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Standing Out in the Virtual Workplace
June 30th, 2020
By Melissa Fox

For many of us, July will be the fourth month of working from home to help our region stay safe and slow the spread of COVID-19. Our "new normal" workplace, as we called it back in April, has just become our normal. However, many young professionals still struggle with communicating effectively with their colleagues and superiors in our virtual office. 

We spoke with Landi Spearman, CEO of Organized Shift and a leadership and organizational consultant, who gave us some tips on how not just to navigate but succeed in our not so "new normal."

Many young professionals struggle to stand out among the crowd and get their point across in meetings. This tends to be even harder in video conferencing meetings, especially for those who are naturally introverts. What advice would you give to young professionals on how to insert their opinions and shine through while we are teleworking? 

When you think about how society perceives an introvert as being meek, quiet, anti-social, it is almost portrayed as a weakness in business. However, introverts are quiet, reserved, and thoughtful in their actions, and these qualities highlight a powerful strength - listening. There is so much power in being able to listen first before engaging to speak. In fact, when you listen, it allows you to show up in the workplace as someone who might not be the first voice, but the one who can hear gaps in the plan and fill in what's missing. Therefore, the ability to share your internal thoughts and ensure that others hear your perspective is critical.

As an introvert, you may not be the first to jump into the conversation to say something because your energy and approach are different. With that, it is important to recognize that you have the power to slow things down in a positive way. Introverts can bring insight, diversity of perspective, and empathy to a business conversation. The key is to have the mindset to frame it that way as you get your point across.
To leverage your strengths as an introvert, it is important first to establish a presence. You can do this in many ways, from leading with data points when introducing ideas, adding value through follow-up, and summarizing hot topics or complex decisions. Under the stress of COVID-19, so many things are fighting for our attention. Now is a great time for introverts to stand out by offering solutions to close gaps in plans, to point out solutions for missed opportunities, and to ask relevant questions— to uncover issues that may arise later. 

On the other side of the coin, you have your extroverts. Many of the extroverted personalities also struggle with teleconferencing meetings, but for the opposite reasons. Often in person to person meetings, it is easy to read when to pull back; however, this tends to be harder during conference calls. How can someone who has a more assertive personality determine when it is a good time to yield the floor to others and just listen?    

In the workplace, we have always talked about IQ, your logic and reasoning. More recently, we have heard more about EQ, which is your emotional intelligence. I, however, add an interpersonal skill that is often missing in the workplace AQ, which is your adaptability quotient. Your AQ is an indicator of how you behave when impacted by external factors like trends, disruption, and the environment. Regardless of personality type, your AQ or adaptability quotient focuses on your capacity to navigate adversity, process new circumstances/changes, or approach situations outside of your control. 

One of the things that I enjoy doing is helping extroverts to identify how they behave when they work with others. This perspective is very different from an extrovert determining their personality type or understanding themselves as a set of character traits. I am a Certified Personanlysis practitioner, which means I use a behavioral-based assessment as a tool to help extroverts understand how they best communicate and like to be communicated to; how they respond to stress and the environment; and what activities energizes and drains them. 

As an extrovert, you may want to express yourself and let the group know you have the answer simply because that is how you are used to operating. My challenge would be to become aware of how your behavior impacts others. 

A test that I use to help clients determine their AQ is called the "Fly on the Wall" test. If a fly were watching you engage during a teleconference, what would the fly say about you being able to adapt when you don't have the floor when you are incorrect or are in the wrong? Would the fly see that you talk over everyone and become defensive or that you allow yourself to slow down and explore when a new problem outside of your control arises? Being aware is critical for everyone, but especially for extroverts, because you feel like you always need to "be on." Although I am not suggesting going silent on Zoom calls or in meetings, I do recommend that extroverts do the work to listen, before seeking to be heard.

Millennials have a drive for success, often taking the initiative and looking for opportunities to grow in their profession. How do we share with our leadership team that we are still going above and beyond even though they might not see it because we are working from home? 

I would start to answer this question by asking, "why?" Why do you feel like it's important to show initiative? Why do you feel like you are doing so much and not doing enough? Once you figure out the why, then figure out who you show up for? Then take it a step further by answering from the perspective of why now?

As a result of COVID-19, we can now see more clearly than ever how compartmentalizing and putting "on a face at work" to appear formidable, has not always served us well as Boomers and Xers. Working remotely for some time now has surfaced gaps in communication and interpersonal skills, which are barriers to productivity, teamwork, and morale. This is especially apparent when you are stressed as it is much more difficult to cover up your "humanness" when there is no actual human contact. 

As a Millennial who may now be working more hours to show your resilience and ability to overcome challenges, you may find yourself doing more now to show your commitment to the team. Do you feel that you are trying to highlight your efforts and get your boss's attention, but it seems that they are responding as if their hair is on fire? The question you must ask yourself as in the moments of uncertainty is, are you a "human being" or a "human doing?" 

Do a self-check and get clear on why you are showing initiative and what do you need to improve and get to your next level. Do an honest assessment, understanding why you are trying to get promoted. Ask yourself if you are coachable and open to working on your opportunity areas that you cannot see from the external perspective of a Coach, Sponsor, or Mentor, and consider the following:

  • Most people work hard to impress their boss and overlook the opportunity to highlight your skills by working on projects or teams outside of your department. 
  • Find a pain point, become a resource, and develop your ability to adapt. Be willing to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone to increase your influence with others.
  • Working in excellence is an opportunity for you to gain skills and knowledge. To do so without the constant need for validation, to be liked or promoted is an issue perpetuated by social media and instant gratification. Being coachable and inaction versus just being knowledgeable or having a desire to be noticed also means that you are being paid to grow and build your skills from the inside out. 

