Making it Right After Getting it “Wrong”

by: Sara Hinkle, Jennifer R. Keup, & Jodi Koslow Martin

As we have referenced before, this blog is the descendant of an ongoing Women’s Leadership Book Club in which most of the regular #SAFeminist contributors engage. Our most recent book selection literally started with the daunting questions “When did you make a mistake in your career and what did you learn from it?” The rest of the book, aptly titled Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting it Wrong, is dedicated to sharing the stories told in response to that question for a number of female leaders from a wide range of professions, including Kim Gordon (bassist and founding member of Sonic Youth), Ruth Reichl (La Times and New York Times food critic, author, and editor of Gourmet magazine), Carol S. Dweck (Stanford psychology professor and motivation researcher), and Dr. Cori Lathan (Founder and CEO of the engineering research and design firm, AnthroTronix).

Reading the very real, sometimes embarrassing, occasionally painful stories was a fascinating and enlightening experience. Especially because it was such a raw insight into the taboo topic of women making mistakes, for which we rarely allow or forgive ourselves due to stringent and typically unrealistic expectations of women that are often self-inflicted but socially endorsed. For some of the profiles featured in the book, we felt as if we were reading accounts of our own professional missteps and, other times, we found ourselves thinking “Glad I skipped that one!” or “When might that happen to me?” The brilliant editor of the book, Jessica Bacal, organizes the stories into four themes: “Learning to Take Charge of Your Own Narrative,” “Learning to Ask,” “Learning to Say No,” and “Learning Resilience.” While these categories offer a nice organizing framework, they are rather fluid and it is clear that, regardless of what they learned, these women got a lot right out of getting it “wrong.”

When our group met via Google hangout to discuss this book club selection, we very naturally drifted to our own tales of professional woe and what we learned from those missteps. As the leaders of this blog community and in the spirit of starting similar conversations among our #SAFeminist friends, we thought we would share a few.

Sara Hinkle: “Trust Your Gut”

A few months into my tenure of a mid-level leadership position, I was given a charge by my boss and boss’s boss to think about restructuring the four functional areas that reported up to me.  There were some organizational, as well as personnel issues that served as the impetus for this change.  The dean and I toyed around with various organizational models before deciding upon one that had the blessing of our vice president.  I called a meeting of all my staff where my boss and I unrolled this plan, which would go into effect within just a couple of months.

The plan was not well-received and caused and great deal of stress and backlash amongst the staff.  I spent the next few weeks meeting with individual staff members to hear out their concerns and try to allay their worries.  In retrospect, the rollout of the plan was much too abrupt and did not leave enough time to properly transition.  More importantly, it lacked the buy-in of staff, since their perspectives had not been considered in advance.  Some staff believed, incorrectly, that they were being pushed out.

The truth is that my gut had told me that we were not necessarily approaching this correctly.  However, given my lack of seniority and tenure in my position, I didn’t have the confidence or necessarily feel it was my place to contradict the direction in which I believed my supervisors wished to head.  I had been in my role less than a year at the time we rolled out the new plan, and I was trying to be a team player and accommodate my superiors.  However, in the process, I potentially damaged my relationship with those who reported up through me.

Five years down the road, the new organizational model did prove to be a successful one.  One staff member, who had been particularly resentful of the new structure, thanked me for pushing her into a new role that had helped her develop professionally.  That was a gratifying moment, but one that could have taken place five years earlier, if only I’d been more assertive about approaching this move a bit differently.

Jennifer R. Keup: “Mistaking Process for Failure”

About two years after I earned my doctorate, I was employed as a project director at a national research center.  I was very happy in this role but was also cognizant that I was rapidly approaching the time when a move to a new professional role would make sense for me in my career trajectory and would fit my husband’s timeline for a job search. With a few publications and several presentations on my CV, an emerging research agenda, some successful teaching experiences, and great trepidation, I dipped my toe into the shark-infested waters of the academic job search. Overall, I had a very positive response to my applications for Assistant Professor positions, travelled to several on-campus interviews, and did numerous job talks. Time after time, I would leave the interview feeling cautiously optimistic and, time after time, I wouldn’t get the job. Usually, the people who led these searches were fantastic humans who would call me personally to say how much they enjoyed my visit and respected my work, but that they had gone with someone else for the position. While I liked those scenarios much more than the ones when I heard nothing and would receive a form letter months after I had forgotten about the job, I began to feel like the most widely respected and broadly rejected person in higher education.

