With a show of hands, how many of you have heard of the TV show "Survivor"? Ok great. Then, as you know, the contestants are eliminated from the game as their fellow contestants vote them off until one winner remains. I have never been a contestant on "Survivor," but I have some experience getting voted off the island.
For me to explain, we have to go back, way back, to the early days of my career. Back when I landed my first real adult job. I was 18 years old and the only girl on a team of 18. My opinions weren't welcome, and my ideas usually weren't great until someone else had them. I'll admit, I was naive, but I was still scrappy, even back then. I quickly learned that the only way to earn my peer's respect was not to back down, and it was better to be respected than to be liked. So I figured out how to stand up for myself and find a way to gain enough knowledge to form an opinion and then share it. It didn't matter if I was right or if I had the best idea. Acceptance came from participation, so I learned to participate.
Those early days of my professional life helped shape what has become my communication style. I am a direct communicator of the four styles, Direct, Analytical, Initiating, and Supportive. What does that mean? For me, it means I am decisive, competitive, & independent. I am focused, ambitious, and like getting results; I prefer a busy but efficient structured environment. I am strong-willed, and on occasion, I give the impression that I am demanding. When I'm bored, I can be seen as impatient. I am usually in a hurry, so I need you to get to the point to get things done.
In my current role, I'm notorious for speaking my mind and sharing my thoughts and opinions. I'm only able to do this, though, because I feel a sense of safety. Someone once told me that organizations don't fail because no one knew they were failing; they fail due to one of three reasons. People were not feeling empowered enough to say something; they were too afraid of the consequences or just didn't care enough. It's never because no one knew. I am fortunate that my leaders empower me to say what I'm thinking, and no matter what, there won't be negative consequences for doing so. I also feel like if I care about my job, which I do, and if I care about my organization and the overall company, I don't have a choice but to share what I'm thinking.
Being a direct communicator has not always worked to my benefit. Remember the TV show "Survivor"? Well, being too direct will sometimes get you voted off the island! The last time it happened to me was when I joined the board of directors for WICT Heartland. I jumped in head first, sharing my ideas and critiques without first getting a feel for the other board members before I understood how everything worked. Their perception of me was that I was judgemental. I failed to hear anyone else out, which left some of them frustrated and feeling defeated. Once I realized the mistakes, I made it was too late. They already had their first impression of me. Fortunately for me, everyone was there to support the mission of developing women leaders. As soon as I showed a willingness to accept feedback and take active measures in the areas that needed improvement, they welcomed me with open arms.
I am lucky that I have a fantastic network of people who aren't afraid of having courageous conversations with me, and in the past, some of their candid feedback was that I didn't do an excellent job of listening; I tend to talk too much. The advice I received was not to dismiss others' ideas; instead, I should acknowledge and validate them.
My primary communication style is Direct. My secondary styles are Analytical and Initiating. Which long story short means I'm a social butterfly who likes to take logical and organized notes and needs space to share my story even though I only want the high-level details from other people's stories.
Being direct doesn't just impact those I interact with, but it directly affects me personally. A couple of years ago, I had to implement a rule that I would no longer say things to or about myself that I wouldn't allow someone else to tell me. I realized that I hear myself talk more than I hear anyone else and while being direct is my natural style, I found that I was so critical that my self-talk had a negative impact.
I live by the principle that if the plan is to show up outspoken and opinionated, I also must be willing to take a hard look within and do some self-reflection. I think that's what has allowed me to evolve and understand that communication styles are situational. I love feedback and ask for it often because that's the best way to determine if my current style is effective. If it's not effective, I know I need to adjust my behavior and adopt new techniques to fit the situation.
The fourth communication style is entirely out of my wheelhouse, and it's the Supportive style. People who have a supportive communication style are usually calm and approachable. Are you starting to see how the two of us aren't related? This style dislikes change and may appear indecisive. The perception is that they are careful and patient. They like to work at a slow pace in a no-tension environment. Paired with good active listening skills (which I don't have yet), others see them as cooperative, dependable, and loyal.
