"Imagine you're walking into an event that could have major impact on your career. You immediately find you're surrounded by hundreds of brand new faces. As your eyes dart around the room hoping for someone familiar -- someone to whom you have even the slightest connection -- you realize that there is not a single other person in your midst who is not already deeply engaged in a conversation. What do you do?" I ask.
I wait 30 seconds or so before I begin to cold-call the individual clients seated around my table.
Though our clients range from CEO's to celebrities, to students -- even priests -- the responses to the aforementioned scenario always follow the same general pattern: they range from the bewildered ("I have absolutely no freakin' clue." "Uh, maybe, try to go find the food?") to the intolerant ("I'd stay for a few minutes and then I'd just leave.") to the all-too-relatable ("I'd probably pull my phone out and check my email or pretend to have gotten an important text message." "I usually just make a bee-line to the bar.")
"We've all been there," I say. "Yet none of you got the right answer." Their furrowed brows quickly turn to relieved chuckles.
Although we all know there is no one "right" answer, the recommendation I offer clients is one that always surprises but rarely fails: find one person (or the smallest group of people you can) and admit that you don't know anyone. Yes, you heard me correctly. Admit it.
I role-play an example for the group so they can get the gist of what I mean. "Hi, I'm Lauren," I say sticking out my hand as the client to my left reaches out and returns my shake. "I just got here and I don't know anyone. I wanted to introduce myself. How are you?"
The two most common responses? "Nice to meet you, I'm so-and-so, I don't know anyone either!" or "What department/company/function are you in? I'm here with my co-worker, so-and-so. Let me introduce you."
In a world where Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, and everything else in-between allow and encourage us to strategically craft always-confident alter-egos, to appear vulnerable to complete strangers may seem counterintuitive. Yet, there is something likeable and refreshing about meeting someone who is comfortable admitting to his or her discomfort in an admittedly-uncomfortable situation.
This is practice that is missing from, and often desperately sought after in, the workplace.
A recent employment study conducted by the United States Department of Labor confirms what so many of our past clients who have successfully secured (or doled out) coveted jobs and promotions have shared with us: technologically savvy is great, but socially savvy is even better. The study revealed that while many job-seekers nail hard-skills like problem-solving and financial modeling, and bring a wealth of social media knowledge, they lack the soft-skills they need to effectively network and work in teams, and to exude a professional, enthusiastic demeanor.
Whether it's acing an interview, gaining visibility with senior leadership, asking for a promotion or a raise, or simply working with a difficult cubicle-mate, in today's job market, the foundation for being employable and indispensible, is how you communicate with others. Certainly spell-checking your emails and putting together punchy Powerpoint presentations helps, but knowing how and when to speak is what will set you apart.
How do you do this, you ask? Five things I tell my clients:
1) Again, be vulnerable. Feeling overwhelmed by the long list of to-do's your boss has given you? Tell her. Easier said than done, I know. Try something like this, "I want to make sure I get everything you've asked for done and done well. Here's the list of things you mentioned you need from me -- can you help me prioritize these so I know what to tackle first?" Confident is one thing, but no one, I repeat, no one is perfect. Pretending to be can drain your energy, make you appear immature, and make you less efficient in the long-run.
2) Discover the power of "vent-orship". Nope, not mentorship. Vent-orship. Find a person at work (ideally a same-level peer in a different department or role) with whom you can grab coffee or take a quick walk around the block when you're having a tough day. This isn't license to gossip or complain. It is, however, an opportunity to air grievances that could preoccupy you and negatively impact your work, and to brainstorm possible solutions.
3) Ask for feedback early and often so you can identify your rhythm. Ask team members (including your managers and direct reports) for their honest opinions on what you are doing that works well, and what doesn't. Once you get their feedback, thank them. (Feedback is a gift. Yes, perhaps a little corny or cliché, but it's true.) Be careful not to focus only on what you perceive to be negative feedback; instead, reflect on the choices you made that facilitated the "good stuff" and the choices you made that led to the things you want to do differently going forward. Did you wake up early and go running on the day of a successful presentation? Did you forget to ask for help proofreading a memo that you sent out with a typo? Take note.
Note: Don't be surprised if you find your teammates start asking you for your feedback, too. (It's contagious.)
4) Get a watchdog. Do you use fillers (e.g. "um", "like", "kind of", etc.)? Do you unintentionally wrinkle your brow into a gnarly frown when you're focused? What other things did you get feedback about that you had no clue you were even doing? Ask someone who you're around consistently to point these things out when you do them. The shock that comes with being called-out will help to keep you accountable in breaking bad habits. Tell your watchdog you're happy to return the favor.
5) Recent grads, remember that your manager is not your professor. Professors lead discussions, look for you to raise your hand when you know the answer or have a question, remind you when an assignment is due and give you a grade when the assignment is done. At work, your supervisor often expects that if there is something they need to know, something you need from them, or a goal that is important to you, you will tell them. Make sure your attitude, your timing and your level of preparation are appropriate, and then speak up.