Discover more from What Would A White Man Do?
A moment of gratitude for my professional community
And why I've realized having a community is incredibly important not just in my personal life but also in my professional life
Early on in my time as a Chief of Staff, I was encouraged to join OnDeck’s Chief of Staff fellowship, which is now Coho. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was promised a peer community, the opportunity to meet others in similar roles, and a venue for knowledge sharing and supporting each other in our professional journeys.
I held my breath going in, as I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to these sorts of programs.
However, I committed to taking part in a small group, going to some of the coaching sessions and other roundtable discussions. It was pretty cool to see the titles of the roundtable discussions as they often resonated deeply and were questions or topics that had crossed my mind already. In my small group of 5-6 Chiefs of Staff, we met weekly at first (for a half year or so) before phasing out to monthly meetings that we keep even today. We got to know each other better, learned about the similarities and differences between our companies and respective set ups, and would bring challenges or questions to each session to workshop together.
What I found most comforting was the frequent reaction of “Oh yeah, I’ve faced that before, and here’s what I did.” It made me realize I wasn’t alone and there was a playbook out there that I could adapt as my own. Sometimes this was on logistical matters, like how to find an HR consultant for the company or how to handle our expenses. Sometimes this was on squishier matters, like negotiating compensation or working with other leaders in the company.
What I found most empowering was the perspective and confidence I gained from having all these new data points. Through the community of other Chiefs of Staff I’d built, I understood more about just how wide the range is when it comes to how to run a company, how to be a Chief of Staff and everything else in between. I was able to get a sanity check on when things got tough – was it just normal-tough or anomalously-tough? This can be particularly challenging to figure out, especially if I was primarily reflecting on situations with my husband or my colleagues. It’s hard to get this perspective when you and everyone around you are too deep in your own day-to-day without any external benchmarks, and I found the perspective very empowering as I figured out my own course of action and path forward on various tricky topics.
Other communities I’ve found
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the community I have from Bain. I started as part of a class of ~45 fresh college grads and we went through our first 2-3 years of professional work together. I remember the days of email threads we’d send out to each other with questions like, “Hey, my manager asked me to make this sort of fancy chart-graphic-thing. Has anyone made this before?” Almost without fail, someone would jump in and offer to show the other person the ropes.
However, as I look back at those years, what stands out isn’t just the access to knowledge though that is incredibly powerful in and of itself. It was similar to what I described above about my Chief of Staff fellowship – a sense of normalcy and belonging. It was also perspective from having others’ experiences to compare against your own.
So what do non-consultants and Chiefs of Staff do?
As I think about my friends who’ve chosen other career paths, there isn’t always an immediate community that comes to mind. I feel very fortunate to have had these two communities available to me, almost just directly “off the shelf.” For those who don’t have such access, I would start with:
Former colleagues or colleagues who’ve had a lot of experiences in different work contexts
High school or college friends who may have taken similar career paths
Friends of friends in similar roles
Wherever possible, balance out your community with people who aren’t all at the same stage of career as you. Having people who have more or less experience introduces more diversity in perspective and this will help broaden your paradigm as you figure out your own path.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned when it comes to building out your community and expanding beyond your direct reach is that all it takes is for one person to ask. If someone asks me if I’d like to grab coffee and chat about my work, I’m very rarely going to say no. I’ve never been met with a no when I’ve asked others. But if neither person initiates that conversation, both parties might just be sitting there in curiosity. (Of course, I’m a big proponent of balance and finding the right time and place for such a professionally-focused discussion – maybe don’t ask in the middle of a party on Saturday night but follow up with a text afterwards.)
Having community outside of my colleagues and family has been incredibly important for my professional development so far. For me, I found community through ODCoS (now Coho) and also my Bain class. For those who don’t have access to community “off the shelf” you can start with former colleagues, colleagues with more experience, high school or college friends, or friends or friends.