Creating the Work Experience your Life Deserves.

Flexibility at work has always been important to me. In 1992, as a 16 year old my Dad suggested that I apply for the Morrisson visa. At the time, this was the visa that offered Irish nationals the opportunity to get a green card and live in the US. I grew up on Dallas and Knots Landing so heading to the US was definitely attractive to me. I can still remember walking into Presentation ‘Pres’ Secondary School in Cork on a cold and dark Winters evening where we took our seats and listened to a presentation on the programme. I was young and innocent but my Dad suggested it would ensure I had opportunities in case I had to leave Ireland. We were just coming out of the mass emigration of the 1980’s. At barely 18 I found myself up in the US Embassy raising my right hand, taking an oath and signing paperwork that would change the course of my future. That Summer, I took my first ever plane ride to begin my relationship with America which would result in over 10 years living there full time, and a further 15 commuting back and forth, and as my husband likes to remind me I wouldn’t have met him had I not taken that route.

Yesterday, in an event dedicated to discussing remote work with Irish Network USA, Tracy Keogh of Grow Remote included in her presentation the phrase that those of us who grew up in the emigration era of the 1980’s and 1990’s remember well, ‘There are no jobs here’. In every small town and even big cities this is what young people faced. I was one of the luckier one’s, by the time I graduated college in 1998 the tide had turned in economic development in Ireland and my siblings a few years younger than me, did not share this same experience of lack of opportunity. That phrase sparked the memories of my emigration journey.

Just recently, I came across a piece of paper from 1999 where I had laid out my 10 vacation days and personal days for that year that I received in my job in the US. I was trying to stretch them over a 12 month period to attend my friends’ wedding in Sydney to be her bridesmaid, a trip to see family in Ireland and a short vacation. These were the days before video calls, phone calls were expensive and not everyone had e-mail. The one visit home a year was it and a once a week phone call which was usually abruptly ended by my mother exclaiming how expensive the call must be. We ended up flying to Sydney for only 6 days. Had remote work been the norm back then imagine the privilege of being able to spend a few weeks in Ireland with my family while working. I’m glad my children will never have to make these hard choices.

Remote work will help ensure that no young person in Ireland will ever have to leave our shores if they do not want to. It will open up global opportunities without ever leaving home. It offers parents who want to balance work and childcare increased possibilities of doing that. In 2008, my husband and I decided we would like to raise our boys in both countries and we chose to move back to Ireland to enrol them in school here and divide our time between both countries. I should add this has not been as logistically easy as I imagined back then but we have managed to do this in some shape or form for the past 12 years. Even with the restrictions of Covid, we have just returned from over two months in the US. None of our family situation would have been possible if Steve and I could not work remotely and our boys can currently remote learn.

Whatever hybrid model is developed going forward remote work can be life changing for people. The future of work is now and we have been afforded an incredible opportunity to finally reimagine work. Disruption often does this but we must seize the moment and create the work experience that our lives deserve.

                          ‘You only live once but if you do it right once is enough’. Mae West

Growing my Networking Skin

Did you know snakes shed their skin when it doesn’t fit anymore or because it is old or worn out? Imagine if we could do this. Unhappy with our persona and wanting to project a new one we shed that skin. In fact, we do this as we grow and learn but it’s a far more gradual and less obvious process.

Shedding my discomfort with networking and sales is not easy for me but I know in order to build a business it is a necessary part of my journey. For the clients and contacts who message me to thank me for continuing my work it is because of you that I continue. It is because of you I can see the value in what I do and as a purposeful driven Introvert that is really important.

I learned in Matthew Pollards first book in The Introverts Edge Series that I needed a system for sales and in his follow up book The Introverts Edge to Networking he continues that message. As Introverts we need a focused, strategic and smart approach to networking in order to manage our energy. By the way networking is really important for everyone not just business owners. You never know when you will need to find your next role.

Networking, he says got a bad rap from the ‘churn and burn’ mentality of the traveling American salesperson. He says his system will allow us to ‘walk out of every room feeling like we’ve made powerful connections, portrayed the best version of ourselves, and remained authentically ‘us’ the whole time’.

He describes three types of networkers, the transactional networkers focused on the sale, the aimless networker who builds some connections but it really goes nowhere or the strategic networker connecting with people who value your work and can help you reach your goals. I have certainly been the aimless networker.

In the strategic networking approach 90% of the work will be done outside of the room, music to my introvert ears. I just need to develop my process. It’s about owning my ‘uniqueness, passion and stories’. And I begin the process with planning, preparation and process.

