Podcast

Episode: 97 |
Nayla Bahri:
Recovering from Setbacks:
Episode
97

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

Nayla Bahri

Recovering from Setbacks

Show Notes

Nayla Bahri is a former Dean of Students at Columbia Business School who has a PhD in Adult Learning and Leadership.

Nayla interviewed professionals who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, and studied their future trajectory.

After that setback, some truly flourished, and ended up far better off than before they got fired.

Some managed to get back to a similar role and their career plateaued.

Some got derailed and didn’t really recover.

Nayla sought to identify the factors that differentiated those groups, and the good news is that it wasn’t personality or something innate, but behaviors that are under our control.

In today’s episode, Nayla shares the key insights from her research on the five behaviors that differentiated those who flourished after a career setback.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will: Hello Nayla. It is awesome to have you on the show.
Nayla: I’m real happy to be here. Thank you.
Will: Nayla, you and I became friends almost two decades ago when I was at Columbia Business School, and you were I guess the assistant, or associate dean of students, and it’s been great having your friendship over these years.
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: And really thrilled to have you on the show today. You’ve done some research on how people thrive in times of chaos in a career, I think for your PhD you interviewed a bunch of people who had been laid off, and figured out who became successful, and who not. It’s so relevant to folks listening to the show, which is about how to thrive as an independent professional. Maybe start there, just tell me a little bit about your research, and kind of what you’ve been doing since Columbia.
Nayla: Sure. I’d be happy to. You and I met when I was at Columbia Business School, where I spent almost 20 years myself working, and most of that time I spent in that dean of students role. The great thing about I mean there were so many great things about that role at that time, but one of the great things was that I developed all these relationships with current students, and then as time would pass, and they would graduate, and move onto whatever it is they were doing next, they’ve come back, and sometimes they were back because they were recruiting on campus, or they were lecturing, guest lecturing in a class, and sometimes they came back because they were making an adjustment in their career, and they wanted the resources that the school provided. Some of which were your traditional career development resources, and some of which were the network and the people that you knew at the school.
I really loved that part, too. I loved working with students, and being with current students, but I also loved that the school ended up as being home base, especially for the New York based population, and while I was at the school for all those years, I was also pursuing my doctorate, which took me a very long time, we can talk about that later. I really made a decision at one point that I was going to use something I had access to, to kind of be the foundation of my research, and I was always really interested, I mean, I was at the school from the late ’90s until about three years ago, so 2015, and we were experiencing all the ups and downs of the marketplace, and the changes in the economy, and so people were coming in and out of the school at different phases in their careers, and I was so curious about how people were handling the ups and downs that were just part of the lifecycle.
Of the years, I might have a 100 students come in and out, who are alums, of my office, and I would just be curious, why are some of them handling all these ups and downs so well, and why are some of them just flattened by a setback, and what makes it possible for some people to bounce back, and have that experience of renewal, and why do some people not? When it came time to kind of build a study for my dissertation I thought why not start there? Why not start with this observation, this interests that I have, that there are differences in how people cope with the ups and downs of either career satisfaction, or employment period, you know, all the different players, that stuff comes in.
For the purposes of a study I had to be pretty precise about what I was looking at. It was probably 2012 when I got really specific about my dissertation, and we were a couple years out of the great recession, and I had seen a number of alums, and friends, and family members effected by the recession, I thought well let’s just look at that, let’s look at people who were impacted by the recession, laid off, and let’s understand what happened to them, and what they learned through the experience, and what’s happening to them now? Over probably three years I ended up interviewing about a 100 people, 24 of whom appear in my dissertation, and the real key question was, what happens to people when they’re laid off, and why do some people experience what I call career renewal, and why do some people not? I can tell you what I think career renewal is, will that be helpful?
Will: Yeah. What is career renewal, Nayla?
Nayla: One of the psychological phenomenon that I looked at is this thing called job involvement, which is basically how do you relate to your work? How do you have a relationship with your work? There’s a lot of work around this concept, because all of us are in a relationship with work. Right? I often use the metaphor of romantic relationship with work, so you’ll probably hear that once or twice in the course of our conversation. The way I define renewal is that people feel space, and creativity, and optimism in their job relationship rather than feeling trapped, or negative. They feel a sense of choice rather than being subject. All right. Rather than being kind of passively stuck in a job, they feel like they’ve actively made the decision to be there, be involved in the work they’re doing, and they feel really confident, and certain of their professional identity and value, and they can express it regardless of where they’re employed at the time.
