Earlier this week, I posted the story of how I went from Engineer to Entrepreneur. One of the things I mentioned were the numerous behaviors I had tried and tested that resulted in a promotion I wanted. This post is the first in a series about these
There’s an old adage that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” While that does apply here, it’s a bit simplistic. You are definitely required to know the “what” of engineering if you are an engineer. Lives depend on it. But, I also don’t think it matters much who you know, except perhaps to your own ego. It’s more of a “who knows you.” And for women in engineering, it’s well-documented that we suffer from “invisibility” when it comes to our skills. (See this HBR article which was published this week on the subject.)
So, the first thing I learned and figured out to apply was this:
The more people who knew about me, to whom I could either delegate or rely upon for help, the more money I made and the less likely I was to work tons of overtime.
The backstory here was that I was a female engineer working in a job where I made a good income but required a lot of hours. I was working really hard on the technical aspects of my job and was very focused on meeting deadlines. My income was needed to support our family, but the more I worked, the more I wondered if it was worth it, especially when the kids asked why I was always at work, or I’d call the kids before bed from the office and they’d cry that they never got to see me.
I wanted to support my family, while still being able to see my family.
I was always at work, but since I was on salary, I wasn’t getting paid extra for overtime. Working so much meant that I was gaining weight because I was eating out a lot and not exercising. It also meant the house was usually a mess so we had minimal social life because we were too embarrassed (or too exhausted) to invite friends over.
I felt like a failure in all aspects of my life. When I was working late, I felt guilty for not being around for my husband and kids. When I got a call that a child was sick and they needed to be picked up, I resented the interruption of my work and then felt guilty for feeling resentment. I felt like a terrible mom because when I was at home I was still thinking about all the things that needed to be done at work.
Even though on the outside I might appear successful, inside I felt like I was a failure in all aspects of my life: as an employee, as a mom, and as a wife.
Then, one day in June, we received a phone call that my husband’s dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He had very recently retired and passed away soon after. His plan to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labors during retirement never happened. He did all the things everyone tells you to do to prepare for retirement when you’re younger — work hard, save, and live below your means.
Up until then, I hadn’t really questioned the hours I was working in a meaningful way. Sure I griped like everyone else, but who doesn’t? I figured it was just the way things had to be.
His death forced me to consider my own mortality and the path that I was on: If I died tomorrow, did the hours I spent today working really matter? Am I making the most of the time I have? Am I having an impact on the world I want to have? Would I have regrets?
I did not like my own answers to those questions. I liked the work but also realized that working more and more because that was I thought I needed to do to be successful was not OK. Working harder was no longer an option. What to do?
I started looking around at people I considered successful, including those where I worked as well as those at other companies and in other technical industries. Then, I narrowed them down to those who were working the same or less than me, yet in higher positions.
I noticed that they all had wide networks, both inside and outside their firms. But it wasn’t just a numbers game. When you talked to them, they paid attention and literally made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. They shared their own expertise freely, publically credited others with success, and as a result always seemed to have others ready and willing to help them.
Even though each one I studied is in a technical field, they weren’t just using their own vast technical knowledge to get their work done. They were using their “people skills” (or what we engineers often call “soft skills” to influence action by their team and network. That’s when I realized the secret to getting more done isn’t working harder. It’s having the soft skills necessary to create relationships and influence other people into action, in addition to the technical knowledge.
Following this realization, I started categorizing patterns of behavior (eventually settling into seven areas) and created a plan to improve my own soft skills. I pulled out the 7 different things they did and figured out small, daily steps I could take to model that behavior. Because I was implementing this as an “experiment” in my already-packed schedule, each of the steps had to be short and measurable in some way so I could see if I was making progress.
I hoped that when I was able to successfully able to model these 7 tools, I’d either earn a promotion and enough influence at my current employer to make my hours more reasonable, or I could seek employment elsewhere using my newly-found network.
As with all learning, I quickly discovered that practicing some of this behavior wasn’t as easy as it seemed. I am an introvert, and some of things that worked for others seemed more based on as extroverted personality. Could they be learned, or modified to work for someone like me? For example, as I learned to network, I quickly realized that walking into a room full of strangers would result in me hiding out in the restroom for most of an event. So, I figured out how to model each of the 7 tools in a way that can work for introverts like me as well.
It was also interesting that although the tool was the same, the way it needed to be implemented was different for women than men, especially related to how we communicate. I noticed pushback on some of the things I tried (as a female engineer) that the men demonstrating the behavior seemed not have not encountered. So, I had to rework some of what I was trying to work for women.
When I started, I basically had no external network outside of places where I had worked. I also had very little influence on anyone besides those on my direct team, which I now understand was largely responsible for the number of hours I was working. After I modeled these behaviors, my “team” expanded and I got a promotion and raise, as well as a substantial bonus.
I then thought that if I — an introverted female engineer — could learn these tools and get that sort of result, others could too. So, I’ve been working on packaged the tools I learned into a self-guided online program called the “Engineering Influencer Bootcamp”, with the intent to release it later this year.
My career was transformed because I practiced these skills until they became habitual. Both the soft skills I learned and the network I developed during this process has given me so much more confidence in my day-to-day technical work. It led to me being recognized on a national level in my industry, and the book I authored last year. Collectively, that translated into a much greater willingness and ability to say “no” to things that didn’t matter, and were cluttering up my schedule and eating into my time with my family. That confidence eventually led me to start my own business.
That level of confidence — to follow your own dreams — is what I want for every woman out there!