Uncover your passion

I begin my shedding process by focusing in on my passion. Doing this means connecting with the reasons why I was drawn to coaching and training introverts. For me, that comes down to feelings. Feeling like I have said the wrong thing and overanalysing, feeling like I was being judged for not speaking up, feeling left out of groups, feeling like there was something wrong with me. This is ultimately what I want to do, help other introverts to not feel like this. I want other introverts to not hold back from pursuing opportunities. I see so many people with gifts who don’t pursue them because they feel they’re not good enough. I want other introverts to celebrate who they are. Matthew asks what work is important enough for us to make the sacrifices we make. We all have a finite amount of time and to make our work matter we must understand it’s worth. Why do you do what you do?

Niching

He sets a few myths straight about niching. First, it’s absolutely necessary but it doesn’t mean you can’t work with clients outside of this niche or focus on this niche forever but in line with our introvert personality it means we strategically focus our efforts. I am an Introvert Coach and so I have niched but to niche even further Matthew suggests looking to see where my current clients are coming from. Although I am a new business with a small client base, I noticed that 100% of my personal and corporate clients were from the tech or creative sectors. This is not overly surprising as many introverts are drawn to these industries but I had not noticed. This now gives me a focus to cater my message to these sectors.

Next, I have to identify my secret sauce. This reminded of what has been called the best pitch ever on Dragons Den. Levi Roots pitched his sauce to the judges and he made it stand out so much he got the investment. Best way to do this? Ask your clients. Find out what makes you stand out when you do what you do. Disclosure: I have yet to do this.

Stories

Stories are powerful, they target the limbic or emotional part of our brain and can bypass the cognitive where we logically assess what someone is saying. Physicist Stephen Hawkins said ‘quiet people have the loudest minds’. Matthew shared a story of a presentation he did where he created the most informative and detailed presentation he could. He found out afterwards the audience felt it was like a ‘fire hose of information’. This resonated with me because it is exactly what I have done and after a year of many presentations, podcasts and webinars that haven’t yielded much results I now realise I need to master the art of storytelling. Stories are also helpful when we are asked a question, responding with ‘let me tell you about….’ And even better is when we have carefully constructed and practiced these so they roll off the tongue. This is useful in any people interactions not just networking. As Maya Angelou said ‘people won’t remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel’.

Your job when networking is not to download a lifetime of experience, but instead, tell a powerful story that educates and inspires’.

The next piece in the puzzle is to create our unified message. This should be catchy and create interest. If I introduce myself as an introvert coach and trainer people can put me in the ‘yet another coach’ box and it can stop the conversation, but a phrase that captures what I do but differentiates me creates interest and can open up questioning which is what we want.

Stay tuned as I am currently working on this and taking his advice of using a thesaurus to play around with different words. Matthew recognises it takes courage to take this step and stand out but really that’s what we are all meant to do because we’re all unique. I love Professor Brian Littles quote of ‘we’re like all of the people, some of the people and none of the people’.

The final piece is around our current network. He divides our network into champions, those contacts who are the ‘movers and shakers’ and momentum partners who would willingly help you to connect with others. We all have the potential to help each other out and at the end of the day that’s what networking is all about. It’s about building those relationships, offering reciprocity and supporting each other to reach our goals.

When you hit that networking room virtual or otherwise you will know exactly who you want to meet, your unified message to peak their interest and the stories that capture what you do so no need to have any anxiety about getting tongue tied or not knowing what to say and of course don’t forget the follow up to stay in that persons mind.

Keep taking small steps to build your network and I hope like me you are slowly shedding some of that old skin.

Introverts it’s Worth it: Small Talk Leads to Meaningful Interactions

People exhaustion and making small talk are two of the biggest challenges for introverts in the workplace according to a poll in a recent webinar I ran. One participant called it, ‘the dreaded small talk’. Introverts find it draining and often times, quite useless.

Small talk however, is the precursor to meaningful interactions and those interactions are not just important for career development but for wellbeing. Wellbeing theory identifies relationships and positive emotions as important contributors, and small talk is the introduction to both of those. Like all aspects of communication small talk is a skill that can be learned and as an introvert finding ways to use your strengths is your best strategy to authentically developing this skill.

Author Jennifer Kahnweiler, identifies 4 P’s that are of benefit to introverts and can be applied to developing the skill of small talk. Preparation, presence, push and practice are simple and effective steps an introvert can take.

