Last week I was on a panel at the Society of Women Engineers Annual Conference on the topic of resiliency. This talk was not about system reliability (although I do love that topic); this was about personal resiliency. Resilience is a muscle I built over the past 20+ years in the industry, and speaking at a conference of 17,000 engineers who happen to be female on this topic was an honor. My hope was to help our upcoming generation of engineers find their strength a bit faster than I did, which feels ESPECIALLY critical for young people graduating now having had school interrupted by Covid and emerging into a tighter job market.
So first the baseline. What helps with resiliency?
- Authenticity: seek to know who you are, and get clarity on your personal values. Identify and optimize for your strengths. Work to cultivate a good level of emotional awareness and regulation (friends and mentors help a lot with this! So do coaches and therapists!)
- Purpose: seek purpose and a sense of belonging in your work. You cannot work where you don’t feel like you belong. You cannot work at a place whose culture doesn’t align with your core values and beliefs. If you are in such a place, you need to find a new home.
- Adaptability: find methodologies to be solution-focused when things go wrong. Try to reframe setbacks and challenges. Work to minimize the impact of negativity (personally and professionally).
- Self-care: You have to find the work and life routines that help you manage your everyday stressors. It takes work to create time for relaxation and recovery (which sounds totally unfair, but it is just the reality friends). When I was taking a parenting class they spoke about combating post-partum depression with the 5 ‘s’s: Sleep, Sunshine, Sweat, Social, and Snuggles. This stuck with me from that super stressful (and wonderful) time in my life, and is the heart of my personal approach to stress-management.
- Support: build a community that can provide you with advice and support, and seek to provide support readily to others. Many times the process of helping others may help you feel more connected than asking for support yourself, but it is brave to ask for help, and far better than letting yourself operate in the dark.
- Energy: maintain physical fitness with a healthy diet and adequate sleep. The analogy I would use is put your own Oxygen mask on before you help others. You really cannot be present if you are exhausted.
- Networks: develop and maintain the personal and professional support networks you need at home and at work in order to perform well in your job. These are not just about emotional support for today’s challenges, but this is about supporting you through the transitions of the future, be it new jobs, projects, or personal transitions and challenges.
I offer this as a framework, but each individual has to find their own recipe. You have to allocate time for that in your life, and recognize that the process is continuous. As your life, responsibilities, and needs evolve, you will need to reassess.
So that is the framework I’ve used, but the panel specifically asked three questions. The first was to share a career challenge or setback and how resilience came into play in moving through it. The example I shared was from a recent project launch. How upon the first review of my plan internally I was basically told that my plan wasn’t even worth discussing and how I had to pivot and expand the entire scope with fewer weeks than the lead time to acquire the components. I shared the approach I tend to use in high stakes scenarios when I could get triggered. 1. Take a deep breath. 2. Ask yourself why a reasonable, rational person would behave in this fashion? The trick is to get myself out of reacting and into thinking mode (a great book on this is Radical Candor, which I highly recommend). When we are triggered, we cannot be our best self (literally your amygdala is firing and you are going to be in fight or flight mode). If you can get yourself into “thinking mode” (activating your prefrontal cortex), then you can react in a thoughtful manner, and not out of fear or frustration. In every aspect of work I try to cultivate my curiosity. Most of the time one’s knee jerk assumptions of why something is happening are wrong (and that is largely because we tend to assume people’s behavior is because of something we did or said, and it rarely is). The person who told me my plan was insufficient was trying to lead a transformative change–he wasn’t trying to tell me I was insufficient. The sooner we get out of personalizing, and into problem solving, the more resilient we will be in executing.
The second question was about leading my team through challenges and how I role-modeled, built, and supported resilience in the team. What I really focused on here was the fact that resilience comes from self-care (which I cannot control, but I can encourage), and a sense of belonging and purpose (which is my responsibility to help build). SO, I focus on helping make sure my team understands how their work impacts our customers and overall business. I also try to make sure that they feel like they are cared about. A leader I truly admire, Rani Borkar, once told me that her motto is “people first, business always.” I have always loved that. Your people will know if you care about them, and hopefully if you are there and present for them in the good times, they will know to come to you in the tough ones. So I check in on them. I invest in skip level meetings. I pay careful attention to employee engagement surveys. I gather and analyze manager feedback. I ask the questions, try to reflect back what I have heard to make sure I really understand the perspective correctly, and then I make sure I am taking action based on the feedback.
The last question was about a time when things did NOT go well with respect to resiliency and in retrospect what you wish you had done instead. The experience I shared here was when I was coming back from maternity leave, exhausted and less capable of self-care because of my new role at home. It happened to also be a time when my husband was traveling a lot to be with his father who had been diagnosed with cancer, and he was trying to help manage his father’s care from the opposite coast.
This time was one of the most difficult in my career: everything got under my skin because I was often solo parenting with an infant and a two-year-old, not getting enough sleep, exercise, support, etc. There are many work experiences I could share where I wish I had been able to show up with more grace. I gritted through it, unfortunately my father-in-law did not make it, my husband’s travel slowed down, and our family entered the phase of mourning and healing, but every single day was so hard. I wish I had been willing to cut myself some slack: specifically get extra help in terms of childcare, reach out for more emotional support, seek coaching and mentorship at my company, etc. When I came through that experience, I absolutely learned what NOT to do, and have since handled periods of extreme stress much better.
My parting advice was this: engineering and product development are careers where you are constantly learning, and there will always be phases where you have to work through ambiguity, solve complex problems, and manage stressful situations (quality challenges, gnarly bugs, high priority launches with many moving pieces, stakeholders who disagree strongly, etc.) In order to do this work well, you HAVE to be able to show up as your best self, which means you need to prioritize resilience.