#BeenThereLearnedThat: Chanel Cathey on Being Intentional in All That You Do
By Kia Robinson
There is something powerful about someone who knows where they want to be and makes every effort to get there. Successful people are strategic but they’re also very international about the opportunities they take advantage of in an effort to reach their goals. Successful people are also intentional about the people they keep around. Your tribe plays a huge role in your growth and in your trajectory. Chanel Cathey is a prime example of someone who from a very young age knew that absolutely nothing was off limits. Her mother once told her, “If you aim high and fall short, you’re still soaring.” She’s been aiming high all her life. Cathey serves as the Director, Head of the Corporate Practice for Hunt and Gather where she’s responsible for managing global client partnership and fostering innovative executive communications approach. She previously served as the Director of Corporate Communications at Viacom and also spent time as a publicist for ABC News and in media relations at Unilever.
TLC spoke with Cathey about her career journey and the advice she’d give students who are just starting out.
What did you want to be when you were younger and how has that shaped your career?
I initially went into college thinking I would be a business major. I always wanted to be a media executive so majoring in business seemed like the best route. I went to Fordham University and started in the business program but quickly learned that I literally had no passion for the classes. I wasn’t getting my hands on any of the things I was passionate about but I was always told, “business majors make money and it’s the degree that will pay off in the end.” I eventually went out on a limb and changed my major to communications and media studies with a double major in political science. Those were two things I was always passionate about and they all led to my future career. I credit it to having the guts to listen to my inner voice and change my major. I just knew I wanted to match my passions to my major. If I’m sitting in class and not feeling anything and I’m bored, that degree isn’t going to pay off for me in the end. But if I’m passionate and excited about the courses, I’m not going to worry about what my paycheck will look like after graduation. I’ll figure it out and it was the best decision I ever made.
I remember I had an International Relations class and we once took a trip to the United Nations and I was able to meet the head of the department of public information and public radio. I walked up to him and said, “I would love to intern here one day.” And I did. If I had never changed my major, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.
Additionally, I loved politics and philanthropy and giving back. So I went to NYU and did my Masters in public administration and policy. I focused on non-profit management and how foundations work, how they build highly effective boards and how they tackle social issues. It was a non-traditional track but I continued following the things I love.
What is a lesson you learned in college that you didn’t receive in a textbook?
I would always ask for what I want. This lesson came naturally to me. I remember going up to the head of communications at ABC News. I was a sophomore in college and I told him, “I want to intern at ABC News this summer in Washington D.C.” He pulled me aside, made a couple phone calls and made it happen. I knew what I wanted and I had my “ask” ready. Afterwards he asked me, “How old are you? Our internship program is only for juniors. You’re too young. Try applying next year.” I told him, “No. I know I can do the work.” And I was hired. I continued working with the company at Good Morning America when I got back to New York. I would wake up a 3:30am, go to work and then go to class. That grind and passion was always there. Knowing what you want and being able to articulate it will get you so far. It was never in a book.
What is something you wish you would have known when you were fresh out of college?
There are three key things I wish I would have known.
1. The importance of financial management. If need be, seek advice. Don’t miss out on income because you don’t want to ask questions. Financial stability is so important especially in your 20s. Your early 20s and your first job is really the launching pad that will help set your future earnings track. Understand your finances and make the necessary moves to ensure you have that financial stability. Get apps like mint.com, get a budget and figure out where your money is going. Learn how to adjust your life in small ways that will save money and add up in the long run. Start early so you’re not in a life panic at 30 when you’re ready to settle down and buy a house.
2. Understanding how to nurture effective relationships and how to manage them. Once you start populating your life with work, extracurricular activities and board meetings, you have to be very intentional to make time for the people that matter. Build strong and deep relationships not only with your family and friends, but professionally as well. A lot of people struggle with building strong professional relationships but they’re important. When it comes time for someone to vouch for you professionally, having a deep relationship helps. All successful people have relationship styles that work for them so you have to find one that works for you.
Additionally, it’s important to find a way to devote a healthy amount of time to people you love and still have a balanced career life. Most importantly, weed out negative people. You want to make sure you’re being intentional about keeping healthy people around you. Work can sometimes be a lot of stress and in your downtime, you want to be around good people.
3. Don’t always lead with your emotions. I’m an emotional person by nature. That’s also with work. I am hyper passionate about work and the work I do. So if my boss says, “I think you’d be a better fit on this team instead,” I immediately begin to think, “What did I do wrong? Does he not like me? Am I not doing good work?” Most of the time, it’s none of the above. Maybe another team needs my expertise more. It’s important to understand a lot of times it’s business and not personal. Being overly emotional can sometimes impair your ability to see the things you need to grow.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to someone coming out of college?
Find ways to broaden your knowledge so that you can receive the world with open arms. It’s so important to be well versed and able to interact with different people and understand different cultures. Have a broad knowledge of the world so that you can receive the world with open arms. I would encourage people to wake up an hour earlier and read two or three newspapers a day. Don’t just read one section either. Read a variety of sections so you can get a wider understanding of what’s going on. Also, do some leisure reading. Don’t unwind with TV all the time. Pick up a book so when someone asks, “What’s the last book you read?” It’s not just a book that was on the mandatory reading list five years ago. If you can have a conversation about the book on The New York Times Best Seller list, it can help you excel in rooms that might be challenging. For me, I’m often the only African-American women at the table in professional settings and having a broad understanding of the world and culture is key to my leadership style – it often helps close the deal and negotiate on my own terms. For me, being an African-American woman in the room, they’re often waiting for me to not understanding something or not know what they’re talking about but if you’re able to prove them wrong, that may close the deal, get you the bonus and get you the promotion. I encourage young college grads to challenge themselves and learn more about the world and cultural etiquette and how to embrace the world fully.
Lastly, be humble and approachable. So many opportunities unlock for me when I'm just genuinely helping other people. Be willing to support and encourage others. Make time for those who are coming up in the industry or someone who just wants to pick your brain. Being humble and approachable are both so important. I always built my career around wanting to do great work, support great people and help the next generation. Above all, understand that what sets you apart and what makes you different is your greatest strength.
How have mentors played a role in your success?
I think it’s important to have a sponsor and mentor network. You need to have people who can advocate for you when you’re not in a room. Additionally, mentors don’t always have to look like you. I have mentors that are men and that much older than me. They bring diverse perspectives to my career and help me in different ways. It’s also important to understand that every mentor relationship won’t be the same. Some will be closer than others and some will be more distant. Find the relationship dynamic that will work for you and your mentor.
Kia is a recent college graduate that's simply trying to grasp the concept of "adulting". She enjoys hugs, quotes, a good book, and all things motivational. Her favorite book is The Alchemist and she can watch Girlfriends all day long.