INROADS to Everywhere: A Q&A with alumna Charelle Lans

Charelle Lans has built her multifaceted career upon the strong leadership skills she received from her time as an INROADS intern. In an interview with WorkingNation President Jane Oates, she shares her experiences and advice for college students who want to make an immediate impact in the corporate world.

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Charelle Lans
Charelle Lans – Photo, Provided

Reading through Charelle Lans’ LinkedIn profile, one would get the impression that she had decades of experience which shaped her distinguished career. Since the INROADS, Inc. alumna graduated from Florida State University in 2008, Lans has used the springboard of her industrial engineering career to become a motivational speaker, author and business owner in addition to her social work.

The South Florida-raised Lans credits INROADS for giving her the foundational leadership skills to make decisive moves in her engineering roles with multinational corporations Johnson & Johnson and Mars Petcare.

She spoke with WorkingNation President Jane Oates over the phone from her home in Nashville about how her experience with INROADS helped her navigate the corporate world and understand her limitless potential. She also shared her advice for college students on how to use internships to make a seamless and professional transition into work.

JANE OATES: How did INROADS set you on your successful journey?

CHARELLE LANS: I started with INROADS in my freshman year of college and at that time and season I knew I wanted to go in to do math and science and engineering, but at that time I thought I wanted to be a computer engineer or a biomedical engineer.

INROADS actually helped me to dispel the myths of both because I had the opportunity through INROADS to do a job shadowing exercise. And while I was there I realized that neither one of them actually fit me or my personality as what I thought it would be in real life application.

Through INROADS I can honestly say I received just the amount of professional development from a training perspective. Learning the unknowns or the messages that aren’t oftentimes taught in corporate America, but affect you, INROADS was phenomenal with providing exposure to that.

Early leadership development as well, I gained through INROADS and even from INROADS transitioning into Johnson & Johnson’s elite program where I was selected among across the globe out of what started off at I think 900 that thinned down to 23 people in the class.

JO: Oh my gosh.

Lans: That was a global program and so of that, I can honestly say that INROADS especially helped with making me aware of the profession, the training and the development that took place and helped to give me an edge coming out of college as I transitioned into my career.

JO: Now, let me ask you specifically about the mentoring aspect. What was the advice that your mentor gave you? What stuck with you that helped you make these decisions?

Charelle Lans with INROADS interns during the Leadership Development Institute in 2007.
Lans with fellow interns for the INROADS Leadership Development Institute in 2007. Photo – Provided

Lans: One was to always be an advocate for your career. Not being shy really, but when you’re first coming in, you’re usually extremely eager to kind of jump in and make an impact or a big splash. But to learn the ability to sponge upfront, know how to assess the dynamics of the room and be able to speak directly from the standpoint of how the subtleties of eye contact and handshakes make a difference.

And being able to articulate your message in a way that gets the point across, but still is tactfully done. Those I think of are some of the ones that stood out to me. Then even on the soft side of being a woman in the workplace and kind of what that looks like and being aware of some of the dynamics that you might not see but directly affect the nature or the space of the room. I can remember some of the trainings, even one I believe we did at Florida Power and Light where we talked about advocacy and how to really take charge to navigate your career and your destiny.

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JO: What a lesson. I mean so many seasoned employees can’t assess a room, can’t be their own best advocate, and to do that as a woman in a room where I bet there weren’t as many women as men, but also to do it as a 22-year-old. That’s really challenging. So, what a great lesson to learn so early in your career.

Lans: Thank you, Jane. I just did some statistics of women that went into engineering who were in leadership or management and we are statistically — I hate to say it this way — but the statistics would say that were statistically insignificant, meaning that we don’t exist.

So at least for me through INROADS, helping to provide more access and opportunities for that is very helpful. I think my career would’ve taken a little bit of a different path just because of where I was born and those dynamics. I don’t know that I would have entered a Fortune 500 company the way that I did without accessibility that INROADS provided.

JO: Well, what a compliment to the program. So, I want to ask you, especially for women but also for every underrepresented group in the STEM fields, what do you think of the power of getting kids to believe in math,  and science and their ability in those subjects? What do you think that does to their chances to break into better jobs?

Lans: I think it increases it tremendously and even early exposure helps to dispel myths about them not being able to go into or access those realms. I think going into STEM opens your mind to an analytical side where you can assess things both from a technical perspective but still be able to communicate the dynamics of how to solve a problem strategically.

I think that getting access to programs that create a window for STEM to organizations for underrepresented groups early on really does help to show that it’s possible and show that it can be obtained and really open the door there.

A lot of the reasons why I’m passionate about what I do and engineering and STEM is just having lived through that and some things you kind of had to weed your way through. Some things you learn as you go. It’s attainable. It truly is attainable and I just don’t know that people see it as attainable because there aren’t a whole lot of examples of it.

JO: Your internship with Johnson & Johnson came with the ultimate goal of many people who go after internships. You were offered a job and started your career with them. What advice would you give to people who are lucky enough to land an internship? How would you tell them to make the most of it?

