, even in your 20s, 30s and 40s. You have to be open minded enough to make a career change at the point where you notice where your interests and skills lie. A lot of people end their search in their 20s and build up their careers that way. But with more work experience, you’re better able to make that judgement, whether it’s in a job or as an entrepreneur.


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