Eighteen months and two cycles of an academic search yielded the same results: hearing the professional equivalent of “It’s not you, it’s us” repeatedly from some of the greatest minds and most respected academic leaders in our field. By that point, I was completely demoralized and what little confidence I had at the time was absolutely shattered. It didn’t just feel like my academic search was a failure, I had internalized the rejections for these positions and felt like I was a failure.

Less than 3 months after I ended my academic search, I was recruited for an amazing position in a student affairs assessment unit and quickly ascended to the Director of that office. I suppose I could say that ending up in a job that I truly enjoyed was the “win,” which it very much was. However, the real “lesson learned” for me was that those “failed” academic searches turned out to be incredible learning experiences and networking opportunities. I sharpened my communication skills, honed the presentation and expression of my professional identity, and, most importantly, met amazing people and built an incredible network of colleagues all over the country. In my current role as the Director of a national center, I still rely upon many of the relationships that were initially forged in those Assistant Professor interviews many years ago (How’s THAT for an answer to, “So, how did you two first meet?”).

With hindsight and a few years of professional maturity under my belt, I have learned to trust the long view. What feels like failure in the moment will only make sense three to five years later and is just on step in a larger process of evolution that is our career.

Jodi Koslow Martin: “The Importance of Trust and Understanding Culture”

When I began working as a chief student affairs officer two years ago, I thought I knew what it meant to be a Vice President. I’d watched others and was eager to be “at the table,” the place where a university’s tough decisions are made. I had been coming from a small college where I had worked for almost 14 years to assume this role at another small school. How different could it really be?

While the student issues were similar, the culture was very different. Not only was there a limited number of women in leadership roles, there are some longstanding processes that were difficult to change to better reflect today’s best practices. But I was eager and enthusiastic, plus I was ready to make change. I, then, thought two things: 1) I’m a Vice President, so people will listen to me because of my title, and 2) they will understand that I am part of a culture of change.

I learned quickly that I had to build trust to be listened to as a VP and to make change. While that’s not necessarily earth shattering, I thought my credentials and understanding of higher education were enough. It was not. Sometimes I was considered dismissive when I did not respect traditions. Sometimes my ideas for personnel were construed as not liking individuals rather than helping individuals build their professional capacity. Sometimes I felt like anything but a Vice President.

The tide eventually turned. I built relationships and realized that I not only needed to be accepted but that I needed to belong. I needed to learn to share moments with individuals rather than totally control outcomes. I found, too, that my thoughts were more respected after I listened intently and waited for the right time to offer insight. Admittedly, these ideas were ones I had from the start but saying them first was more about caring for my ego than in caring about being a thoughtful, transformational leader.

In the book Mistakes Made at Work, the first chapter by Laurel Touby addresses the reality that professional work spaces will not immediately accept our authentic selves. I think Touby feels like some environments won’t ever appreciate our whole selves. I’ve come to learn that, at first, it’s necessary to be an attentive and reflective listener to figure out the culture. I think that in due time a leader becomes the person creating the culture. I’m not sure if Touby would say you can be your true authentic self at work. I think you can be. And I think the best version of your authentic self is the one that recognizes it belongs.

And now, you….

As a book club, we truly appreciated this book for providing the reason and a framework to consider the difficult topic of mistakes. So, we end this post by inviting you to be brave enough to join this discussion either as a comment on this blog, in your own reading groups, or with a trusted mentor. What is a mistake you made in your career and what you learned from it?

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One thought on “Making it Right After Getting it “Wrong”

  1. I was the most disappointed in Dr. Martin’s response here. As a young woman hoping to be involved in student affairs, I not only want to listen to women in leadership roles, but also be listened to by women in leadership roles. Dr. Martin’s response speaks about the need to earn trust and clout–a great reminder–but her few paragraphs act as if she no longer needs to learn anything. I hate encountering women who continue the patriarchy they are trying to disturb when they simply become part of the “good ol’ boys club” who need to be heard without listening, because, “Hey, I’ve got a Ph.D. and some good opinions.” You might still have a lot to learn from women without high degrees–even those who have no desire to get the Ph.D. There is more to education than the classroom and degrees. I hope Dr. Martin and the other women contributing to this blog listen to the women around them as if they are potential co-learners and co-teachers.

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