Recently I began mentoring a talented librarian in the early-middle stage of her career. During our first meeting, I began to pick up on her professional values, beliefs and perspectives. Some of these rang with deep conviction; others were shared with less certainty; and still others sounded downright tentative, ending with the rising lilt of a question. It occurred to me that the mix of values, beliefs and perspectives she was sharing had been accumulated from a variety of sources. Some - those shared with conviction - were clearly personal values that were, if not unshakeable, deeply ingrained in my mentee. Others were professional beliefs my mentee had learned, but was open to debate. And finally there were those values, beliefs and perspectives that sounded more like questions. These were “truths” my mentee carried around with her, but about which she remained palpably suspicious.
As I began to share some of my own values, beliefs and perspectives, I heard the not-so-faint echoes of the individuals who shaped me into the professional I am today. And I felt the same spectrum of conviction as I shared my advice. There were the things I said with absolute conviction: my unshakeable values. Other advice I gave more tentatively, sometimes phrasing it as a question myself: “Do you think it would help the situation if you tried…?” The entire conversation was very meta. It’s a heady sensation to recognize yourself serving as a fulcrum between the past and the future. You hope you are doing your predecessors justice, just as you worry that your successors will choose to ignore your advice.
The Things We Carry
Each of us carries around a hodgepodge of values, beliefs and perspectives we’ve gathered from various individuals throughout our lives. Some are core values we absorbed early on from our parents. Work ethic tends to be one of these. I vividly remember my dad leaving for work before dawn and then returning home in the evening physically exhausted, salt stains on his shirt from sweating all day. As a child, that was my first understanding of what a work ethic was and it continued to shape my attitude into the early stages of my career. As a new manager, my standards of hard work were unrealistic and I saw a few team members burn-out trying to achieve my standard. I have changed my expectations as a result, but the change was not easy because this value was so deeply ingrained.
What We Learn Along the Way
Other values, beliefs and perspectives we learn from our managers and mentors. These can be helpful or unhelpful to our careers and the challenge is in recognizing the difference. The most powerful wisdom is gained from experiences that make an impression on us.
I will never forget one particular team meeting. My boss at the time held a bi-weekly meeting with all of his direct reports. One of these direct reports was a problem employee we will call Linda. Linda was argumentative, negative, closed to new ideas, unwilling to take direction and, worst of all, hostile to her peers. My boss had been trying to work with her to improve, but Linda had not made much progress. In the team meeting, Linda attacked one of her peers for what Linda thought was a dumb idea. The air left the room. It was clear that no other ideas would be shared for fear that Linda would lambast them. And it was also clear that everyone was waiting for our boss to address Linda’s behavior. He did. He stopped the conversation, apologized to the attacked team member for Linda’s remarks, then proceeded to coach Linda in front of us. My boss was not emotional, nor insulting to Linda. But he was very direct. He told her it was unacceptable to talk to someone the way she had. He was specific when pointing out what she said that was unacceptable; he told her how she could have shared her opinion successfully; he told us he valued an open, safe environment for sharing ideas; and then, as he wrapped up the meeting early, he asked Linda to stay behind. To no one’s surprise, Linda was escorted out of the building the next day and we never had to work with her again.
My boss’s actions that day were decisive and inspiring. He demonstrated that he cared about us as people, that he would not tolerate disrespect, and that he would take quick action to correct what needed correcting. Luckily, I have never had a “Linda” on one of my teams, but I have seen teammates disrespect each other is less egregious ways. In those instances, I have corrected the behavior in the moment so that my team can see that I will not tolerate it. And every time I’ve done it, I owe my former boss a debt of gratitude. My actions are a result of what I learned from him that day.
Some lessons our managers must help us teach ourselves. Mike, the manager I worked for the longest in my career, was the embodiment of patience. He had the openest open door policy I’ve ever encountered. When I was frustrated with a situation at work, I’d walk into his cube to vent. Though invariably swamped with his own work, Mike would smile, lean back in his chair, place his hands behind his head, and ask, “What’s up?” Mike never made me feel like I was a bother. He never made me feel rushed, despite countless times being late to a meeting because of our impromptu conversations. Mike’s patience and listening skills created a kind of echo-chamber that forced me to hear my own complaints. In time I grew annoyed by my own grumbling and, when I’d hear myself spiraling down a complaint vortex, I’d force myself to stop dwelling on the problem and begin spitballing potential solutions. Mike would play Socrates and ask probing questions to sharpen my ideas. By the time I left his cube, I had formed a plan of attack. Gradually I found myself visiting Mike’s office less and less, and then only to validate a solution I’d already thought through. As sad as I was when Mike left the organization, I realized that I would be okay without him. He had given me the time, space and support to develop a new competency that had made me more self-sufficient.
And finally there are those “truths” we carry with us, but in which we have little faith. I call these placeholder truths because they serve the purpose of filling a void, but are ripe to be replaced by lessons learned through experience.
A once common belief in the corporate world held that those who were quieter in meetings were less effective and engaged than those who were vocal and made more immediate contributions. Like many others, I adopted this placeholder “truth” early in my career, but never with much conviction. The “truth” sounded reasonable, but often didn’t match my experience. When introducing topics for discussion to my teams, I noticed that oftentimes the best ideas came from my quieter team members, albeit a few days after the meeting in which the topic was introduced. I began to strategize how I could get these team members to contribute sooner, ideally in the meeting itself, which led me to become more vigilant about sending materials to my team days in advance to give these team members time to absorb and generate responses. But still, if someone would have asked me which of my team members were more engaged and effective, I would have trotted out my placeholder “truth” and answered that it was those who spoke first and most often.
Then research began showing that the “truth” that quieter individuals were less engaged and effective was not true at all. In fact, those who were less assertive and immediate in reacting to a new idea or proposal were often more effective and engaged than those who spoke up immediately. In short, there was no correlation between speaking first, most often, or loudest and being more effective and engaged. Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking popularized this research and helped managers like me recognize exactly why this placeholder “truth” held no merit.
In our lives, both professional and personal, we will never replace all of these placeholder “truths.” There’s only so much time and personal capacity to overwrite them. But as long as we maintain a healthy scepticism about them and test their validity in our daily lives, we can replace many of them with truths rooted in experience. And once replaced, when we share these truths, we will hear a newfound conviction in our voice.
Gratitude to the Past and Generosity to the Future
I owe my career to the generous, wise, patient individuals who made the effort to teach me about leadership, integrity, focus and supporting others. I hope to be a good steward of the wisdom that’s been passed down to me. I often hear in my advice to others the voices of my managers and mentors; faint echoes, no doubt, of the voices of their own managers and mentors. And on and on in perpetuum.
I encourage you to reflect on the individuals who made you the professional you are. What did you learn from them? How has that wisdom helped you in your career? What would you say to them now, with the benefit of hindsight? If they are accessible, I encourage you to get in touch and thank them. And I encourage you to look forward. Who can you mentor? What wisdom, good habits, tips and best practices can you pass on to the next generation of professionals?
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