Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Learning to “Own Your Voice”

In an effort to prepare for a speaking engagement for the upcoming Women in Leadership Symposium, held on May 19th, 2016 in Norfolk, VA at ODU; I wanted to write a blog on my definition of what it means to “Own Your Voice” in the workplace.

I have to admit; I have always had that “loud voice.” You know the type…the one that carries across the room? The voice, that is always the loudest (and perhaps the most annoying) at a party?  I was never one to be able to “talk quietly” as my interpretation of talking softly was defined as talking in a normal tone to others. I was always the loudest kid on the playground and in the classroom, and certainly got scolded for speaking “too loudly” more times than none.  You know that saying, “The loudest one heard, is usually the one that is used as an example for others to learn from.”  Yup, well that was and is still me.

Growing up in Connecticut, my friends would tell me, “bring it down a notch, you are talking to loud!” It was embarrassing to say the least, and each time I attempted to “speak softly” I failed miserably.  When I would go to my mom for comfort, my mom would tell me that my voice was a gift and that one day my voice would be used for something great! As any mom would do, my mom simply wanted to make me feel better for having such a strong voice that tended to take over a room. I am grateful to her, for being an encouragement and not for downplaying my loud voice. When she called it a “gift” I smiled inside.  My mom told me that while some people have a gift for art, others have a gift for being an athlete and even others have a gift in academia.  For me, my voice, is my gift!

 As a young professional starting out in the early 2000’s, I remember one particular instance where I was in front of a few hundred people and my boss was having trouble getting the attention of the crowd. There was no microphone around at the time, so I quickly stepped up to the plate and used my “gift” for speaking loudly. Sure enough within seconds, I had the entire rooms attention. I laughed about it then, thinking to myself “Wow, I am not sure if having a loud voice that projects very well is a good or bad thing.” I was concerned that I may have appeared as trying to be “too powerful” or “trying it intimidate others.” But, as I reflect back on that moment, I was merely just trying to get the task accomplished. My boss needed my help, so I helped. Period.

Later when I got engaged, just weeks before my wedding, I was diagnosed with laryngitis. Here I was about to be warmly accepted into an Italian Family and I lost my voice!? I finally felt like I was in a group where my voice belonged and now I can’t even speak? Leading up to losing my voice, my job at the time required a lot of talking to others and in addition to that, I was also also talking all the time to my family and friends about my upcoming nuptials. I was invigorated and energized for several different reasons. At 25, I found myself receiving my first promotion in less than one year of employment AND recently engaged. In turn, I lost my voice and was instructed to not speak for 3 days from my Doctor. Whoa, 3 whole days? This was pure nonsense, but to my fiancĂ©, it was a “gift.” Seriously, a gift?!?! He explained, that while he loved me, he really needed a break from all the chatter about my recent promotion and our upcoming nuptials. He simply needed a “rest.” Interesting.  Eventually, my husband-to-be, admitted he didn’t like not being able to hear my voice and felt bad for feeling "so relieved" when I told him about my diagnosis of laryngitis. Eventually, my voice came back and life continued on as normal.

As I grew up in leadership roles over the years, I decided that “Owning Your Voice” can be very different depending on the circumstance. Sure, if you need to get the attention of the people in the room quickly, I am your gal. However, I quickly learned that for me to “own my voice” would mean something completely different in a professional environment.

I will never forget the day that a former CEO of mine, after being employed for less than one year, told me I was “mousy.”  I laughed and chuckled (thinking that he really has no idea about my gift) and asked him what he exactly meant by that and he said,  “You know; you are not being aggressive enough (though he used the “b” word here).”  WAIT, WHAT?!??! Was he actually telling me in order to have a presence in the room I needed to be more of a “b-----“?? That simply is not. My. Style. At. All. At first, I was quite put off by this comment my  CEO made to me, but I also took it as an opportunity for professional growth. You see, I had so much respect for my former CEO, that I did not want to say anything against him that could be considered “insubordination.” However, I realized, that all he was trying to tell me, was that he simply wanted “to hear MY VOICE in meetings.” I took this all in, and finally began my adventure into learning to embrace and on how to successfully own my voice.

So, then what does “Owning Your Voice” mean to you? Is it:

Speaking loudly over people, so only your points are heard?
Speaking only when spoken too?
To make others feel intimidated by you?

No, No and No. If you answered yes, I encourage you to re-evaluate your answers carefully.

Here is my recommendation on Owning Your Voice:

7 Steps to Owning Your Voice Successfully In person, Email and Social Media

1. Smile. Even if it cannot be seen, a “smile” can be heard.
2. Engage/Capture. When I talk, do it in a way that engages my audience. Share personal stories, crack jokes—simply relate to others
3. Listen. Successful speaking is not one way; you must listen to others and acknowledge their points of view.
4Respect. Be mindful when others are talking, allow them to have the floor when needed. When you disagree with someone start off by saying “With all do respect…” or “Respectfully, I disagree with your observation and feel…” Respect THEIR time to talk and they will equally respect YOURS.
5. Own It. When a mistake is made, don’t use excuses. Don’t try to pass the buck onto someone else. More importantly, DO NOT try to throw someone else under the bus during a meeting. This looks weak and is unprofessional. Plus, in doing so, this will come back tenfold, if you do. If you were responsible or had some portion of a mistake, you need to own it. I am not saying confess to each single detail of that mistake. What I am saying, is to admit and own your mistakes.
      6.  Mentor. In order to grow professionally and move on to another role, it is important to mentor others. Find those co-workers that you trust and in turn trust you. These individuals are your life-line and are hard to come by. For these people, begin showing then and guiding them along the path to be successful in their position.
7. Legacy. When the time does come for you to move upward or onward in your career path, it is crucial to leave your legacy behind. Make sure to set up your successors for success. Give them the tools they need to perform. Remember, this is a full cycle process! If you leave your legacy behind (in a positive way) when you move onward, it leaves little room to ever burn any bridges. Remember, you never know when you may need them again.

Now here I am with a young son of my own, who seems to have inherited my “gift”. I have since passed on the same message my mom said too me so many years ago and I tell him, “Own your voice, be respectful, make a difference and let your thoughts be heard!”

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence” –Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook