Don’t fear the feedback

On Wednesday night I presented an information session for one of the academic programs that I advise. In attendance at the session was a woman I knew from a previous role. I was perplexed by this as I work in Nursing and she has a Master’s degree in Student Affairs from a well-known and highly reputable program. Nursing would be a big career change. Why was she there?

We chatted a for a bit after the session. She told me that she is unemployed and has been actively searching for almost two years. She is starting to question her choice of graduate school degree and future professional life. My heart aches for her. Like many, I have been unemployed and I remember well the levels of frustration, anxiety, and sometimes even the sense of desperation that can come with the search. I remember feeling as if the interviewer could smell my desperation when I walked into the room. As a candidate, the deck is stacked against you. There are more of you than there are positions open. In many cases, candidates are given little, if any, feedback about their status in a search. And, candidates are given even less feedback about their performance while in the search.

This woman is smart, kind, capable, honest, and committed. I do not know all the details of why she is not being offered positions. Maybe she doesn’t interview well. Maybe she is under/over qualified. Maybe she doesn’t write well. I have offered to meet with her and do some career coaching. I hope to help her in whatever way I can.

Ever since then, I have been thinking about feedback in the student affairs job search process. I asked her if she had asked for feedback and what, if any, she got. To her credit, she has called past interviewers and asked for feedback. That takes guts. To even ask that question takes courage. To actively listen to what someone has to say takes even more courage.

She related to me that the feedback she has gotten thus far was “You were great! You didn’t do anything wrong in the interview.” Oof. Not only is this not true, it is also not helpful. Obviously something is wrong if she has been unemployed this long. And, how will she ever get better as a candidate if no one is taking the time to help her get better?

Feedback is hard to hear. I hate feedback. I hate hearing it. I hate giving it. But, it is a skill that I am learning and constantly trying to work on. Because, in my career I have been very fortunate to have received direct, honest, specific, and constructive feedback from people whom I know and trust. I also understand how hard it is to give feedback. So, when I get it, I try really hard to listen because I appreciate the time and energy that went into that conversation. I have also seen the impact that feedback has had on my own staffs.

In student affairs, we are quick to praise our colleagues and supervisees. We tweet it, we nominate them for awards, we serve as references. But, when it comes to the tough, icky, uncomfortable stuff, we speak in generalities and niceties that, in the end, mean very little. If all you are ever told is that “it wasn’t you” then how will you ever grow, learn, change, or get better?

Feedback makes us all better. It makes us more self-aware. It makes us slow down. It is helpful to others’ growth and development. It clears the air. It improves communication between individuals and across teams.

Feedback is hard. But the hard stuff is what matters most. That’s where the work really is.

I hope this woman will take me up on my offer to look at her application materials and do a mock interview. If she doesn’t meet with me, I hope she meets with someone who will take the time to genuinely help her, not sweep the feedback under the rug.


No more tiaras

I am the proud godmother to three amazing little girls. It is an honor to be chosen for this special role. In addition to serving as a role model of faithfulness (eek!?) I also believe that one of my duties as godmother is to role model feminist, inclusive leadership and work-life negotiation strategies. I haven’t yet told the parents of these girls that this is how I see myself as godmother. Hopefully they are okay with this since they chose me! Two of them are my siblings, so I think I am okay.

Two of my three goddaughters recently had birthdays and I refused to buy them tiaras. I bought tutus, wands, journals and feather pens, and pretend play shoes and jewelry. But, I drew the line at a tiara. When we were in Toys R Us, my sons kept pointing them out and asked why we couldn’t get them. I fumbled over the answer and tried to explain in terms they would understand what a tiara represents. I did not do so well on the spot. After some reflective time, my answer is this: Tiaras imply weakness. Tiaras imply something that is given to a young girl for superficial reasons- looks, personality, bikinis. Tiaras are usually given to girls by a “higher” power, usually a man, because said higher power has deemed the recipient worthy.

Here’s the thing. We are already worthy. We are already enough. My goddaughters don’t need anyone to give them a tiara. If they want one, they can go out and earn it (or a promotion, or a raise, or whatever a tiara means to them). Which, given what I have witnessed from them already and their amazing parents, I have no doubt they will! Go get it ladies! (Note to parents and others with special little women in their lives. I am not anti-tiara. I am anti what tiaras represent. If your little girl loves dress up and pretend play and tiaras, then carry on!)

Professional tiaras

I recently had my own tiara-resistance moment. I have applied for a job. It is within my current setting, but with a completely different focus- alumni development. On paper, it is a dream position- develop relationships, network with, and create programs for young alumni. Swoon! I knew that the position was going to post and I thought about just submitting my materials and then waiting. Like I have done with every other job search in my life. In the past, I have absolutely been guilty of the Tiara Syndrome. Carol Frohlinger of Negotiating Women, Inc. says that TS involves keeping your head down, doing good work, and waiting for people to notice and reward you.

Instead of waiting to be noticed, I emailed the person who would be my supervisor if I got offered the position and I asked him to coffee. I was bold. I was direct. I did not wait, I advocated for myself. I said, “I would like to learn more about your office and what you do. Can I take you to coffee?” I have never done this before in my entire life. I was absolutely terrified. Was I too bold? Was I pushy? Would it be awkward if he said no?

He said yes. We went to coffee and I learned a TON about the office, his style, the position, and what he is looking for. I told him that I would be applying and then indicated why I would be a strong candidate. Again, I have never done this before in my life. Guess what? It didn’t hurt. It was actually really fun. It was useful, helpful, and informative. Even if I don’t get offered an interview, it was a good use of my time, personally and professionally. Even if I don’t get the job, I know more about Alumni Relations and what the “work” is. This information will only help me.

This morning, this article came across my Twitter feed: “Don’t ever apologize for being a good parent and other lessons for hard-working women.”

I am in love with this post by Stacy Janicki. It says, for me, so many things that I am trying to practice in my own life and work. It says so well the career counseling and leadership advice I am trying to share with my students. She talks about the tiara syndrome and how to combat it. She encourages women to learn self-promotion skills and to ask for what they want.


No more tiaras!

No more tiaras!

Have you had a tiara-resistance moment?