If we were competing on a season of "Survivor," communication styles would be the challenges that offer rewards and immunity. If you want to be the sole survivor standing, invest in understanding your communication style and how to best communicate with the other styles.
I have been a mentee more times than I can count. Before coming to work at Cox, I thought mentoring was a joke. I participated every time the opportunity presented itself, but I never felt like I got much out of it. Does anyone else relate to that?
I came to Cox nervous and worried about what the future held for me. My previous job was a complete train wreck, and I didn't fit in. Before that, I spent nearly ten years at a company that felt like home. It was my comfort zone, and leaving there was scary. I knew that if I wanted to be happy and feel like Cox was my home, I would need to jump in and get involved. It was right around that time that a new mentoring program kicked off, so I applied to be a mentee.
The universe must have aligned just right because they paired me with Kristin Peck, the VP of Public Affairs in my region. Kristin helped me rebuild my confidence. Her advice and insights allowed me to break down barriers and plan for the future. She saw potential in me that I had forgotten. Ultimately, she became my first sponsor. Kristin put my name forward and recommended that I join the board of two nonprofits, and I served as the chair for the market engagement team in Tulsa for two years. There are many other things she indirectly helped me achieve. One of the questions Kristin asked me changed the way I think about career planning. She asked, "What job do you want to have when you retire?" It's not a question to answer. The important part is that you think about the possible answers because how will you get somewhere if you don't know where you're going? Thinking about the job you want to retire from will help you find your career ladder.
Another of my mentors at Cox told me that I needed to stop saying yes to everything. He helped me plot out my 3-year plan to quickly see which things I should continue to say yes to and which ones I should pass on. If it isn't on my career ladder or lattice, then I shouldn't say yes because that would mean I'm taking the opportunity away from someone else. It was one of the hardest lessons I've ever learned because I believed that if someone asked me to do something that I could do, I should do it. As a result, I had a habit of raising my hand too often. At times, this habit led to me taking on too much, feeling overwhelmed, under pressure to accomplish my commitments. Learning to say no was one of the most challenging and equally beneficial things I've ever done. Now I can do things I want, like toastmasters.
The most amazing experience I've had as a mentee happened because of WICT. I applied for the techconnect mentoring program solely because I wanted to go to New York and couldn't afford both the trip and the tickets to the leadership conference. I found out that acceptance into the program came with free registration to the conference, so I said, "sign me up!" I had no expectations when I first submitted my application. When I received the email that said I was accepted, I couldn't even contain my excitement. Just when I thought things couldn't get better, I found out that my mentor was the VP of Engineering at Comcast! It felt like a match made in heaven. Not only did I get my trip to New York, but I learned so much from my mentor. It was a pivotal moment for my personal and professional growth. I walked away from that program with a new zest for my job, big goals and a plan for how to reach them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will cherish forever.
Mentoring is a fundamental part of career progression. It is not easy, though, especially as the mentee. It is a lot of work to be a mentee. A mentor can't help you if you don't know what you need help with or where you need to improve. It is what you make of it. If you put in the work, you will reap the rewards. I still have several mentors, and it's great because they each have different strengths and bring those strengths to the table. Each time we meet is another opportunity for me to adopt some of their best practices that make me a better version of myself. I've gained so much from mentoring relationships that now I try to pay it forward. I usually have at least one mentee, and that opens up a whole new world of possibilities. It also gives me the chance to implement some of the things I've learned and pass on what works for me. That in itself is a kind of learning and development. The type of development that builds leadership skills that are necessary for nearly any promotion.
There are a variety of mentoring programs available, both formal and informal. If you have your eye on a job you are interested in, reach out to someone in that organization, foster a relationship with them, and then leverage that into informal mentoring. There are multiple options. You need to find the one that works for you and get started. What do you have to lose?