One of the most profound moments in my professional career hit me like a brick wall when I was shopping by myself in Target. No one to lead, I wasn’t standing in the middle of a crazy flurry directing traffic or calming tension, as was common in my job. Rather, I was simply shopping and being intentional about smiling, which is all it took! That one trip finally helped me see what people had been trying to tell me for over 20 years – that energy IS a boomerang and the consistent energy you feel in others is a reflection of the energy they see in you. Period, the end, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
I often wondered what was holding me back, why I seemed to get to a certain level of leadership and hit a hard stop. As with all things, there are many reasons, but for me, one of the biggest was my communication style. Not just in meetings or direct work conversations, but also in the way I carried myself throughout my day.
Until sometime in my early forties, I was constantly told that I was intimidating, and it made me unapproachable. I would respond, in my head of course, “They just don’t want to hear the truth.” My story back to myself was that there were too many people that tip-toed around the truth because they were afraid to hurt someone’s feelings, or they were afraid of the other person in general. I was sure that I wasn’t doing anything to cause their negative emotional responses to me. I have one of the brightest smiles out there; I ask people for information and questions all of the time; I seek to address issues with people directly, versus going around creating scuttle! Anyone who appreciates good leadership appreciates me, those who don’t; I don’t need them anyway. As it turns out, it was my problem to solve and I did need them!
Okay, back to Target. I had just had “another” conversation with someone that was willing to tell me how intimidating I was. Not that those were the exact words used, but that was the sentiment. I was leaving for my lunch break and decided to get a smile from every person I passed. I was dressed in work clothes and a trench coat. I grabbed my cart and went walking through the store. I made sure I had a pleasant, relaxed facial expression and when I passed someone, I made eye contact and smiled. The most amazing thing happened… people smiled back! Not only that though, four different people asked me if I knew where items were in the store! I wasn’t a Target employee, nor dressed in the uniform, yet several people felt comfortable enough with my hello to ask me to help them.
This trip was the start of a process that has changed my career. I realized that I am constantly processing data, which caused me to have a thoughtful, serious look on my face all the time. I would walk through the halls at work, wrapped in my own thoughts and plans and barely make eye contact with anyone around me. I was (and still am) a very direct person with little tolerance for fluff. Everything, including my communication, had to be precise and efficient if I was going to accomplish everything I needed to in a day. The problem, however, is that that earnestness showed on my face, and contributed to the energy I threw out to everyone around me.
I wondered why people didn’t smile at me, “I’m always smiling!” NO, no I wasn’t. I would smile when I was paying attention to what I was doing, other than that I was focused and closed off. I cut to the meat of a subject without bringing others along the journey I took to get there, and I didn’t stop and listen to gain understanding before I tried to drive a group to the point that I knew we needed to get to. All of these things were major contributors to the general consensus of me being an intimidating person. This led to many things happening in my life, like people not including me unless they really needed to, and me looking around and wondering why the world was so cross and uninviting…the list can go on.
Once I realized what was happening, I had to take real time to look within, see what was causing the disconnect between what I thought was showing on the outside and what the reality was. Once I found the root, I was able to slowly catch myself and make changes to do things differently.
This was my first step in what has been a 1,000-step process. It was the catalyst that showed me how much I impact those around me, and how much of the negative energy I felt in my environment actually came from things I was doing to spark it. Once I began throwing out calm, relaxed, genuine smiles, it was amazing how many I began to receive in return. It changed the dynamics in day-to-day conversations in the grocery AND at work. I became more approachable, and this, along with many other changes that have come since then, has created opportunities for me to get involved in different aspects of my leadership teams, thus creating advancement in my career.
Man, would I have loved to learn this lesson at 28 instead of 44! On to the next thing I don’t realize I’m doing. I cannot wait to see what I’m able to accomplish once I clean that up!
Article originally published in the August issue of the Women in Parking newsletter here. Parker Technology is a proud WIP member.