“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In, But Shut Up

Lean In, But Shut Up

Written by Hillary Kirtland


I’m curious and I like to talk. I’ve been called a chatterbox, motormouth, chatty-cathy, know-it-all and so on, more times than I can count. I’ve also been known to write a run-on sentence—or two. It wasn’t until college (and a ton of self-reflection) that I even understood the concept of truly listening. The only thing you learn when you speak is everything you already know. In order to grow and be successful in any career, you have to learn to listen.

At work, I’ve seen many people come in excited to start, eager to add value and try (too soon) to “leave their mark.” Standing out is important, and women already fight hard enough to have a seat at the table. But we can’t forget what strength there is in listening to what’s going on around us. The following are three easy-to-implement pieces of advice which provide actionable steps on how to balance sitting back and listening, while trying to lean in and stand out in your career.

Start with self-reflection

You can’t be all things to all people (especially at the beginning), so it’s important to focus your efforts early in areas where you know you can do a good job. Some people look at me shell-shocked when I tell them I took (and still take) personality tests to self-reflect. I found these were great tools to hone in on my strengths, and to my delight, I found some consistency in my results. I combined my results with information I had gathered from friends, colleagues and coworkers about how they would describe me and what they valued about my work. This is where I started to see what value I truly brought to the table and it gave me insight about where I could strategically focus my voice in future conversations.

Do some research

Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was the singularly most important contribution to this part of my listening journey. Many of the principles in the book are pretty obvious pieces of advice, but reading them kept them top-of-mind for me, and I found myself recognizing opportunities to use them more and more often. There are plenty of self-help books out there that can help you cultivate great listening habits. A few examples include: “Daring Greatly,” by Brene Brown; “The 5 Love Languages,” by Gary Chapman; “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” by Travis Bradberry; “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain. Books like these can help you figure out your most genuine style of connecting. The key theme throughout all of these books is how important listening is to creating quality relationships in work and in life. These quality relationships will be what propel you forward down the road, and you’ll be surprised by just how fondly people think of those who take the time to listen.

Find out what works for you

My first attempt at listening led me to stay 100 percent silent, unless directly called upon. I found I was seeing and learning things I hadn’t had time to see or learn before. I discovered many of my coworkers at the time were feeling underappreciated in their work. No one ever asked for recognition explicitly, but we had spend so much time listening with the intent to respond rather than with the intent to understand, and our team had missed what was really going on. This is how our internal recognition award was born. I got approval from my boss to spearhead the initiative for our team, and the results were incredible. Not only did it solve our morale issues, but it also brought us closer together. One of the most impactful things I ever did at that job, I came up with by listening.

So, what does this mean?

I’ve now entered into the world of consulting which, by nature, is a very ambiguous world. Ambiguity would have terrified me before, but now I know how much you can learn from just keeping your ears open. I can wade through the confusion, listen for key insights and organize information in a way that’s meaningful. Listening allows me to gain knowledge from everyone I come in contact with. I listen to their stories, learn from their experience and apply what I glean from every conversation I have. You don’t have to be in a constant state of leaning in, in order to make an impact.

Lean in strategically and with purpose, take time to explore others’ ideas when they choose to lean in, and give everyone the space to lean in as much as they’d like. There is power in learning to genuinely listen to the world around you. I’ve become a better coworker, classmate, friend and girlfriend for it. If you cultivate it right, things in your life will change—as if by magic—and you will become fulfilled beyond belief. At least, that’s what happened for me.

Thanks for listening!

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Hillary works as a Senior Strategy Consultant at IBM. She found her passion for her new job in the two years she took off work to pursue a full-time, Global MBA degree at George Washington University in Washington DC. She is driven by her constant curiosity and her truest love is for travel and adventure. Outside work you can find her playing in a local DC kickball league, taking spin, barre, and yoga classes at her gym, reading a book, or binge watching a new show (current faves include: Queer Eye, Outlander, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid's Tale).

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