Born Mýa Marie Harrison in Washington, D.C., the performer now known as Mýa remembers the moment when she knew singing was her calling. "I knew I wanted to sing in some capacity when I was four years old when I saw and heard my father sing in the church choir," she remembers.
While Sherman Harrison rehearsed for an Easter service in a Kensington church, Mýa was unknowingly planning her future. "I didn’t know what a recording artist was then," she says. "I don’t think I even knew being a recording artist was possible. I just knew that I wanted to sing."
But the advice that helped Mýa land her first recording contract in 1997 came from her mother Theresa, who convinced her that if she was serious about wanting to become a star, she would have to make a firm, lasting commitment to her work.
"Put your money where your mouth is," Mýa remembers her mother saying. Get involved. Do research. Go to the library. Join the choir. Take private lessons. Don’t spend your money on clothes -- spend it on lessons."
The advice paid off: Mya’s fourth album, "Liberation," is planned for release in November. As for clothes, she has another answer planned -- the singer has said she will launch her own fashion line, perhaps in 2008.
Raised by avid churchgoers, Benjamin Carson was drawn to stories of missionaries who traveled the world bringing spiritual healing. "I wanted to be like that," he recalls. Although his focus changed over the years -- his interests moved from missionary doctorhood to psychiatry to neurosurgery -- his passion was always medicine. "I never really saw myself doing anything else."
Carson became director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., in 1984 at the age of 32. In 1987, he headed the medical team that performed the first successful separation of twins conjoined at the back of the head. The pressure of his work, combined with the associated publicity and some jealous colleagues, he recalls, took a toll on Carson.
Advice from colleague and mentor Fred Epstein, also a pediatric neurosurgeon, helped him manage: "Don't worry about what anybody else says or thinks," Epstein told him. "As long as you know who you are, what you're trying to accomplish, and stay focused you'll do much better in life." Those words have stuck with him.
Now a mentor himself to youth and other young physicians, Carson passes along a similar philosophy: "It's all about the choices you make, and the energy you put into something which determines your success," he says.
Bethesda, Md.-born Lexa Castiello Gandolfo didn’t foresee founding her own company when she was a student at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md., or Princeton University. After developing professional experience as a programmer, business analyst and independent contractor, however, she started to sense new opportunities.
The big push, however, came when she began dating Michael Gandolfo, now her husband. In summer 2002, Gandolfo founded Washington web design and development company 3210 Consulting. "I started the company only a couple of months after meeting my husband," says Gandolfo. "I’d like to think that I started the company without him, but I don’t know if that’s true."
With a background in sales, then unfamiliar to Gandolfo, Michael helped turn her ideas into reality. "He almost just articulated what was already in my mind," she says. "Maybe because my immediate family is all professional, it didn’t occur to me to start off on my own."
Michael’s counsel continues to help Gandolfo focus her time and effort. "The most important advice he has given me was to focus on working smart, instead of simply working hard," she says. "The two are certainly not mutually exclusive; I work very hard. But over the years, I have learned how to be much more productive in the same amount of time."
Much of the story of Alecko Eskandarian, a forward for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, might have been written before he was born. His father, Andranik, played for Iran in the 1989 World Cup and professionally for the New York Cosmos, so "I was born into it," he says.
Eskandarian still recalls words his father passed down during his childhood. "I was somewhat of a troublemaker when I was younger," he says. "My dad would preach to me everyday that before I could become a good soccer player, I would have to be a good person first."
Those words have strengthened him in recent years. Leaving the University of Virginia after three years to play professionally, Eskandarian had only two years under his belt, when a collision with a rival player in 2005 left him with a concussion that threatened his career. "That was, by far, the most frustrating time in my life," he says. Sidelined for months, he took time to consider his next steps. "I went back to school, took some classes, and just tried to stay as positive as possible."
Now playing with a clean bill of health, he is again upbeat. "I’ve seen so many talented players whose careers have fizzled because they didn’t have it together personally," he says. "If you establish and maintain good relationships with people, good things will come to you."
Starting out in broadcast news in the mid-1960s, a time when racial tensions and gender discrimination were omnipresent, failure was not an option for J.C. Hayward. "I felt like it was my responsibility to be successful in this business," she recalls. After working as a reporter for CBS’ Atlanta affiliate, she eventually accepted a job in Washington.
Media is a competitive field, and rivalries between colleagues are common. Indeed, Hayward recalls, her Atlanta boss wasn’t thrilled with her progress. After submitting her resignation, her news director told her she would never make it and would be back in six months. "To hear something like that was so disheartening, but I refused let it stop me," says Hayward, then 27. "It just fueled the fire."
Hayward reached new heights in 1972, becoming Washington’s first female news anchor. She assumed her current position in April -- nearly 35 years later. "It's funny how when someone says something negative to you, it can be turned into something positive," she says. "Having a good attitude gets you a long way."
After nearly 10 years at the helm for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in Rossyln, Va., Frederick L. Webber stepped down in 2002. His retirement, however, didn’t last: Two years later he was named president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
A 1961 graduate of Yale University, Webber joined the U.S. Marine Corps after college. He served five years before moving into the private sector, working his way up at trade associations including the Edison Electric Institute and the National Forest Products Association. Webber then served five years in various capacities for the Nixon and Ford administrations before heading back to trade groups, eventually heading the U.S. League of Savings Institutions and joining the ACC in 1992.
