Exactly 13 years ago, I began a 6-month contract at Cisco. I had no expectations and only one hope- to learn. Looking back, I’m reminded of the many lessons I’ve learned in my 13-year tenure, and am profoundly grateful for the people and experiences who served as my teachers:
- Invest time in getting to know yourself– your strengths, your “weaknesses,” under what conditions you thrive, how you respond in various situations, your conflict modes, your personality type, your priorities and especially your biases (we all have conscious and unconscious biases). Leverage this knowledge to work towards becoming the person you want to be while setting yourself up for success. For example, I’m an introvert. Most people find this shocking given my passion for transparency and communication. Knowing that I’m an introvert is crucial to achieving my goals. I’ve learned if I can have at least an hour of quiet, alone time before I go on stage in front of thousands of people (and cameras), I connect significantly better with an audience.
- Seek out, or create, diverse teams. By “diverse,” I’m not solely referring to people who don’t look like you (as people of different genders and/or races do); I’m referring to people whose brains process information differently, including those who are neuroatypical (not neurotypical) or neurodiverse. People who think differently, who have dissimilar values and/or lived experiences enrich a team’s collective perspective (and collective IQ) while creating the conditions under which everyone can play to their own strengths. Think of yourself as part of a sports team- if you notice that your team is missing a right fielder (baseball), goalie (soccer/non-American football), or kicker (American football) speak up! The best teams empower each member to play to their own strengths while uplifting the team as a whole.
- Ask for constructive criticism. Thank people who have the courage to give you tough love. It will be hard, maybe even painful, to hear that you have a blind spot or a skill that “needs improvement,” but it’s even harder, and extremely frustrating, to unknowingly work against yourself and feel like you keep running into the same wall (outcome) over and over again.
- Seek out mentors and mentees who have vastly different lenses on the business and/or how they approach it. Ask these mentors/mentees how they’d handle various situations and why; what they think about a particular topic and why. If your mentor or mentee reports into a different business unit, become a sponge. Our brains are constantly changing; use these opportunities to ignite your own neurogenesis! Deeply listening to someone who sees the business from a different perspective than you do will broaden your world view more than you can possibly imagine. If you’re really courageous, ask someone who “rubs you the wrong way” to mentor you. One of the best mentors I ever had was a former Marine Corps Drill Sergeant whom I found extremely intimidating… until I got to know him.
- Be present. Our brains aren’t built to multitask; you have to choose where to focus your attention. It isn’t easy to do at first, but with practice, you’ll find that paying attention to one conversation, person, or task at a time leads you to a deeper level of understanding and insights. Doing so also minimizes the likelihood that you’ll make a thoughtless error or inadvertently communicate to someone through your inattention that you don’t value what they’re saying.
- Accept your imperfections, forgive yourself for your errors, and most importantly, learn from your mistakes. Challenge yourself to share your mistakes with others so they can learn from them, too. Your vulnerability will create a safe space for your colleagues to share their mistakes, and learnings, too. Together, you’ll learn and grow together- while becoming closer as a team.
- Never stop learning. About what? Whatever interests you. For example, today I learned that it’s OK to end sentences with prepositions. Continuing your education, whether formally or informally, will only strengthen the path towards your career aspirations as you become more knowledgeable in the area(s) that excite you. Share interesting tidbits you learn via whichever mode you’re most comfortable (conversation, blog, etc.) so that when opportunities arise in your area(s) of interest, your colleagues think to reach out to you. For example, I taught myself how to create my first analytics models while I was in Operations and Sales to benefit my customers. ultimately becoming a Cisco Sales Champion and earning the reputation that led the Enterprise Data Science Office to recruit me when it needed a new leader for the company’s Data Science education program.
- If an opportunity to perform valuable (i.e. high ROI) work exists that no one is tasked with doing in the company today, create (or propose the creation of) a new job. Workforce innovation has been essential to Data & Analytics’ evolution. At LinkedIn, DJ Patil and his team used analytics to name the role we now know as “Data Scientist.” And, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably recalling that I’m Cisco’s 1st Chief Data & Analytics Evangelist; only time will tell whether this role will become a staple within Data & Analytics organizations or if its purely transitional.
- Distinguish between task conflict and personal conflict. It can be easy to feel like someone is attacking you when they criticize your work, but typically, that person is just trying to help you (and the team to which you both belong) perform optimally. Think of your ideas or work product like a gift that you present to your manager, stakeholders, teammates or whomever. When someone tells you that an idea or work product can be improved, it’s akin to saying “maybe this gift would look better with a bow” or “since we’re shipping this present, maybe we should remove the bow, because it could get squished.” Healthy task conflict makes it possible for everyone on a team to give their ideas to the group and constructively debate those ideas in the context of the team’s goals while maintaining a respectful environment.
- Develop a practice of mindfulness. Your mental health is as important as your physical health. Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain. If you don’t know where to get started, I recommend reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Dr. Rick Hanson. Sam Harris’ Waking Up app is also a gem of mindfulness.
- Ask a lot of questions. No matter where you are in your career, asking questions will fill the gaps in your knowledge and help you achieve goals faster than “faking it ’till you make it” (on that note, please don’t fake it). This is especially important for leaders- asking a lot of questions demonstrates that while you don’t expect everyone to know everything (no one does), you value curiosity and expect integrity.
- You will encounter difficult situations; don’t be afraid to ask for help. Consider replacing the word “escalate” (which has developed a negative connotation) in your vocabulary with the word “elevate” (which has a positive connotation). Solving a difficult problem frequently involves elevating the issue so your leadership can take the appropriate action(s), such as providing you with additional resources or re-prioritizing workloads. And if you suspect that a problem is on the horizon, inform your manager immediately.
- A team’s Psychology Safety is as important as its team members’ physical safety. No matter where you sit in an organization, take an active role in creating and protecting it.
To paraphrase a fantastic book/movie, “So Long, and Thanks for All the [Phish…ing e-mails].”