I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversations I have with graduate students and new professionals. There’s a common thread to many of our conversations of uncertainty - about their positions, how to fit into and deal with office politics, figuring out institutional culture. Several of these conversations have been in essence about “standing out, in a good way.” To add to this question, yesterday I noticed a comment that read, “How do you overcome the feeling of being ‘held back’ by your title on a campus that puts so much weight on your job title?”
I replied: “in past work by: 1) developing rep 4 being great 2) collaborating often 3) taking initiative 2 lead even when ‘not my job’.” But, being the wordy and reflective sort, 140 characters just isn’t enough. So, in my usual format, here are some thoughts on How to Stand Out, in a Good Way:
- Develop a Reputation For Being Great. How do you do this? For me, it’s about doing a really good job and sharing results (in a not too obnoxiously self-aggrandizing manner, of course). It’s about checking in frequently enough with your supervisor and, when you have something to share, passing that along to others who might be interested.
- Collaborate As Often As Possible. I think, in a new position especially, this is essential! Collaborate as often as you can, with folks across campus, in unexpected ways. Collaborate on projects, and - this is important, although my calendar shudders at the thought - show up to others’ events to show your support. You can’t stand out if people don’t know you.
- Take Initiative To Lead, Even When it’s “Not Your Job.” This is a great way to stand out, although if it’s going to involve taking on additional responsibilities you should definitely check in with your supervisor first. However, in some situations I’ve found that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. (Or, as one of my former supervisors used to say, “Run until you’re tackled.”)
- Be A Good Colleague. Again, you want to build a reputation as a good person to work with. So what does being a good colleague look like? It means chipping in to help when others have big projects underway. It means keeping up with things that are happening on your campus and in the community, and dropping friendly notes when appropriate - “Hey Jane, saw the article in the weekly newsletter about that new initiative you started. Congratulations! What a great project!” And early on in a position, it means introducing yourself to folks, having meetings over cups of coffee or tea and asking open-ended questions: How have you worked with the person in this position in the past? What worked? What didn’t? Start the relationship on the right foot, and keep up ongoing communications.
- Don’t Get Sucked Into Politics. Ask Why. Chances are, if you’re walking into a situation there are already some dynamics and politics going on that you don’t know about - nor do you necessarily want to be a part of! So, rise above it. I’ve found that a great way to begin to get around past conflicts is by asking “why” - for example, if you note that you’re getting more resistance than you can readily explain, taking the “resistor” out for a cup of coffee and checking in with them about what you’re observing, and asking for their point of view. Asking people for their opinion and viewpoint goes a long way in making progress, which leads me to number 6!
- Listen, and Involve Stakeholders. I think a lot of conflicts arise because people don’t feel heard. So - you can stand out by asking people what they think. Even if you can’t do anything about their complaints, just listening will go a long way! It’s important to recognize that some folks might see themselves as stakeholders, invested in decisions you’re making, even if you don’t think of them that way. So cast your net broadly - and involve people you might not have initially thought about.
- Say “No,” When You Can’t Do It, and Always, Always, Always Follow Through If You Say Yes. A lot of the time, when I’m starting in a new role, I find it really, really hard to say “No.” (Oh, heck - it’s hard to say no even when I’ve been somewhere a long time.) The key is, we should only say “Yes” to things we know that we can do, and do well. I’ve gotten much better about saying “No” in the past few years and I know that my colleagues respect that, because they know that when I say I’ll do something, I will do all that I can to do it well. And besides, I’m much more fun to work with when I’m not cranky and overworked - so my saying no is a good thing sometimes.
- Be a Professional At Work and in Work-Related Social Settings. This is essential, especially if you’re early in your career. I talked a little bit about my first job in higher ed in yesterday’s post about dressing for success. I occasionally struggled with feeling like I fit in because I was significantly younger than most of my colleagues. While I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it, I was especially conscious of the age difference and needing to prove myself as one of the “grown - ups” in after-work socializing. It was fairly common for groups of co-workers to go out for a drink after work - and since we were in a rural area, it wasn’t unheard of for some of our older students to come in while we were still there. My unwritten rule was that, if students came in, I’d finish up and go home. I was hyper-conscious of being professional and maintaining those boundaries, even though I was off the clock and socializing with my work friends. (And yes, socializing with work friends did make our work relationships stronger.) Whatever “being professional” means to you - do it.
What do you do to stand out in a good way? What do you think?