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How to crush your career and be a leader

Adrienne Partridge Ph.D. '99 is an organizational psychologist and a leadership and career coach ( who specializes in developing high-performing and high-potential female leaders and women experiencing career transitions. Since the new year is a time for resolutions, we asked for her advice on how to be our best professional selves. 

What advice would you give to a woman who recently started her career?

Whether you have recently started your career, are in the middle of your career, or are looking to restart your career after a hiatus, my advice is the same. Take the time to reflect and clearly define your personal mission and career vision for the future. Do this by first deciding what your higher purpose is—that is, what drives you? Beyond a paycheck, why do you want to do the work that you do? I’ve had clients tell me that their higher purpose is to have the ability to provide enriching life experiences for their children, to make the daily lives of people more efficient and productive through technology, to create family-friendly workplaces, to help end homelessness, and so on. For example, my mission is “to empower leaders to lead from a place of authenticity and freedom instead of living by the confines of the status quo.” Don’t put pressure on yourself to make it lofty—keep it simple. Do this by asking the following: What are your unique gifts and talents that not only make you the person you are, but also the effective professional that you are, and what are you most passionate about? This activity will help you get clear on your personal mission. Then put your personal mission into action by setting yearly goals that also align with where you want to be in the long-term, say 5-10 years out.

“I’ve been working at my company for several years now and feel I’m in a rut professionally. What are some suggestions to improve this?”

First, explore if there is anything you can personally do to improve your current situation. Take an inventory of what does and does not give you energy, inspiration, and traction in your day-to-day at work. Examine your inventory and then consider: Is it possible to do certain things differently so that I am doing more of what gives me energy and traction every day? Perhaps it’s changing some of your daily routines and how you are working. Many people get in a rut professionally because they feel like they are no longer developing and advancing in their careers. Think about what professional skills you would like to develop and where you want to be a year from now and five years from now. Then advocate for yourself if possible. Make time to explicitly discuss this with your boss. When you ask for a meeting with your boss, be clear on the intent for the meeting and that you would also like some feedback on your development, so that he/she has time to reflect and prepare. And don’t wait until your annual performance review to do this. If you don’t feel supported at work or there are not clear pathways for development and advancement, it’s likely time for a change and to look for a new job where there are clear opportunities for learning, development, and advancement in your career.

What are some tools, or steps to take, to overcome professional setbacks?

The No. 1 most important tool, hands down, to overcome professional setbacks is to develop your capacity to be resilient. The greatest and most effective leaders have a high degree of resiliency. So, what does having resilience really mean? Resilience is your ability to recover from setbacks, adapt to change, and keep going in the face of adversity with a high degree of optimism. After a misfortune, do you come back stronger than before? Can you quickly recover from difficulties or adversities, such as when faced with your own shortcomings, mistakes, and failures that naturally come with being human? Do you continuously beat yourself up when you make a mistake? Or do you accept the fact that you made a mistake, take accountability if needed, and move on?

So how can you build your resilience? To do this you must cultivate a greater capacity to be self-compassionate. Resilience doesn’t mean you don’t allow yourself to be upset, mad, disappointed, sad —or whatever the emotion is. Being resilient and having self-compassion means that you do not ignore negative emotions, but that you take the time to feel the emotion, that you have some clear self-compassion practices that allow you to help yourself move on. For example, research indicates that engaging in self-care and mindfulness builds your ability to be compassionate to yourself. In adverse situations, what can you do to be kind to yourself? You can do this by stopping the negative self-talk, treating yourself with empathy, engaging in self-care, and seeking support from those close to you. I recommend checking out the foremost researcher on self-compassion, Dr. Kristen Neff, and her strategies for cultivating greater self-compassion.

Do you have any tips on balancing your personal and professional life?

I don’t believe in the word balance in this sense because a perfect balance between your professional and personal lives day-to-day isn’t totally realistic. What’s realistic is making sure the scale isn’t consistently tipped to, for example, your work so that you become a workaholic and risk burn-out. Consistently setting boundaries is key to this. So, despite competing demands, you can keep a level head, take care of yourself, and not become completely consumed by worry and stress in your day-to-day life. You don’t over-commit, you put yourself first/take care of yourself, so you can be there for your team, children, friends, etc.

Be careful not to be a People Pleaser. Through my research and work, I have found that we, as women, are often people pleasers because we are afraid of disappointing others. This can get in our way of many things, including successfully managing our personal and professional lives. Read more about people pleasing and how to squash that here.

What are a few indispensable leadership skills women should have?

Developing yourself as an Authentic Leader is the most important leadership capacity any leader, woman or man, should have. So what does being an authentic leader mean? You know who are and what you believe and value, you act on those values and beliefs while transparently interacting with others, you are true to yourself in your decisions, words, and actions. You do not try to be someone you are not.

Being in tune with your intuition is one of the most important ways to develop yourself as an authentic leader. Successful and innovative leaders such as Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Oprah, and Steve Jobs have all noted the importance and power of using their intuition as a guide. Research indicates that people rely on their intuition to make faster and more accurate decisions when they do not have all the information or need to make a quick decision. If you do not learn to be better in tune with your intuition, then other important leadership skills, such as negotiation skills and decision-making capabilities, will never be the best they could be. Here are some tips on how to get in tune with your intuition.

Do you have any resources (websites, books, magazines, etc.) to recommend for career and leadership advice?

You can go to my website to access my articles and TV clips, as well as to sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I offer career and leadership advice. The Muse is a great online resource for advice on topics such as, leadership, career development, and how to approach the job search process. The Harvard Business Review often has relevant research-based articles on these topics too.

Any other advice or tips you would suggest?

Feedback: Being able to both receive and give effective feedback is very important to developing yourself as a leader and promoting the growth of those around you. Giving your boss or colleagues permission to give you continuous feedback is key to accelerating your growth. By giving permission, you can expect feedback and are not surprised or blindsided when you receive it. And, if you manage a team, creating a culture where feedback isn’t just given at the annual performance review, but continuously, is best. Effective feedback targets behavior, words, or actions and does not attack who someone is as a person. Here are some more tips on giving and receiving feedback.

Career Reentry: My dissertation research was on mothers and career reentry, specifically what led educated women to leave their careers for stay-at-home motherhood, what their experiences as stay-at-home motherhood were like—including marital dynamics—and how they experienced the career reentry process. If you are woman who is thinking about taking a career hiatus to be a stay-at-home mom, it is very important that you plan for career reentry far in advance—actually start planning for reentry when you leave! You should do this by keeping some level of your professional identity. For example, purposefully choose volunteer opportunities that clearly align with your skills and are opportunities for maintaining and continuously building your professional skills. If you can, do contract work or some consulting in your industry. Stay involved in any professional groups and keep any necessary licenses and certifications up-to-date while you are not officially working outside the home. You never know when you might have to return because of unforeseen circumstances. Maintaining the health and stability of your marriage is also incredibly important, so make sure that even though you don’t technically have a paycheck anymore, you remain empowered in the marriage. Also, plan for meaningful adult interaction! You can find more tips here.