Lessons learned don’t come from the sky. They come from small things like missed bus connections, a coffee spill caused by juggling too many objects in your hand at once, and my personal favorite, people you surround yourself with. Colleagues, in particular, offer you a chance to learn and enhance your skills and develop into a better professional.
In juxtaposition to the very American idea of rugged individuality, I’ve found most professionals take the best and sometimes the worst traits of past colleagues. In many ways, as I’ve heard in professional circles, “we’re all amalgamations of people we’ve come to know and respect.”
With this in mind, I’ve decided to look back at lessons learned from four people who’ve helped shape me into the professional I am today.
1. Don’t Forget the Coffee Breaks
Small things make or break careers. And there is nothing so small as getting to know your coworkers. The relationships you have or don’t can often be the difference between having a chorus of friendly faces to greet you or an army of regular dissenters who wouldn’t hesitate to give you a nudge if a passing bus came by.
For one of my last professional training opportunities, I worked in the community media services department of Tacoma Public Utilities. In this capacity, my direct dotted line manager was a talented communications professional named Sonja Hall. She’s smart, graceful under pressure, and has a creative flair when it comes to making utility communications come alive. One of the things she taught me that I keep dear to my heart today is taking your coworkers out for lunch or coffee.
Simple? Yes. Powerful? Absolutely.
From Sonja, I learned the power of personal connections in the work environment. If done early on, you can establish a relationship outside of your work roles and build a foundation that will help you navigate stressful situations and occasional long hours with people who by the nature of work, you’ll be spending a lot of time with. So why not know more about them than just their title?
Lesson Learned: Bridges and relationships built early on can help you understand the components of what makes people tick
During my last professional training opportunity with Suzuki+Chou, I had the chance to work with a collection of wickedly smart and hard-working professionals. International agencies might get all the press for having teams that get stuff done but boutique agencies live or die by their ability to shift gears at a moments notice, embrace change, and cultivate deep and authentic relationships with clients.
Hsiao-Ching Chou was one of the partners of Suzuki+Chou. Working with her I always marveled at her ability to never say, “that’s not my job.” During my time working with her, she was the agency’s designer, digital expert, editor-in-chief, and partnership facilitator to name a few. Before starting S+C she had another life as a food editor for the Seattle PI and most recently became a senior communication professional at Amazon Web Services. When people ask me for what a growth mindset looks like, she’s one of the people I use as a point of reference.
Lesson Learned: Growth doesn’t stop after formal education. It’s important to keep learning and growing to expand your horizon. No challenge or skill is out of reach if you sincerely want to learn
3. Don’t Let the Real You Slip Out of Sight
Authenticity seems hard to come by at times. Whether it’s initially hidden or obscured by the shadow cast by your own fear, seeing someone for who they truly are can sometimes be a challenge.
Whitney Keyes was my first “real” boss when I started at Nyhus Communications. Oddly, we only met briefly during my impromptu interview – a story for another post. But when we finally had the chance to meet for our first 1:1, I was drawn in by her incredible warmth and friendliness. She brought her whole self to work and showcased not only her expertise in communication but also brought her love for Malaysian food (something I learned we shared later on), interest in the arts, and support of community organizations. Even when times were tough, as they sometimes can be in PR agencies, she was the type of professional who never let the chaos overwhelm her and would always make time for coffee and the occasional cookie break.
Lesson Learned: Bringing your authentic self to work fosters deep connections and helps others see you for who you are.
4. Only Doctors Work in the ER
My last professional profile isn’t work-related. And to break style slightly is not a woman. Communications and PR, in particular, is known for its high-stress environment. At times when everything seems to be going off the rails, it’s easy to forget, you don’t abbreviate public relations as ER.
I first became connected to Jay Weisberger through PRSA Puget Sound while leading the planning for PRSA Puget Sound Jumpstart.
You often expect executive types to be extremely intense and superhuman. Jay was different. Even though he outranked myself and all of my other junior team members, he brought an important sense of calm and respect to all situations. No one was “beneath him” and he was genuinely interested in seeing people grow and learn.
Even when under stress from work at his job at Skanska, Jay always remained calm, cool, and collected. He never wrote back, “too busy” or “I don’t have time.” Instead he always calmly alerted me and the rest of the PRSA team of items that were burning hot and even occasionally joked, he’d return messages after the unnamed crisis he was solving was done.
Lesson Learned: PR isn’t ER. Even when you have multiple pots steaming over, remember, you’re performing PR, not ER. Take multiple breaths, survey the situation, and communicate what you can. No one is going to die in this situation. Keep perspective and carry on.
Ultimately the people we choose to spend time with both professionally and personally shape our outlook on life. I’m extremely grateful for the talented professionals who I’ve had the chance to cross paths with (these four a snapshot). I wouldn’t be the professional I am today without those interactions and chances to learn from their expertise.
Who are people in your professional life that helped shape your professional identity?