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First steps for finding happiness in your job and developing greater career potential.

About the Author: Marjorie Stockford is a writer and international non-profit business executive. She is the author of “The Bellwomen: The Story of the Landmark AT&T Sex Discrimination Case”, published by Rutgers University Press. She holds an engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MBA from NYU and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Taking Your Own Personal Inventory

LookingAtPostIts_600x400There is no shortage of advice for women in today’s American workplace. Books, magazines, blogs and podcasts offer an endless stream of suggestions: learn to negotiate, balance work and family, find a sponsor, take more risks, learn to deal with “mean girls,” and, of course, at all times, “Lean In.”

While all these recommendations offer good ideas, they focus outward, on tips for what specific action a striving professional woman such as yourself can take to improve her fortunes in her career: what skill she might develop or outreach she could take to be ready for that next step up the corporate ladder.

But these tips are skipping a first step. Before building up your arsenal of tools to negotiate the sometimes treacherous office environment, you would benefit from taking your own personal inventory – of your professional abilities, personal styles and work environment – and figure out how to use them most effectively to reach your goals. Here are three places to start:

Find and Emphasize Your Strengths

What are you the very best at? Are you adept at managing spreadsheets? Can you keep track of every detail of a project, most importantly its deadlines? Do you have the best presentation skills on your team? While none of those specific skills, or others in which you shine, may be the entire focus of your job, they are all crucially important for the success of any business. An employee who can contribute those abilities to any project or team will be invaluable, no matter their job title, responsibilities or gender.

Take the time to look at yourself and your own skill set. Identify the tasks and functions in which you excel, no matter their importance in your current position or your interest in doing them in your long-term work. Then share those abilities with your boss, your colleagues and anyone in a role who can help you advance. Those skills can make you invaluable to your team and organization, while laying the groundwork for the next move in your career.

Understand and Use Your Communications Style

No matter where you work – in the most diverse organization, with employees of all races, nationalities, classes, or in the most homogeneous environment possible where everyone “looks” the same – we all come from our own unique culture: the set of behaviors and beliefs we learned due to our social, ethnic, or generational experiences. One of the key behaviors our individual culture produces is our communications style – both in expressing our thoughts and ideas and in understanding and reacting to the thoughts and ideas of others. Since communicating well with your co-workers and management is one of the essential elements of success at work, it’s crucial to learn what your own communications style is and how to use it the most effectively.

Do you immediately get to the point in a conversation and appreciate those who do the same? If so, you have a direct communications style and are likely less comfortable with someone who weaves in many other issues before he tells you what he expects from you. Do you tend to wait until someone else finishes talking before sharing an idea and appreciate those who don’t talk over you, even if they’re agreeing with you? Then you’re a “take turns” talker who probably finds it easiest to communicate with another who doesn’t interrupt you all the time.

IdeasOnTheTable_600x400These are just a couple of examples of the ways we communicate differently from one another: some of us like to share a lot of context in our communications, often about our personal lives, and others prefer to keep the conversation focused on business; some of us feel comfortable standing very close to anyone we speak with, others feel that any closer than one foot crosses into their personal space; some of us are sensitive to hierarchy and take directions well only from the boss, while others are comfortable working collaboratively with anyone at any spot on the corporate ladder.

While these comparisons immediately bring images of certain nationalities to mind – we often see Asians as most comfortable with top-down communications, and Eastern Europeans skilled at getting directly to the point – after spending just a bit of time in any workplace you realize that even those employees from the same country, of the same ethnic and socioeconomic background, can have widely disparate communications styles.

Because communications is so important at work, you will gain a huge advantage by learning about your own communications style. Pay attention to your communications strategies and reactions to others’ in meetings, ask your co-workers how they would describe the way you speak and listen, and think about the people you communicate best with and consider what style they use.

Once you understand how you communicate, take some time to think about how you can be more effective in working with colleagues who use a different style. If your tendency is to bring in a wide variety of perspectives in check-ins with your boss but she seems set on one decision, perhaps scheduling separate times to discuss each item on your plate would make her more amenable to your ideas. If you attend meetings with a group of individuals who tend to interrupt each other, pay attention to the one person who may not have contributed to the discussion – he may need to be invited into the conversation and may share the one crucial suggestion to move the project forward. Sometimes by simply sharing the observation that your communications style is different than a colleague, you can improve the way you work together.

Choose Your Boss and Co-Workers Wisely

One key predictor of both your happiness in your job and your potential in your career is the people you work with. Co-workers with positive attitudes who complement your professional abilities will make coming into the office each morning a pleasure and enhance your productivity, and a boss who helps you build your skills, connects you with influential executives and supports you in your decision-making will set you up for advancement in your workplace. As such, it’s essential that you select those individuals well.

CreativeBrainstorming_600x400But, you protest, you don’t get the chance to choose your boss and colleagues – they’re chosen for you! Perhaps officially. But there are things you can do to be sure you’re working with the people who will enhance your life and your career:

  • When you are pursuing a new job, either in a new company or on a new team in your office, reverse the roles – as much as they are interviewing you, interview them. Insist on meeting everyone you will work with on a regular basis – your boss, of course, but also your co-workers, in that department and others, and your staff, if you’ll have one.
  • Ask probing questions of all, particularly to get their insights about the others you’ll work with. Take note of non-verbal cues or questions that aren’t answered directly – they may tell you more than the direct answer itself. Observe the workplace if possible, something relatively easy to do if you’re moving within the same company. Notice how the team communicates with each other, what time they get to work, if they laugh or seem to enjoy themselves. Listen to the gossip you hear about this company or department – as we all know, some of it is true! Use all the intelligence you gather to make an informed decision about who you want to work with – the best job in the world can become the worst with the wrong co-workers.
  • If you’re a manager, the team of people working for you will have a significant impact on your success, so hire wisely. Take the time to develop a clear, comprehensive job description, be thoughtful about where you recruit candidates from, include knowledgeable and thoughtful colleagues on your hiring committee, ask probing questions – even for an entry-level job, choose someone with skills and interest in that specific job, and invest well in training that new team member.
  • If you find yourself in a workplace where the choice of your boss and colleagues was made without your input and, as a result, your work life is either unpleasant or unhelpful to your career, you can still take action. Using the skills you’re best at and insights into your communications style that you’ve learned, align yourself with co-workers and mentors on other teams who are positive to work with and can enhance your professional opportunities. Volunteer for work projects with them, seek out their advice, get to know them outside of the office. You will improve your everyday experience on the job and set the wheels in motion for a better boss and better opportunity in the near future.

By taking a look at ourselves – what we’re good at, how we communicate, who we work best with – we can become both more valuable at work and more effective in getting what we want out of the work itself, regardless of our gender.