Common career questions answered by Women’s Leadership Coach Grace Ong

We spoke to Grace Ong (Women’s Leadership Coach) about the common career problems we see in the Yellow Eve community. These career problems are: figuring out your next career move, finding a mentor and becoming more assertive and confident at work.

Grace is very passionate about working with women who are climbing up the ranks and who are aspiring to become leaders at work. She explains that that fundamentally comes from her own experience; “looking back to when I was in my 20s and 30s, I would always have a problem… but I couldn’t go to my boss and I couldn’t go to someone else in the company because I didn’t want to risk what would they think of me.”

Here we have summarised the main takeaways from our conversation, and the full video is below if you’d like to listen into the conversation.

Figuring out your next career move

Lauren: What are your main tips for setting yourself up for your next career move – what are the most important things?

Grace: The first thing is figuring out your likes and your dislikes. I know that sounds so simple but it’s so hard. Taking the time to really explore and challenge yourself is important. Speaking to friends – and especially family – is probably the worst thing to do, because their perception of what you like and what you like to do at work is completely different to your ideas. I think this is where a coach is helpful because we will ask the right questions and we will challenge you. We might ask questions such as:

  • Do you want to be customer facing or do you want to be internal?
  • Do you like the sales side of things?
  • Do you like meeting people and and thinking about spotting opportunities?
  • Do you actually like the one to operate and figure out how to execute a plan and the logistics?

So getting that likes and dislikes list is the first step. The second thing is matching that with the non-negotiables.

So in your 20s, you can probably start with maybe something like, “Oh, it needs to earn X amount of money” – because that’s the most common thing you can identify. “I really want to have this particular salary to make ends meet.” Salary is relevant for a lot of people, even if they are a little bit older in their life because they have families, or people who are going through a separation, or people who are becoming carers. So a lot of us have to take care of financial obligations.

For a lot of young parents it’s about the flexibility. Does that mean flexible hours, or being able to do a job where you don\t have to be on screen or on call within the nine to five? There are some jobs that are a lot more flexible where you can arrange your hours throughout the day differently and throughout the week.

So figure out your likes and dislikes, then a non-negotiables list, and then match it together.

You may not always find that you are able to transition or get to your ideal job right away and sometimes people forget that and they realise and it’s disappointing. I keep reminding people that there’s no prize for getting that job in a certain timeframe. A year later, or two years later, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t matter.

Finding a career mentor, inside of your workplace or externally

Lauren: How do young people in particular overcome the fear of approaching people to mentor them? I’d say more than ever the junior and mid levels need mentorship. So, what would be your tips to find a mentor?

Grace: The likelihood of finding a mentor that you’re comfortable with is easier if it’s outside the organisation. The reason I say that is because inside the organisation – and maybe I’m biassed from my experience – is because of gossip and confidentiality. You never know. I would personally worry about being completely and 100% honest about my challenges and at the back of my mind I would always feel that it may affect me.

That said, there are some companies who are very strong at this and who have a very strong mentoring and coaching environment. I think the consulting industry is one place that where they foster that a lot.

If you’re junior level and for example if you’re an analyst, or at a first level, then find somebody who is an associate or a manager so basically just one level up from you – but at the most two levels. The reason is is that it wasn’t that long ago that they were in your shoes, so they know exactly how to do your job. You know, “How do you work with this particular person?” “What is that other manager like?” “How should I talk with this other Head?” “What kind of preparation do I need for X?” Or even just simple things like, “How do you know where to find the data?”

Don’t seek to find a partner, director or VP because it was a while back that they were in your shoes and most of the time things have changed – things were different when they were in your shoes. They’re very good at bigger stuff but they probably won’t even have the time.

Lauren: In terms of how you approach them, LinkedIn for myself has been the biggest, brilliant tool for pulling Yellow Eve together. It’s a fantastic platform and I’ve reached out to lots of people on there. For myself, if I was to give advice to my friends I would say that you need to be on there and it never hurts to send a message to someone that you want to mentor you. Just ask for some of their time! Is that how you would go about it – if it’s an external person you’re looking for?

