On Saturday, March 10, 2018, I gave an 8-minute lightning talk on how my professional efforts helped other women and myself overcome challenges.
The venue: MIT lecture hall.
The audience: MIT alumna (CEOs, doctors, professors, producers, engineers and researchers).
I frequently speak in front of audiences. I have done interviews on Fox, ABC and Univision. In fact, when you hand me a microphone, I ham it up. This past week was different. I was overcome with nerves. As I was preparing to share how, “Preparation and mental toughness were instilled to me by my mentors...”, my mental toughness was not there.
I focused my talk on the concept N.B.C.(trademark pending): Never Be Cold. The central thesis being, how preparation is critical to success on all levels. I was preparing to tell the audience to, “Be strong, speak up and be the smartest person in the room when it comes to your area of expertise.”
As I practiced my talk over and over, the nerves became greater. Why?
The senior Director of MIT Alumni Relations quoted the reason for my nerves: These were the smartest women in the planet.
At dinner the night before, I was catching up with a longtime, brilliant friend. She reminded me, “And you’re one of them, Jaz.” I am an MIT alum. I have the resume, but I was still rattled. It wasn’t until I was standing at the podium that I felt my confidence come back. I believed in the purpose of my words, the advice, the experiences and what I had accomplished. It was in reciting those words that I realized that I was akin to the women that were now before me, intently listening to my every word.
The trending phrase for what I felt is called, imposter syndrome. Both men and women feel it, but it is more prevalent in women and people of color. Well, in honor of Women’s History Month, I will share a portion of my talk that speaks to overcoming this self-inflicted doubt.
A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a client and he shared challenges he is facing on a current project. It reminded me of a moment in my career. I was reviewing my subcontractors’ labor rates and had asked several of these subcontractors to revise their rates according to the established contractual requirements. One subcontractor, Mr. X, felt I had unreasonably reduced his rate, and wasted no time going for the obligatory threatening to sue jargon. When this tactic didn’t work, he gave me the old “do you know who I am missy?” speech. As if his political clout would faze me. It did not. I knew what the contract stated, and when the facts are on your side, you don’t argue semantics.
Mr. X subsequently revised his rates. No lawsuit was ever filed.
So here I was, 26 years old and managing a $176 million construction project. This was one of many daily interactions with subcontractors, clients, colleagues and employees. My authority was challenged daily. My knowledge was questioned daily. I had to prove myself every single day.
My first supervisor’s teachings resonated with me. He taught me to take the time to study the entire job, and know it better than anyone else. He told me, “Jaz, your preparation must be impeccable. You have no room for error.” As such, the first thing I did whenever I was brought on board a project was to review all the contract documents: plans, specifications, the contract and all subcontracts. In the case of the $176 million project, I spent nearly 2 weeks working late nights to absorb all the information.
I never did lose an argument or negotiation.
Preparation and mental toughness were instilled to me by my mentors. In business, I made it the central nervous system from which everything flows from.
My business partner and I call this: N.B.C.
Never Be Cold
This is critical to success on all levels. In all facets of professional life, you have to be prepared. You must put in the leg work to see the benefits. Nothing comes from happenstance. Nothing is a coincidence.
Focus on preparation, and stifle procrastination. Develop good habits early on, especially organizational skill sets. Arguments, the anticipation of counter-arguments, alternative solutions, compromises, these all have to be worked out. You cannot allow yourself to be blindsided because you didn’t prepare.
Be strong, speak up and be the smartest person in the room when it comes to your area of expertise. It also helps when you know what everyone else is supposed to do too.
As a woman, you will be challenged and questioned at every turn. No woman happens to just make it. You earn it. You earn it everyday. There is no project I oversaw that didn’t end with me earning my colleagues’ respect.
It is because I hold true to the NBC tenet that I am able to see through my objectives. You must know the ins and outs of your profession. You must know what the assembly line does. You must know where that widget goes and how it interacts with all the other widgets. Be curious, and ask questions by not asking questions. It is amazing what someone will tell you when you just listen.
I learned early on in my career to listen. I worked on projects with people of varying backgrounds, educational and technical experience. On the surface it seemed like everyone spoke their own language. I learned to listen, ask questions and then translate between architects, engineers, clients, foremen and inspectors. In meetings, my partner and I arrive prepared with what we want to discuss with a client. We bring up a topic and allow our client to share their thoughts about the subject-matter. Similarly, when a client brings up a new idea, we ask questions and get them to consider angles they have yet to consider. The ultimate goal is to arrive at a consensus.
LEARN TO LISTEN.
You cannot learn if you don’t learn to listen. Yes, you will be challenged and most people in your field will seek to undermine your judgment and in some cases your authority. However, those same people are all knowledgeable, about their skill set and/or professions. For the most part. Absorb. Be a sponge. It is a balancing act that you will need to achieve. The best approach is carrying your toolbox of facts and reasoning.
There is no such thing as “that isn’t my job.” Every facet of the job is your job. You must first gain entry before you can re-decorate a room. That being said, you must work harder than everyone else because quite frankly that’s what it takes. No one is going to hand it over to you, and no one is going to coddle you along the way. You work, you outperform everyone and you respect everyone by working with the facts, your knowledge and expertise. We cannot expect others to do it for us. We cannot expect things to just change. We take on the challenges presented, and we confront them as a community. We overcome. We succeed. We do it together.
Mr. X is an inevitability for anyone, but especially women. NBC was the key ingredient to confronting the bullies I encountered, and it guided me when others made me want to second guess my decision-making.
You will be second-guessed, when you speak up many will roll their eyes and others will look right passed you as if you and the wall behind you were one and the same. Being a leader and a trailblazer means you work passed that, and outwork everyone else.
Strive to be great because what else is there? Being mediocre is not acceptable.
Be confident, outwork and out perform your peers and NEVER BE COLD.
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