Lans: Absorb every opportunity. Sometimes even if it’s the grunt work that no one wants to do, do it and find the beauty in it because there’s learning in everything. Make the most of the experience, sponge as much as you can. When you’re able to get into organizations, there is just a plethora and a wealth of knowledge with people as well as the systems and processes that are there. As much as you can sponge and learn to enable yourself, the better you will be as an advocate for that respective business. Show up, be on time, be professional and be your best version of yourself every single day that you work at that respective job. Don’t just stay within the box.

Feel free to mix and mingle and speak to someone who is not in the same department because what you’ll find is the mindsets are typically different. Whether they’re a customer of what you’re doing or if they directly influence it or not, gaining an understanding of what’s important to them helps in terms of understanding the big picture. I would say to individuals that are getting in and really absorbing their internship is to truly make the most of it as best as they can and then maximize every opportunity that they have.

Charelle Lans with Luis Rams
Lans with fellow engineering intern Luis Rams during the INROADS Leadership Development Institute in 2007. Photo –Provided

JO: Great advice. Let me ask you how weird it was to go from being an intern to being an employee in a relatively quick turnaround. Did you interact with some of the same people? Was there kind of a change in thinking now that they saw that you were an employee and no longer, and I put this in quotes, “just an intern?”

Lans: I think I had the reputation of being professional as an intern and so the transition wasn’t extremely difficult to go from an intern to an employee. I think that it was to a point maybe bringing along some of the colleagues to see the value in you being there.

I think as you create that value as an intern and treat it as a full-time employee role or job, the transition is easier to make. My journey was to go from an intern to an associate within J&J’s Global Leadership Development Program. For me, it was on the side of cultivating the human aspect.

My first role and assignment were in California where I was charged to relocate a facility from California to Puerto Rico: “Oh, by the way, change the language from English to Spanish. Oh, by the way, the product is sensitive to temperature and humidity and oh, by the way, the people who are in California, because of the transition of the jobs, the plant’s shutting down.”

It was the perfect storm if you will. First role out of college, first perfect storm. Being humble and being a sponge and eager to learn definitely helps in being able to manage those transitions.

Lans: Can you talk a little bit about being on the other side of that relationship? How has that been with flipping the table like that?

Hindsight is 20/20 and I know that’s cliché in thought, but when I look back over my career, and I think through what were some of the critical attributes for what paved the way for success and specifically dialing that in as a woman and even as an African American woman, what I found was that having a sponsor, a mentor and a coach was critical and crucial to my success in understanding the blind spots that you otherwise would not see.

Some of those were exposed through INROADS because you had the ability to do things like public speaking and people give you immediate feedback on what you did wrong, or how you come across, or being able to project effectively.

JO: How do you distinguish the differences between a sponsor, a mentor and a coach?

Lans: Your sponsor is an individual that is vested, that is in the room or can be in the room when you’re not able to. They are someone that’s typically a role or two ahead of you. They’re someone that is very aware of the contributions that you’re making to the business. And they can speak and vouch on your behalf to give you the opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Your coach is someone that is invested in your direct development but then also is comfortable giving you hard feedback that you otherwise wouldn’t obtain, helping you recognize the blind spots that you have and being able to help coach you through those experiences.

Your mentor is someone that is adept to the culture of the organization and can help you specifically navigating that space.

I think in having all three you’re able to really gain the development as an individual that you would need by getting the opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t have through your coach. By having someone that is adept to the culture and how to navigate it, because every organization is very different, and then also having your coach who is the person most comfortable, vested in your development, but to give you that hard feedback that you would need and help to expose you to those blind spots that oftentimes cause the demise to some individuals.

JO: Boy, that was such a great explanation of the three. Because I do think that, erroneously, people use them as synonyms rather than as words that have a definitive meaning that’s separate from each.

Is there anything that you think would be important to know about you, about INROADS or about developing talent in all fields but particularly in STEM?

Lans: I think yes, I do have one that I would definitely add, which is around being intentional, intentionality, resilient as well as self-reflective. The reason why I say that is I know sometimes people look at me and just think that I’ve arrived at this place, but it’s the 4:00 AMs that I get up for. It’s being intentional. It’s really seeking to understand. It’s working through challenges and difficult situations.

It’s really working to pave the way for careers, for your goals, for jobs and for whatever the ambition directly is. It’s really going to be about having the resilience to carve them out and the intentionality to pave the way and pursue them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more information about Charelle, head to her website. Her book, Leading With Feet: “Making Intentional Steps to Live Out Your Best” is available on Amazon.  Lans is also the founder and executive director of her consulting company, Vision Strategy Management, LLC.

Watch our Do Something Awesome mini-documentary featuring INROADS below.

Join the Conversation: What are your thoughts about Charelle’s advice about interning with INROADS and in the private sector? Tell us on our Facebook page.

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