Grace: Yes definitely. I think it’s about the managing expectations as well. The more alignment and things in common you have, and if you can put that very concisely in your message on LinkedIn, the more chance you have. If you can manage to get an email from a mutual contact that could introduce you, do that as much as possible.

Make a concise email about what you’re looking for in that mentorship; maybe it’s just something about the industry, maybe something about career progression within this particular function, maybe being a woman in an extremely male dominated industry. Be quite specific on a couple of things. You build rapport quite quickly if people know what you’re looking for. Most of the time, even if they don’t feel that they are the right person to mentor you, they will have suggestions for you.

Lauren: The worst thing they can say is no, or they don’t reply and you’re still going to live from that. And maybe you can try them again in a few months time.

I’ve sent lots of messages to lots of people and not had a reply. I think Yellow Eve is in the early stages and maybe I’m not very exciting for certain people at the moment. I think that tip about honing in on the similarities is a really important thing.

I had a brilliant conversation with a woman who’s a Digital Growth Specialist actually and she gave me 30 minutes of her time to mentor me over a coffee and it was incredibly valuable. From there she said “Keep me up to date.” It’s really nice to have that touch point with her as I go forward. I actually now understand that she’s interested in following my journey. So think if you were a mentor, who would you want to mentor, and why, what would you enjoy seeing? And also think about what’s in it for the mentor – give them a reason to be excited about mentoring you.

Grace: I used to mentor and there were a couple of mentees that I started out with, and it was almost like pulling teeth! They weren’t motivated in the right way. We’re doing our meetings and they said “Okay, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” But then when we had our next touch point nothing much had happened. That’s quite demotivating for a mentor, especially because all mentors want to give back and pay it forward – they want to be appreciated.

Becoming more assertive and confident at work

Lauren: People struggle to reach out to people on LinkedIn because they lack confidence, or they’re afraid of the rejection, which you have to work on constantly. I think a lot of people struggle with finding a voice, being assertive, and for women coming outside of the gender norms of being polite and not interrupting. So, what are your tips for how to be more assertive, even if you’re junior or mid mid level?

Grace: That is a really hard one. We can all continue to improve and learn. It’s a constant recalibration of our behaviour. One of the key things for me is, now looking back, being strong on your rationale, or why you want to do something. So if you have a proposal, or an idea that is different from what everyone else is saying, keep your voice calm and just be very strong on why you think so. Even if they don’t like the decision, at least they listen to your rationale and most of the time people are more interested in the rationale. I think this is where you can build credibility because you then have evidence and people know your thought process.

When I was going into some really big meetings in the past, I would think about the different scenarios and the different comebacks that different people might say to me. I’d just play around with the words and the sort of basic sentence construction; how I would present the thought and how I would challenge whatever they say to me in a respectful way. It might sound silly but take the time to do that or just play around with that with that but I think because just having that bag of tools and that bag of words and sentences at the back of your mind helps.

Another thing that I want to add on in terms of learning to be more assertive as a young woman in the workplace is just to practice. To begin with, practice in low risk rules. That could be you know your weekly meeting with colleagues or your team and usually that would just be your line manager and a couple of other people in the group. Experiment with that first, and then experiment when it’s a project that you’re leading. In any project or any initiative, there will be a couple of people that you don’t quite get along with. So it’s just practice, presenting your different perspective.

Just like you have to learn to use Excel or PowerPoint, being able to present yourself on the beat is a learned skill and being able to influence others is a learned skill. You have to go through the painful process of not being able to do it at first because everyone starts there.

Full video

Listen in full whilst working on an unbearable excel spreadsheet, pouring over long-winded emails or on your lovely mid-morning coffee break!

Time stamps:

  • How to figure out your next career move (at 5 mins)
  • How to find a mentor, in and outside of your workplace (at 16 mins)
  • How to grow your confidence and be more assertive, even at the junior/mid level (at 26 mins)
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