Photo courtesy of Jim Meyer Photography

Forget “location, location, location.” The three most important words for success are “people, people, people.” That was the resounding theme of a recent panel I participated in as part of Business Week at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

I was struck by the common experiences of my varied fellow panelists (pictured above, left to right): Andy Schlapp, WSU director of government relations; Jarrod Bartlett, Boeing Company media relations manager; Susan Addington, Koch Industries manager of community relations; Phil Anderson, Spirit AeroSystems corporate treasurer and vice president of investor relations; and moderator Doug Hensler, Barton School dean. The career paths that took unexpected turns. The odd jobs that gave way to undreamed of opportunities. The people who kept turning up. Again and again. And how absolutely critical they were in getting you to your current career.

Andy Schlapp proves it pays to keep a sense of humor and humility. He’s worked in DC, been the big man, yet defuses any sense of self-importance. When serving as project manager for Sedgwick County’s solid waste management plan, his badge read “Andy Schlapp – Solid Waste.” He deadpanned that he’d have felt better had it at least said “Partial Waste” or “Kind of Waste.”

Hearing these professionals’ stories and thinking back on my own journey, I’m struck how key individuals create and/or guide us through life-changing turning points. They suggest a job you never would have thought of. They believe in you in a way you maybe never believed in yourself. They hold the door so you can step through.

And when you find you’ve walked down a path that’s taken you to a dead end or a place you no longer want to be, it’s often those same people who are waving you over, pointing out a blue highway with the most beautiful scenery or a multilane interstate that lets you zip away.