A reader writes:
In a post recently, you described yourself as “blunt, assertive, kind of a hard-ass, and not a sugar-coater,” which is awesome. This is exactly the sort of person I want to be in my professional life. The thing is, I’m only just starting out in my career and I’m currently more wide-eyed, just trying to absorb everything I can and become better overall, build my network, etc. (I’m also generally quite bubbly and personable, which I know doesn’t exactly command respect.) What can I do over the next few years to transform myself into a hard-ass-career-woman-manager-superstar?
I wasn’t like that in the beginning, believe me. When I first started working, I was shy, hesitant, convinced that everyone else knew what they were doing when I didn’t, and uncomfortable calling the older woman in the office next to me by her first name.
And frankly, that’s probably better than the alternative, because if I’d been blunt and assertive and kind of a hard-ass before I knew what I was doing, I would have been the office nightmare.
Confidence — the good kind, the kind that’s warranted — builds over time, because it’s a direct result of you gaining experience, developing your instincts, figuring out where your strengths are, learning how to get things done, and getting all that validated by seeing over time that you’re able to get the results you want.
Here’s what you can do right now, to lay the groundwork for later:
* Pay attention to how things work around you. Absorb all that you can. Pay attention even to things that don’t directly involve you — like meetings that would otherwise be boring.
* Pay attention to the people you respect and try to figure out why you respect them. When you don’t respect someone, try to figure out why that is, too.
* Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work — in your field, in people’s interpersonal styles, in your managers’ managerial styles. Notice what gets things accomplished and what doesn’t. Develop opinions about what’s effective and what isn’t effective. (But keep most of those opinions to yourself for now, and keep testing them against new information.)
* Find people who speak their minds without seeming rude, and watch how they do it.
* Volunteer for extra responsibilities. Take on things that feel like a stretch.
* Ask for feedback. Value the critical feedback the most (assuming you respect the person it’s coming from; if you don’t, the value of their feedback goes way down, sometimes to zero).
* Try really hard not to take things in the workplace personally, even when they feel personal. This will be hard to do and you might never do it perfectly. But try.
* Put a high value on having your act together: Stay on top of things, be responsive, don’t let things fall through the cracks, and do what you say you’re going to do.
* Pay attention to mistakes — yours and other people’s. Figure out where they came from and how they could be avoided. (But know that you’ll always make mistakes anyway, and some are okay.)
* Do really good work. This is the most important thing of all.
Over time, what’s going to happen is that you’re going start forming your own personal philosophy about How to Be At Work. And you’re going to look around and realize that you feel pretty confident about your abilities and your judgment, and when you combine all that into one package, it is fairly powerful and the sort of thing that entitles you to feel pretty damn good about speaking up and saying what you think.
And you’ll be able to seek out employers who value that in you.
That’s basically my manifesto on how to grow into the person you want to be. If you follow it, you will be one of a fairly small minority who do, and you will stand out in a pretty noticeable way for it.
I’d love to hear advice from others too. What have I missed?
P.S. By the way, on the “bubbly and personable” thing — You don’t need to lose that to command respect. I have the voice of a child and a weird sense of humor that I don’t bother to hide, and I try to be warm and open with people, and I crack jokes that I’m often the one most amused by, and I talk like a normal person rather than being really polished. I used to always think that those things must not come across as especially professional, but what I’ve realized over time is that I don’t want to work with people who don’t like that style. (In fact, now I see most of them as selling points for the right people.) So don’t be someone who you’re not; instead, be exactly who you are, so that you self-select for places that like who you are and where you’ll feel comfortable. This is one of the best things you can do for yourself, actually.