How to accept the challenge when someone invests in you

Last week I wrote about a leader who took the time to stretch the strategic capability of a younger team member. This week we get to hear from Sarah Skyvington, a bright driven woman who shares her experience in responding to such opportunities for growth. Read on for her astute insights on how to reframe initial fear and seize the learning opportunities with confidence. Better yet, share with those up and coming members on your team.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the early years of your career chasing opportunities for growth: reading articles, observing senior team members, taking on greater responsibility whenever it’s offered, and actively sharpening skills on a daily basis. Rarer though is when someone takes time out of their day unprompted to offer help with a new way of thinking. When our colleague sent me a list of questions to prepare for our client meeting, it presented an opportunity to learn from one of the brightest members of our team. The question was, how could I make the most of it?

Reframe Initial Unhelpful Thoughts

The opportunity to work with a senior member of our team on a juicy project was exciting. Yet when those ‘stretch questions’ first hit my inbox I hesitated. Did this VP send these questions because she didn’t think I could handle the work? Did she perceive that I didn’t know enough about this topic? Will I have to study for hours to not make a fool of myself in this meeting?

After I spent a few extra hours preparing (and giving myself a pep talk about what I do know), I thought about what it meant to have someone invest time in me. By asking me to prepare and think about our work in a different way, it was obvious that she was interested in helping me learn. My colleague used her experience to provide a frame for my thinking. She gave me the space to ask questions. I quickly shifted my mindset - she already believes I’m capable; and she’s pushing me to the next step. It’s my job to build on that.

Seize the Opportunity

When a member of your team reaches out to spark your thinking, it’s up to you to make the most of it. Try some of my techniques to push you further:

  • Do your research. Do more than what was asked of you. Seek out in-depth information on the project, analysis on trends in the industry, and blogs on related topics. Take the time to process what you’ve read and think about it through the lens of multiple stakeholders.

  • Ask questions. Lots of questions. When you get back together with your colleague, come prepared with questions to get the conversation going. Ask about the project itself, sure, but pay equal attention to process: how does she approach these types of projects? What’s the best way to manage the relationships involved? What helped her learn when she was early in her career?

  • Don’t be afraid to be an observer. “Lean in! Speak up! Add your full value!” I’ve heard those messages many times, and they can make it harder to ask for help if you’re out of your depth. If you feel like a fish out of water, let others know. One of the best ways to learn is to be an observer the first time around. With that request in mind, your colleague can set expectations with others in the room and you can soak it all up. Make the most of the opportunity by taking notes on both the content of the meeting, the dynamics in the room, and how your colleague is handling the meeting. Write down key phrases they say that really resonate with you.

  • Speak up. While being an observer will accelerate your learning in your early days, don’t stay in that mode for long. Think about areas where you can add value and don’t be afraid to chime in. Even if you don’t have the brilliant original idea, you can draw connections or bring the perspective of a neglected stakeholder into the room. That adds huge value. This will probably feel uncomfortable the first few times - do it anyway.

  • Push for follow up. After you’ve had the opportunity to learn, observe, and eventually speak up, it’s important to loop back with your colleague. Test your assumptions about what you heard, ask even more questions, and turn this bite size opportunity to grow your strategic acumen into a broader opportunity to showcase what you can do. Offer to take a larger role in the next assignment or meeting, and ask to check in regularly to keep your development accelerated.