The workplace looks different at the earlier stages of your career when you’re busy building a roadmap to your future. And right now, constructing that map can feel even more complicated due to the unique challenges of a global pandemic. The WFF Young Professionals Community of Interest (COI) gathered recently to help women early in their careers tap into the wisdom of those further along. That includes how to be your authentic self at work to setting personal boundaries and embracing failure as an opportunity to learn, reset and advance.
Replacing missing connections
When COVID-19 prompted a quick switch to remote work, many young professionals lost critical in-person interactions with direct supervisors and other mentors who play important roles in helping them develop new skills and a deepening understanding of organization culture. Many also experienced significant stress from being cut off from casual social interactions both at work and in their personal lives.
Senior Vice President and co-COO for Brinker International, Aaron White, co-facilitated the WFF Young Professionals Community of Interest (COI) that met virtually during the recent WFF Leadership Conference. She said the pandemic had caused her to increase attention on creating greater personal connection with her teams. “I’ve learned how important it is to share our emotions and be vulnerable with each other at this time,” she said.
Part of supporting young professionals today may also require reinforcement of skill development that has been interrupted due to COVID. Fewer hallway conversations and opportunities to observe senior leaders in action has resulted in fewer learning opportunities, making intentional mentoring even more important. “Research demonstrates that, properly coached, new professionals will develop faster (with mentoring) because their learning has been enhanced and guided,” Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a strategic leadership expert, wrote recently in Harvard Business Review.
Young professionals must continue to reach out virtually to mentors; the option of a 20-minute zoom conversation is actually making many busy mentors more accessible. And supervisors need to ensure those development conversations and modeling opportunities continue to take place. “Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask someone you admire for 15 minutes to share your story,” White says.
Gail Peterson, Chief Marketing Officer with Ecolab and co-facilitator of the Young Professionals COI, concurs, stressing the importance of sponsors as well. “Sponsors are people in a position to actually pull emerging leaders through the organization,” she said. “Decisions are made in rooms you are not in and that your manager isn’t in. Other people in the organization need to know who you are and what you do so they can advocate for you when those decisions are being made.”
Sponsors often emerge when you have surprised someone by performing beyond their expectations, Peterson said. She shared a difficult story form early in her career when a manager told her she wasn’t a leader. “Over time, I proved him wrong and his boss became one of my biggest advocates as she saw me outperform expectations.”
Raise your hand in person and online
Despite – or perhaps because of – decreased visibility due to remote work, it is more important than ever for emerging leaders to make themselves and their work known and to raise their hands for greater challenges.
White says the best piece of career advice she ever received came from a WFF event where an executive from Georgia Pacific told the audience that men raise their hands for new opportunities even if they aren’t sure they can handle them, but that women tend to wait.
“I remember, she leaned forward on her chair and said to us, ‘If you remember anything from today, remember to just go ahead and raise your hand.’ That was a turning point for me,” White explained. “A few weeks later at a talent meeting, the discussion centered around how to replace an executive who was being promoted. The leaders in the room didn’t know who to tap and I finally said, ‘I can do it’ and explained why. A few weeks later, I was offered the job.” Today, White keeps a note on her nightstand that reminds her to make the ‘courageous choice.’
Peterson has adopted a personal rule of raising her hand and her ideas until she hears ‘no’. “I used to censor my own ideas rather than sharing them until someone gave me the advice of speaking up until someone says no to what I’m advocating,” she explained. “Over time, I’ve even changed that to making them say no twice.”
Self-care and life balance
For several decades, researchers have pointed to higher levels of stress and anxiety reported in Gen Z and Millennials which has escalated during the pandemic. Peterson also noticed early in the pandemic that she could not seem to turn off from work mode and counsels emerging leaders to consider life balance and personal boundaries from the start of their careers.
She thinks of life balance as a juggling act where the number of balls changes over time. “The big thing you have to know is that some balls are rubber and some are glass,” Peterson said. “If I drop the ball labeled my kids, it’s glass and it will shatter. If I drop the ball labeled my career, it’s rubber and it will bounce back. Sometimes, you have to prioritize, lower your expectations, ask for creative help, and lean into humor.”
One way she saves energy is by being her authentic self. “One of the things that takes the most energy is to pretend to be someone you’re not,” Peterson advised. “If you constantly filter yourself, you’re hiding your comparative advantage and that’s true from day one of your career. It wasn’t your resume that got you the job, it was you and how you showed up. Don’t hide that. Your greatest value will come from being yourself.”
White concurs, saying that, early in her career, she had a boss who told her that her only options as a female leader were to be a pushover or a jerk. She smartly rejected that notion and decided to be herself – strong, competent and compassionate. “More than twenty years later, I realize being yourself is the only way to be an effective leader.”
Embrace failure as learning
The two senior leaders concluded by fielding questions from participants, including how to deal with failure. Both White and Peterson are big fans of learning by doing – or making mistakes.
“If I’m not scared before I take on a job, I know it’s not the right one because I won’t learn enough,” Peterson said. “I learn the most when I fail. Every time I fall, I get a little closer to my goal. Doing what you know you can already do well just doesn’t drive growth.”
White underscored the point with a story from early in her career when she was declined an interview for a general manager position with her employer. Tempted to quit, instead she came back a few days later to talk with her manager about how she needed to improve. “That self-reflection is when you grow,” she said.
Emerging leaders who have been tested by the pandemic so early in their careers are likely to develop, with the right support, to possess a unique blend of resiliency and humanity that will make them highly valued members of future senior leadership teams.