Professional Development Tips
Here’s the scene: I’m standing awkwardly on the sidelines of a buzzing cocktail reception, prior to a big fundraising event for my nonprofit employer. I shift back and forth, clutching my drink, trying to look nonchalant, like I belong. Everyone seems to know everyone else, except for me, that is. I wonder if I should break into one of the conversation groups scattered around the room, but don’t know how. I can’t disappear, my usual strategy at these things, because I’m working the event. Just then, my boss comes up and whispers in my ear, “Not everyone is looking at you, Bonnie.” Thus, at 28 years old, I learned that the world didn’t revolve around me. Even now, I still have occasion to remind myself of this, and it’s always a relief.
In the years since, I’ve been fortunate to receive a wealth of professional development tips, some intentional and some not, from people I knew and worked with, as well as from books, movies and the nightly news. Here are seven more of my favorites.
When you’re in a business meeting, you don’t have to have all the answers, all the time. You can say, “Let me think about that,” then get back to people later on. A boss explained this to me after she watched me dig a hole for myself during an intense negotiating session.
I once made an expensive mistake while supervising a video production. I went up to the CEO’s office, full of anxiety, and apologized. She smiled and said, “We do not learn from our successes.” In that moment I saw that great leaders avoid placing blame, instead focusing on how to fix things and move forward. They encourage the professional development of their followers, as well as of themselves.
Shortly after I became the head of communications for a well-known women’s health organization, a controversy arose that attracted attention from the national news media. I charged into the CEOs office all fired up with ideas on how to contain the crisis. She gave me a quizzical look and said, “Don’t fear controversy. This is a teachable moment, an opportunity for us to stand on our values and explain them to the public.”
I read this somewhere. When someone makes a decision that you think is the dumbest thing ever, consider whether she has access to more information than you do. Just because her actions don’t make sense to you doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Maybe she knows something you don’t. This is a good tip to remember before you criticize a colleague, your boss, a policymaker or family member.
I once hired a great person for my team. He didn’t have much experience, but he was smart and had tons of potential. At the six-month point, he hadn’t performed as well as I’d expected. Thinking he needed more time, I took him off probation and gave him a small raise as motivation. When his year-end review came due, his work was no better, and I had a problem. I couldn’t let him go or put him back on probation because the paper trail showed that he was doing so well at six months that I gave him a raise. The moral of this story is—Reward performance, not potential.
My friend Milly jokes, “You’re the last white person I’m educating.” While this is funny, consider the serious issues that underlie her statement. Many people like me, who grow up white and privileged, make assumptions based on our own experience, or the lack thereof. By “privileged” I don’t mean wealthy. I mean being able to walk into an expensive shop without worrying that the clerk will think you’re shoplifting. Or being able to assume your teenage son can come and go without being shot by police. People of color, on the other hand, don’t have this kind of privilege. Many grow up navigating two different worlds, the world of white privilege and the world of their less privileged, direct experience. They understand our world better than we understand theirs. This is a major handicap if we are unconscious of our privilege. We sometimes make assumptions, attribute motivations, or come to conclusions that are inaccurate and possibly detrimental to our teams, projects, and organizations. Make it a point to educate yourself about how best to operate in today’s multicultural workforce. Whatever your racial, ethnic or cultural background, cultivate colleagues who can help you become a more effective teammate and manager by creating a work environment that values diversity.
My most recent tip came from Fareed Zakaria, a journalist who has an excellent public affairs program on CNN called GPS: The Global Public Square. (No, I’m not on his payroll.) On one recent show he pointed out that US President Dwight Eisenhower resisted pressure from pundits and politicians to intervene militarily in several world conflicts that took place during his administration. Zakaria contrasted Eisenhower’s position with that of other, more recent presidents, who involved the US in bringing down several foreign governments, the results of which are decidedly negative. The lesson here is—Don’t mistake activity for achievement. It struck a chord with me, as I can think of more than one time in my career when pressure for action resulted in a lot of wheel-spinning without productive results.
Do you have great professional development tips to share with our readers? Please post them in the comment box below.