As I joined millions of other federal employees returning to work today, it felt like a fresh start. In the working world, there are no semesters to mark the passage of time, no universal vacations that keep everyone out of the office for an extended period, and no major organizational uncertainties. Particularly in a mammoth federal government agency, there are almost no disruptions to “business as usual.”
The federal government shutdown was an exception. Workaholics who rarely take a day off were forced to turn off their Blackberries. Parents who usually only see their kids for an hour before bed could (depending on their child care arrangements) spend days on end with them. Spouses whose schedules do not normally overlap much suddenly had hours when they were both awake and at home at the same time. And then, with the swish of the President’s pen around 1am this morning, everything was returned to “normal.” Except it felt like anything but.
Today was “back to school” day for federal employees across the country. At my building, good-natured chaos reigned, with people who had forgotten their access badges or computer passwords milling about, as everyone greeted each other, complemented new suits and haircuts, and exchanged “what did you do with your furlough?” stories. It was oddly reminiscent of returning to school in September (not so long ago for me, my last back-to-law-school was just three years ago, but it feels like longer than that). Except for the hundreds of emails waiting for me …
This “back to work” seems like a good time to take stock of my professional past, present, and future, just as I used to do at the start of each school year. My inspiration comes from insights and advice from four female executives interviewed in Sunday’s New York Times.
Advice #1: Don’t hoard favors; spend political capital when it counts. – Amy Schulman, Executive Vice-President and General Counsel, Pfizer
This is a great piece of advice, and one I have not heard before. I have frequently been encouraged to volunteer when someone needs help, to grab the chance to learn something new while demonstrating my commitment to the team. So I try to take a “no assignment is too large or too small” approach to work, which means I can find myself in way over my head, or banging my head against the wall. Ms. Schulman did not warn against such an attitude, but she emphasized that building political capital is only valuable if that capital is later spent wisely. I take a lot of vacations, during which times others must pick up my slack, so that is one way I use my capital, but from now on I will try to be more thoughtful about how to make the most of the goodwill I have acquired.
Advice #2: Don’t cry “… you are enforcing a stereotype, unfortunately, that women are weak, and they’re not as tough as men.” – Lisa Price, Founder and President, Carol’s Daughter
If one of her employees cries on the job, Ms. Price takes her aside and says: “If you’re that emotional about it, wait to speak, so that doesn’t happen.” This approach seems a bit harsh to me (an avowed crier), but may be sound advice … to a point. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recounts the experience of a friend who cried in the office when her child was diagnosed with cancer, and found that her workplace became a less stressful place for her once her colleagues understood what she was going through. Ms. Price seems to think that tears over personal issues are acceptable in the office, but draws the line at work-related breakdowns. That is exactly what my very first supervisor said to me when I cried to him after the senator I was working for scolded me. A decade later, I am proud to say that, despite crying at diaper commercials, airport partings/reunions, love songs, and tragic current events, I have only cried at work a handful of times in my life. But see the next paragraph ….
Advice #3: “Don’t let your emotions get in the way … if you take emotion out of it, you begin to look at everything objectively.” – Doreen Lorenzo, President, Quirky
I suck at this. I am the first to concede that I take things too personally. It may be my greatest personal and professional flaw, my Achilles heel. It is the reason I will never be a politician. As I have gotten older, I have become better at keeping my emotions to myself (albeit, not out of the equation entirely), but they still get the best of me sometimes. My worst-ever breakdown was just a few weeks ago. The high-level supervisor of a client agency called and yelled at me for mishandling a matter I had been working on. I felt trapped, and burst into tears. Lucky for me, my boss came riding in on his white horse to defend my honor – both to the abusive supervisor and to the head of our division who had heard me crying (both women, for what that’s worth). Rather than accuse me of being weak, my boss blamed the supervisor for being legally and professional wrong in her accusations. Still, I wish I had handled the situation differently. Next time I will try the advice or Ms. Price and Ms. Lorenzo and aim to separate my emotions from the issues so that I can seek help without breaking down.
Advice #4: “Niceness and kindness are not the opposite of ambition and drive. It is powerful to choose to be nice.” – Marjorie Kaplan, President of the Animal Planet, Science and Velocity Networks
Yes! Finally, a woman executive I’d like to work for and to aspire to be. Ms. Kaplan relates how people have long told her she is “too nice” to be able to lead effectively (a critique that almost certainly would not be leveled at a man). Her response is that “[t]here’s not such a thing as ‘too nice.’ … I don’t manage based on fear. I manage based on expectations.” Beyond being how I want to be treated in the workplace, this is also my approach to parenting. My parents did not set rules or dole out punishments; instead, they made their expectations known and were clear about their disappointment if my sister or I let them down. It worked spectacularly well (from my perspective at least, and I think my folks would agree). I abhor confrontation – so try not to step on any toes or ruffle any feathers – therefore, I am counting on being able to succeed, personally and professionally, by being nice.
Advice #5: “What you want is the kind of inherent confidence that leads to grace.” – Amy Schulman, Executive Vice-President and General Counsel, Pfizer
Honestly, I am not sure exactly what this means, but I love the sound of it. To me, “inherent confidence” means not having to raise your voice, exert your influence, or elbow out others to get your way – simply believing in yourself and the power of your ideas/efforts is enough. As one of the youngest and least senior people of my office, I feel the need to prove myself, so often find myself talking too much trying to make a point, or getting defensive when my ideas are challenged. Going forward, I will try to exhibit “inherent confidence” by letting my work speak for itself (except, of course, when questioned outright).
I hope that some of this advice may prove useful to others. I will let you know in a few months how my “new (fiscal) year’s” work resolutions are going.