Webber credits his deceased father with the career advice he values most. "Once I began to take on more managerial roles," he says. "I made every effort to practice something my father told me many years ago: empower the people around you. A great manager surrounds themselves with top-notch individuals."
The next step, Webber says, is to set them free. Rather than stay intensely involved in everyone’s day-to-day work, he suggests a less-intrusive approach. "You have to allow the people on your team a chance to show their stuff," he says.
Native Floridian Olga Viso has seen her Washington career advance steadily since joining the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as assistant curator in 1995: She was named associate curator in 1998, curator of contemporary art in 2000, deputy director in 2003 and, finally, to her current position in May 2005.
Her training and background in the arts has surely driven her forward -- before coming to Washington, Viso studied at Atlanta’s Emory University and worked at museums in Atlanta and West Palm Beach, Fla. But Viso, the daughter of Cuban parents, credits her mother with providing simple counsel that has helped separate herself in her field.
"From an early age, my mother instilled in me the importance of the personal touch and the art of writing personal, handwritten ‘Thank You’ notes to individuals in follow-up to visits, exchanges, and meetings," says Viso. "I have carried this advice and practice quite effectively into my career in the arts, where personal interactions and responsive follow up are key to success in negotiating collaborations, building networks, and cultivating community and individual support."
Like many college students, Daniel P. Milner was not sure where his career path would lead while studying systems engineering at the University of Virginia. A friend recommended that he consider IT consulting because, he remembers, "it was a good way to learn about how different companies and technologies worked." After graduation in 2001, he took that advice, joining Accenture that October.
Two and a half years into his tenure there, Milner was up for a promotion and turned to his boss at the time, Paul Peck, a senior manager, for advice about the best way to develop his career at Accenture. "He reminded me that it was important to have goals," says Milner. "Setting a short-term goal like getting a project done was good, but it was more important to shoot for the long-term ones like where I saw myself in five years -- especially if I was going to succeed."
He got the promotion and remains with the company nearly five years later. Now managing a small team, he has added new perspective: "I’ve discovered something else that’s just as important [as goal-setting]," he says. "Make sure you hire people who are a good match and that you want to work with. You spend entirely too much time with your co-workers not to get along."
Sometimes you have to do it on your own. That’s the advice of David Guas, executive pastry chef for Passion Food Hospitality, which operates Washington restaurants DC Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba and Acadiana.
While a student at Colorado Mountain College, Guas remembers, he mostly studied skiing. Returning to his native New Orleans, he found work as a cook at a café in the city. Cook became manager, then head manager; encouraged, he enrolled at an "overnight culinary school" in town. That was enough to get him an interview at the downtown Windsor Court Hotel.
He managed to land a job on the pastry team despite having no pastry experience -- and he felt the eyes of Kurt Ebert, then the head pastry chef, sitting heavily on him from the outset. "On day one, I was asked to meringue a banquet of 500 lemon tarts. I didn’t even know how to hold a pastry bag." But he watched Ebert at work, and learned so quickly that his meringues were pleasing the boss by the end of the shift.
The lesson? Sometimes, Guas says, you have to take matters into your own hands. "I didn’t follow somebody learning things," he says. "Be a sponge. Be quiet and listen and watch people who’ve been doing it longer than you have and retain it. Write it down. Ask questions. In our industry, nobody’s going to stop to show it to you a third time."
Among the offerings of Chantilly technology consulting firm Ennovex Solutions are so-called "collaboration solutions" -- systems that help people within and across organizations work together efficiently and securely. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that CIO John Stamper sees advice he received about effective communication as most valuable in his career.
"As a recent college graduate, I was training in the Army under an experienced company commander," Stamper says. "He stated, 'The ability to effectively and efficiently communicate with people is the difference between success and failure.'"
"The commander's insight has provided me the foundation to communicate business goals without any personal corruption or agenda," says Stamper, who returned some of that advice to the military on products for the Department of Defense. "Understanding, and serving, the higher objective is best delivered through language that conveys a desire to achieve results -- regardless of who receives the credit."
The career of Patricia S. Schroeder hasn’t been one marked by shortcuts. Now president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, her life has taken her from a childhood spent in Oregon and Iowa to the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, the National Labor Relations Board and 11 terms as a Democratic congresswoman representing a Denver district.
But the professional advice that has stuck with her above all else reflects the importance of professional comportment no matter the situation. "The best advice I ever got was from my father who was president of an insurance company," says Schroeder. "He said one should emulate a swan, look like you are gliding above the water while you paddle like mad below."
When your advisers are prominent business leaders, there’s a good chance their advice will reflect their background and the characteristics that got them where they are — so it makes sense to listen. That approach appears to have helped Frank J. Williams, who got some good early advice from such an individual and is now CEO of Advisory Board Co.
"The best advice I received was from Marshall Hale," says Williams, "who gave me three pieces of advice as a teenager." (Hale, a family friend of Williams, was a well-known San Francisco businessman whose family founded and operated a national chain of department stores that has since been broken up and spread between a number of operators.)
"Surround yourself with people of great intelligence, integrity and energy and they will continually challenge you to be the best you can be," Williams remembers Hale telling him. "Always have a plan B and a plan C -- don't ever find yourself with only one choice from a personal or a business perspective or you will most likely end up with a sub-optimal outcome. And decide on your values now and hold to them, because there will be a lot more money at stake -- and pressure to compromise -- later."
-- Compiled by Stephanie Beer, Andrea N. Browne and David P. Marino-Nachison