THE BLOG

The Importance of Self Advocacy

12/13/2011 11:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 13, 2012

Self-advocacy and thirst for feedback, are essential qualities for career management and life - from the classroom to the boardroom.

I consider myself to be a lifelong student of leadership and my search for learning sometimes takes me to the most unusual places. Last week it was at a parent teacher conference for my ten year old daughter Carolina. Her teachers gave me a full report on her progress and then spent time talking about two skills the school believed to be critical in the development of lifetime learners: self advocacy and a thirst for constructive feedback. Carolina was doing very good at school. She was a great contributor to class discussion and was kind to her classmates. She was great at receiving feedback and following instructions, but she needed to become a better self advocate with teachers and other students. As I was preparing to have a great conversation with my daughter, it struck me, self-advocacy and thirst for feedback, are essential qualities for career management and life.

A lot has been written and said about the career development journey; about what people should expect from the company they work for and what they should own. It is true that there are companies that are more structured in the way they manage their employee's career. But one principle is consistent whether you are working for structured career development companies like GE, or a start up. Career development is a two-way street. There needs to be a marriage between the opportunities that a company can provide and the ambitions, aspirations and capabilities that the employee owns. It sounds rather obvious but there is one factor that many people miss. In this journey, there are huge advantages for those who take charge and decide to own and drive their side of the street. They are the people who know how to passionately advocate for their development and have an insatiable thirst for feedback.

Self advocacy is the ability to say what you need, want and hope for in life. It is the courage to express how you feel in constructive ways. It is having the humility to ask obvious questions and admit mistakes. It is making the commitment to learn and improve through actions. It is about standing up for yourself and others in the face of injustice. Self-advocacy is a skill that will open the door to transformational conversations, build self-confidence and enable career opportunities.Early in a career, self-advocacy helps gather information about how things get done: what process to follow, the right people to get involved, what pitfalls to avoid. Later in life, self-advocacy also helps individual present their work and the work of their team with conviction and purpose when projects compete for scarce resources. Finally, self-advocacy, enables individuals to focus the efforts required to succeed in the position they are in to attain the position where they want to be in the future.

Many people take a passive role in their career management, waiting for the company development process to lift them up or banking on their manager's ability to decode unrevealed career aspirations through perceived actions, behaviors and abilities. But that may not be enough. People change their minds; or through information a new path is identified; or life throws a curve ball. It is sometimes difficult for a manager to keep track of everything that happens in all employees' lives and minds. Self-advocacy will facilitate fluid and candid conversations that will insure alignment between company mission and employee aspirations at any given point in time.

If self-advocacy is about speaking up for what we need and want, seeking feedback is about keeping score. Feedback is what enables us to confirm and repeat what worked and amend or avoid what did not. It is not for the tame at heart, but embracing the discipline may be the most efficient and effective way to manage a career. Beware of what you do not know because it can kill you. What you know, as bad as it may sometimes be, you can always deal with. Employees, regardless of their rank or company culture should request it, first because it will accelerate their learning process and secondly because it will show their commitment to constant improvement.

I was reminded of the power of seeking feedback recently. After delivering a flawless presentation to the Association of National Advertisers, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, ran into me in a hallway. I have known Sheryl for a while and she is a very accomplished executive with impeccable academics credentials as well as key leadership roles in the Treasury Department, Google and Facebook on her resume. After a warm welcome her first words were: "Antonio, give me feedback. What can I improve next time?" I was caught off guard by the question. "Sheryl , you did great." She pushed back: "Please, think about it and send me a note with your comments. It is the way I get better."

If someone as successful as Sheryl Sandberg can leverage the power of feedback, perhaps we all should as well. Needless to say, I told my daughter Carolina the Sheryl story that night.