Preparation

Preparation is a natural strength of introverts. Use it in advance of social and work settings. Find out who you will be speaking with and identify topics that might be of mutual interest. Prepare yourself by recognising you might be feeling some anxiety and take some deep breaths. Pay attention to your mindset and identify any negative thought patterns to reframe them into curiosity. Every new experience is a learning opportunity and our thoughts influence how we feel. In a virtual event you can even keep a cheat sheet beside you with some ideas for comments or topics.

Presence

A quiet demeanour can make you feel less visible in a crowd. Develop presence by tapping into your skills of active listening and empathy. Show the other person you are present and engaged by mirroring emotions and asking insightful questions. Your preparation and research will support you here. Maya Angelou said, ‘people will forget what you said but they won’t forget how you made them feel’. In our case, people may forget we didn’t say much, but will remember that we authentically listened and cared about the other person. In an online event I like to show up early as it makes it easier to contribute at the beginning when numbers are smaller or attend events where you know there will be break out opportunities.

Push

Push yourself to attend by creating accountability; offer to attend with someone else or to present feedback to your boss. Connect in advance with the event organiser so you feel more at stake if you don’t attend. Enjoy a reward after the event as a thank you to yourself for showing up. As purposeful individuals identify why you believe it is important to attend the event. When we understand our why it makes much more sense to push ourselves out of our comfort zone.

Practice

It may take 10,000 hours to become an expert in something but you won’t need to come close to this figure to start to feel more comfortable making small talk. It may never be something you love to do but with practice you can develop a tolerance and certain comfort level. As a terrified public speaker who now delivers webinars and teaches classes I can attest to this. Start by attending events that are low risk such as interesting talks you find online, practice interjecting or like I try to do, speak first so it takes the pressure off you.

The pandemic has provided introverts with the perfect excuse to stay home, avoid office small talk, not speak to people in the street, and wear a mask to avoid conversation altogether. While health and safety mandates this, we shouldn’t let it prevent us from engaging with others and losing our skill. Small talk is a muscle that if we don’t stretch on a regular basis it can become stiff. Many introverts have told me they feel more comfortable communicating in an online setting and so use this as an opportunity to practice small talk.

Flipping our thinking from a focus on ourselves to what we bring to an event can also be an empowering technique. Showing up and engaging with others offers many gifts both to the organiser and other attendees. As an introvert you are an engaged listener with excellent observational skills and insight that often hears what is not being said. It is an act of altruism as you support others and can promote your own wellbeing in the process.

If you are interested in developing your skill in making small talk as an introvert both for in person and online communication contact me for one to one coaching or e-mail me for more information on upcoming workshops.

Diversity of Thought

Diversity of thought offers collective wisdom, bringing ideas together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. This is innovation.

In Rebel Ideas, author Matthew Syed extols the power of diverse thinking sharing stories such as the outsider who redesigned the cockpit within US Airforce planes in the 1950’s to greatly reduce the number of accidents, why lack of diversity meant the CIA missed the meaning behind Osama Bin Ladens seemingly simple clothes and habitat, to the crossword expert hired by the British Government in World War 2 to solve the Enigma. When you bring in diverse ideas you gain different perspectives.

This diversity in thinking is called cognitive diversity. Personality, in particular, as introverts or extroverts provides us with natural alternative frames of reference. Extroverts talk to think, processing externally and MRI’s done on introvert brains show internal processing systems through intricate neural pathways.

These individual insights can be lost if not contributed. Research shows that in a typical 6 person meeting two people will dominate the conversation. Otherwise confident introverts will often decide not to compete with stronger personalities and choose to mind their energy which gets easily depleted and not engage. This dance can happen naturally and perspective blindness occurs when we hardly notice the shift in engagement. This is a loss for everyone including the collective wisdom of the organisation.

Creating this environment for equal contribution isn’t that difficult;

  1. Facilitate equal participation in meetings by balancing verbal with written contributions. Amazon and Twitter hold silent meetings beginning with everyone reading a document which then forms the basis for discussion. This technique does a few things to support cognitive diversity. It allows introverts to tap into their preference for writing over verbal and contribute their ideas in a way that is preferable. It also means ideas don’t get quashed before they are considered by everyone. For introverts, who need additional time to process it offers the opportunity to settle in a meeting and have time to gather their thoughts. Further steps such as brainwriting or appreciative inquiry could be incorporated to encourage everyone’s contribution.

 

  1. To sync or not to sync was the topic of a recent twitter conversation. One half of the argument was pro synchronous communication which emphasised picking up the phone to have a conversation, the other was decidedly anti this approach preferring to use messaging and e-mail. While there are merits to both, introverts will generally prefer having time to consider their ideas and space to develop their thoughts using the written word. Build communication processes that equally balance both and recognise how preferences for either may influence ability to communicate.

