Recently, I met a coworker who is early in her career journey. It was a fun chat as she shared her professional enthusiasm. The joy for what lay ahead was clear and contagious. During our discussion we spoke about the concept of “bring your whole self to work.” She asked what I did to get and/or be more comfortable as “me” at work.
Before I share my response, I think it’s important to know that I’m not sure “bring your whole self to work” is good advice, especially if the system in which you’re working is not healthy. I think we all need to understand the system in which we work – and either work to improve it or find a better one. Working in fear, anxiety, or a state of incompleteness is detrimental to a person, as well as the mission of the organization as it’s not getting the full talents of an employee, manager, or leader.
I offer up a counter catch phrase instead: bring your most effective self to work.
Here are the tips I offered to this emerging leader to help her begin to think how she could bring her most effective self to work:
- Find your voice. I might be biased as a proud member of my high school Forensic team which had its own fight song, but I think being an effective speaker gives you power. Power to inspire. Power to share your intelligence and ideas. Power to pull people in. Power to gracefully stand up against issues and people. Toastmasters is one way to give you foundational tools. I also think it’s important to take notes on how effective speakers help a small team collaborate, watch who unites a group around a new idea, or who helps you lose track of time when they’re speaking. How do they use their voice? What kinds of words do they use? Do they use storytelling or data – or both – to build a case? What is their energy? How do they use their bodies? How do they use silence? How do they pull in others? Try on these things at every opportunity to build your signature communication style. And remember, speaking is not about the formal moment… every meeting is an opportunity to improve your speaking skills.
- Embrace your expertise. I’ve always been confident on what I was good at and sought opportunities to apply and hone those innate gifts. My college degrees reflected it (communications, English, and psychology), my career proved it out, and the certifications I completed expanded my talent in new ways. I can do a lot more beyond my favorite things; however, it takes more time and energy — and usually there is someone else with those skills eager to jump in an apply them. Let them. I’m not saying only stick to your favorite things, it’s important to be competent at basic work skills (e.g., financial management, planning, feedback, writing, research and analysis). Without a solid base of skills, you can easily get overlooked for growth opportunities as you’ll be seen as a “one-trick-pony.” What I think is important is to build a brand around what you like to do – and do well. Make sure coworkers know when and why to invite you to opportunities… “Be sure to invite Lindy Lou, she’s great at ____.” If you’re not invited to the party (meeting), you cannot contribute your skills, diverse thinking, and unique perspective to the solution.
- Build your posse. Years ago, I read Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe which explores loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning among tribal societies. Throughout my career, I cultivated a network of smart, demanding, fun, compassionate experts, a tribe I can rely on. As an introvert, my network is not huge. For me, these relationships took time to build and have lasted 20+ years. We are responsive to one another, and candid. We openly share our community with others – members of their inner circle are immediately pulled into mine when introductions are made. I reach to them for expertise. I reach to them for reality checks. I reach to them for opportunities. Additionally, I keep standing meetings on my calendar with several of them as I’ve learned over the years, if I have these standing meetings the right person is always there when I need them. It’s magical how many times this has been true, from the person who always makes me laugh (when I have a hard week) to the person who always has a great article to share (when I need inspiration for a facilitation). These folks also keep me grounded in me. They help me remain true to who I am and what I have to offer. They recognize, celebrate, and seek the magic of me.
- Find your mentor. I collect mentors. It is a great habit I formalized at Booz Allen Hamilton. Some mentors are topical, such as an Army mentor when I struggled to learn that organization. Some mentors are just ahead of me professionally and provide lessons learned. Some mentors are for my shortcomings and hold me accountable in areas I want to improve. Some mentors are people I admire and simply seek time in their inspiring universe. Some mentors are with those with whom I’m least like to help open my perspective. Each mentor relationship is unique. Some for a set time, others long-term.
Finally, I shared that each person needs to define their style or work presence. How you present your most authentic or effective self at work. How will you blend in and when will you buck the system ? What are your boundaries as to what you will let shine as your true self, what will you protect as it’s not work’s business to have all of you, and how can you use your presence to affect change?
When I began consulting, my first client was Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs at the height of the Iraq/Afghanistan War. I did not know the Army. I did not know combat. I did not know the culture. I did not know the lingo. I did not know how to be a 40+ year old male which is who I mostly worked with. But, I did know communications and how to reach people in a time of loss. You see my dad and brother are both ministers. So, rather than shy away or try to blend into a world I was not a part of, I decided to stand out. With my Lilly Pulitzer floral notebooks and bright colored clothes, I applied my skills to a worthy mission. In my own style:
- I built team connections (it’s amazing how many relationships started over a container of chocolate I kept on my desk),
- Wrote meaningful stories about loved one’s fallen family members,
- Asked candid questions about Army regulations to learn how to best navigate the system,
- Asked a cadre of retired Army coworkers for help, and
- Worked hard.
By using my voice, talents, network and mentors, I accomplish what the folks “in the system” couldn’t. I moved throughout a space that is uncomfortable for many to elevate heroes, share resources with loved ones, and help the healing process.
I leave you with a portion of a daily reading from Mark Nepo‘s daily meditation book, The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. “In effect, the cost of being who you are is that you can’t possible meet everyone’s expectations, and so, there will, inevitably, be external conflict to deal with—the friction of being visible. Still, the cost of not being who are is that while you are busy pleasing everyone around you, a precious part of you is dying inside, in this case, there will be internal conflict to deal with—the friction of being invisible…. What this means, in a daily way, is that I have to be conscientious about being truthful and resist the urge to accommodate my truth away. It means that being who I really am is not forbidden or muted just because others are uncomfortable or don’t want to hear it….. We don’t have to be great to begin. We simply have to start by saying what we really want for dinner or which movie we really want to see.”