Many high-achieving millennials have a hard time telling their management team that they are overworked. Many wait in hopes that their boss will notice their stress and come to the rescue. During this time of telecommuting, this method no longer works (and if we are honest with ourselves, it didn't work well, to begin with). What advice do you have for professionals to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to say to their boss, "Hey, I need help."?

I'm going to get a little emotional answering this one because it is such an important question and although it is called business, we are all people, doing the work. The way I think about leadership and achieving success is shaped from closely watching and mimicking while working alongside my parents, who owned eight different businesses on Chicago's south side, by the time I was 20 years old. As the oldest of five, I was often given the responsibility of being "in charge," which meant that there were always decisions to be made, issues to manage, and risks to avoid that could literally cost my family everything. This developed my deep sense of empathy and understanding of what it takes to lead under stress, deal with personal life changes, all while still operating profitably, productively, and performing through the controlled chaos.

As high-achievers, we operate from the space of knowing that the world will not stop and wait for you.
Having parents who were the matriarch and patriarch of 19 combined siblings meant growing up immersed in the constant change of entrepreneurship. This also means that to me, there has never been a separation of work and home. Early on, I learned how to make decisions and navigate risks that could literally cost my family everything. Under this pressure, I often felt like I didn't have the luxury to stop or slow down. My experience of burnout and fatigue under the burden and mask that leaders wear also attributes to my deep sense of empathy and the priority that I give to attending to my self-care, relaxation, and reflection time. Part of the reason why I became an Executive Coach is that I understand what it takes to lead under stress while dealing with a life intertwined, and still need to be productive, driving profitably, and perform through the controlled chaos.

I also know what it takes to be vulnerable enough to tell your boss that you need help, and I start by saying that you must do it by raising your hand. 

Even if you are not the person who would normally raise their hand, you do it to honor yourself. 
Despite the fear and pride that comes with the courage, it takes to reveal that you don't have it all together, always. I coach leaders on the verge of burnout, not to miss the experience of the success that they worked so hard to create. Instead, I learned to determine what you can do and what you can pull back and just be. I would suggest that you harness the power of your vulnerability by showing the courage and strength it takes from being open enough to allow others to help you to #Grow through it. This was the biggest lesson that I had to overcome as an emerging leader and is the inspiration for my upcoming book, The Other V Word, Harnessing the Power of Your Vulnerability.

Previous generations, even Gen Xers, we didn't take days off because that was once frowned upon in the workplace. We took pride in our working excessive hours and bragging about the amount of effort it took us to earn what we did. But the reality is, what we earned cost us everything. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 8 out of 10 Americans die 10 to 15 years earlier due to preventable stress-related causes. These times that we are in are not normal. Our health and psychological safety have been shattered by COVID-19, the racial unrest caused by systemic problems that we are now facing is complex and volatile, and the economic impact we are currently facing amounts to collective trauma and a very heavy, stressful lift. 

When I think about the ride up on a scary roller coaster and everyone who is riding anticipating the drop, millennials have the unique opportunity to be the generation that gives us all permission to acknowledge that we are stressed out and say, "I need a minute" or "I need a hand." 

What is one piece of advice that you would give to Houston young professionals? 

Houston is such a great place to live. When I contemplated moving here over 15 years ago, I looked at a map in search of three major things: 1) I wanted to live in a progressive city that offered a big city lifestyle, 2) where I could use my fluency in Spanish to leverage my cultural intelligence for good, and 3) where the opportunities were abundant for business. This city offers all that and more, and what I love most about living here is Houston's biggest asset: the diversity. 

When I think of location, location, location, I am reminded of the importance of building an environment as a culture that values the diversity of thought, perspective, and experience. To grow, we must build physical spaces where collaboration and innovation are welcomed by all ages, races, and backgrounds. We must also continue to create safe spaces to talk about what we are dealing with and be willing to have difficult conversations, to listen attentively, and to take action for systemic issues. It is because of our diversity that we all get to show up differently, with multiple perspectives, and work together to solve complex problems. 
A strength that I am proud of lies in empowering an agile mindset in leaders. To become a catalyst for change in the 21st-century workplace, one must strengthen their capacity to navigate uncertainty, transform gaps into opportunities, and have honest conversations about the effectiveness and the cultural blind spots that leaders create. My affinity for this work comes from what I have learned about adapting to change and leveraging what is always different -- people.

A key takeaway that I want Houston's young professionals to remember from my story is that I didn't get here by myself. I interned early on as an apprentice at my family-businesses and in the C-Suite by age 24. Through mentorships and coaching, my experience has taught me how to keep learning, doing, and giving back to others. Being a young professional doesn't mean that you have to agree with everything your boss does, nor does it mean that they are always right simply because they carry the title or age. The advice I would give is to learn your superpower, then continuously improve it by sharing it, and if you are struggling with determining your superpower, connect with a coach who can help guide you. 

Vulnerability is my superpower. I have found that the courage and energy that you release by sharing what makes you different is surprisingly liberating. 

So the next time you are trying to figure out what to do or how to respond as a young professional working remotely, don't forget to ask yourself, "what would the fly on the wall say?"

Would the fly see how you are showing up as your authentic self, valuing your own diversity, and carrying out your work in excellence, whether or not your boss is watching?

Remember that doing so will give those that you are engaging, collaborating with, and leading permission to be more human too. 

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