 

  1. Create a psychologically safe space where everyone feels their ideas are recognised. Studies cite statistics such as 82% of participants feel the introvert personality is not valued. From poll questions in my own webinars this year, I have received similar feedback. Many introverts feel they are expected to change and many extroverts feel introverts need to be fixed. I can attest to this from personal comments made to me. Introvert author Susan Cain says introverts are today are where women of the 1950’s were.

 

  1. Build on strengths so everyone can be their best self at work. 66% of us don’t know our own strengths. Encourage an environment where you can provide specific and positive feedback to colleagues. Introvert humility will often create a barrier to really hearing this feedback, so you may have to provide visible evidence of impact and help introverts to recognise their progress and growth. When people work to their strengths, they are more likely to be motivated and perform better.

Techniques such as these Matthew Syed says, ‘protect cognitive diversity from the dangers of dominance’. He also adds, ‘Harnessing the power of cognitive diversity is set to become the key source of competitive advantage, and the surest route to reinvention and growth. You might even say we are entering the age of diversity’.

Why Virtual Networking can be good for Everyone, not just Introverts

Many, lament the loss of face to face networking this year. As an Introvert I don’t share their grief. In fact, quite the opposite.  I am revelling in the experience of virtual networking. Not only do I not miss rushing to evening or early morning events, arranging childcare, and sitting in traffic but I actually prefer and find the virtual experience to be more enjoyable and effective.

Networking, I have come to appreciate is important for career development and personal growth, but this year as a new business owner it has been critical for me to connect with others, stay motivated, find support, share challenges, learn and enjoy meeting new people. Particularly important during lockdown when we were stuck within a 2K zone around our house; networking became a link to the outside world.

Do you remember the traditional networking experience? Walking into a big room filled with people huddled in groups, people standing on their own nursing a drink hoping to speak to someone or others like me who latch onto the first person they know just to get over the discomfort of standing awkwardly in a sea of people wondering why you decided to come to the event at all. It was all quite honestly something I dreaded to do. Despite the inaccurate stereotypical perception of introverts as anti-social I love to meet new people. I am very curious and love learning about people and their work. I just prefer to do it in small groups or one to one.

How effective were those traditional events anyway? Angela Bahns, an American Psychology Professor has studied the way in which social networks were formed particularly in academic institutions. She found, that the larger the context the narrower peoples’ social connections were. Her research showed that in large Universities with over 30,000 students, people formed more homogenous social networks than in smaller Universities with only a few hundred students. In other words, in a really large group we will go for like minded people or people we know. Paul Ingram, Professor at Columbia Business School created an experiment where 100 people were invited to a mixer event in NY. In a pre-mixer survey, many attendees said their primary purpose was to make new contacts. What did they find? People spend their time talking to the few other guests they know well.

In the virtual networking scenario, I log in from the comfort of my home workspace, I feel much more comfortable and confident than walking into a crowded room and many introverts I have spoken with attest to this increased confidence when working from home. Everyone is on an equal footing. Dominant and quieter personalities pressed into the same 2×2 box. The organiser of the event takes the lead. As an introvert I possess great leadership skills but I am more than happy when someone wants to take the reins. This organiser will assign me to a breakout room of 3-4 people. Imagine trying to do this in a face to face setting in such an organised manner; like herding sheep. As an introvert I like structure and prefer small groups. I get 10-15 minutes to learn about the people in my group. Introverts prefer depth to small talk and while small talk gets a conversation started, in many breakout rooms I have attended this year a topic was given to discuss. This allowed for a much more in-depth conversation than the typical small talk prior to a traditional networking event. No awkward ending of conversations either, the organiser pulls me straight back into the main room.

In a smaller group typical of virtual networking our pool is narrower and we are forced to mingle with who is there. This has multiple benefits. We are pushed to expand our network and not just speak to who we know. Connecting with others from different fields and backgrounds brings diversity of thought and sparks creativity. It allows us to share our work with a new audience, learn from their experiences and perhaps develop our ideas further or address shortcomings in our thinking.

This pandemic has afforded us some opportunities to which we should grab onto. An opportunity to innovate, to move away from traditional approaches just because that is how it has been done. Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas suggests you take core notions and turn them on their head. If networking has been done one way what would it look like if it was done in a totally different manner? Is there a hybrid model that combines face to face with virtual, small group with large? Or will we miss the opportunity to innovate networking for the next decade?

Aoife Lenox is The Introvert Coach, Trainer and Consultant designing work practices that promote well-being, increased communication and engagement from introvert personalities.