That’s how I define career renewal, I was really looking to see why do some people get there, and why do some people not get there? I’ll start with the basic foundation, which is that everyone who gets laid off thinks it’s one of the most terrible things that’s happened to them, and I was a little surprised by this, because I thought, well, people who have been laid off in this period of 2008 to 2010, well everyone was watching the economy kind of crumble around us, so everybody must have expected it, and despite that people were just devastated by the experience of being laid off, and they would say, “I felt abandoned. I felt so vulnerable. I felt mistreated, disrespected. I felt afraid about the future. I was worried about money, I was worried about where I would fit in the world, again.” It was universally the response to being laid off.
What I felt was the most interesting thing about this as I was deepening my research was that I would start talking to my friends who were employed, or people who I was working with at Columbia, at the time, or my friends, and family who had nothing to do with my research or my life at Columbia, and I would outline all these things that people were describing about how they felt post layoff. People would say, “Wait, Nayla, I have a job, and I still feel powerless. I still feel like I’m at the mercy of my boss, or my organization, and I’m not calling the shots. I don’t know if I’m getting paid what I’m worth,” and all these kind of big questions about their relationship with work.
As I was focusing my research on these people who had been laid off it was still kind of peculating in my head that this relationship with work needs to be looked at whether, or not we have a job, so to speak. That’s what I found. First everybody feels devastated by the event of a layoff even if you hate your job. It’s like a breakup. Right. Like I don’t necessarily want this relationship to go anywhere, but I want to be the one to breakup with you.
Will: Even if it’s-
Nayla: I don’t want-
Will: An abusive relationship.
Nayla: I don’t want to be dumped. I want to end it. Right? That came up a lot. A number of people would say to me it wasn’t a great job, I knew it wasn’t a great fit, I knew I was vulnerable, but I still felt hurt personally, I felt like it was a big statement about my worth, and about my value when they broke up with me. I wanted to be the one to give my resignation, and to walk out of the relationship. I think that alone is pretty interesting. As I was digging into the 24 people who were in my study, I kind of started lumping them into groups. I said, “Okay.” I was talking to them four years on average close to layoffs, and there were some people who were what I call stuck, so several years later they still hadn’t found something of meaning to do professionally. They were still either underemployed, or unemployed, just couldn’t find the momentum to get out of the position they were in.
A large number of people were what I called settled, or accommodating. Meaning, that they had found something to do, but nothing really had changed in their job involvement. They had done what I call changing the wallpaper. Maybe the business cards look different, and the parking lot was different, and the office looked different, but in fact they were the same. Then this third group of people they’re what I called thrived, and they experienced this career renewal, and something was really fundamentally changed about their relationship with work. Those are the people I really wanted to dig into, and understand what was happening with them.
Will: What were the characteristics that differentiated the thrive versus the stuck and the settled groups?
Nayla: Here’s I think what the best news about the whole study was is that it really had less to do with characteristics, and had more to do with behavior. One of the assumptions I had walking into the study was people who are generally more optimistic, or positive, or who have this certain kind of personality traits would be in better shape. I was relieved to know that it really doesn’t have a much to do with how you’re wired, naturally it has a lot to do with what you do, so adopting a certain set of behaviors, and that is, the great thing about that is those behaviors is something that we can all use, we can all step into with practice. As I built my career post dissertation, a lot of the work I do is coaching, and this set of behaviors builds the framework for a lot of my coaching work, because it’s something anybody can do.
Will: All right. Big reveal.
Nayla: Big reveal. Here we go.
Will: What are the golden secrets here?
Nayla: All right. There’s five things that people who thrive post career trauma, let’s call it do that people who don’t do these things have less great outcomes. Five practices, I break them into two buckets. All right. There’s a stream of what I call inner work, and there’s a stream of outer work. Inner work is more about gaining perspective, and more private internal work, and then the outer work is around kind of putting your findings and insights into the world. I’m just going to go in sequence, and I’ll tell you a little bit about how they show up, and I’d love to hear from you how you’re seeing this in your own experience, and the people that you work with, you collaborate with, the other consultants who you benchmark with, et cetera.
Will: Great.
Nayla: The first thing was that people who thrived they used their network really differently than most people are trained to do. Right? What these people do is they learned about themselves from their network, so most of us are conditioned to think about your network as a source of access. Right? Like, you want to build a broad, and deep network, because you want people in different stages of their career, in different companies, in different industries, and we for better or for worse I think still think about networking in a series of transactions. Right? If I do something nice for you, and then you’ll do something nice for me later. Right? You’ll introduce me to someone, I’ll get you a ticket to an event. You’ll help get my resume to the top of a pile, and I’ll make sure you can get access to somebody who you want for your podcast.
The people who I was studying were using their networks really differently, and they were using their networks to learn about themselves, to get beyond the kind of what can you tell me about your industry, or your company, but what can you tell me about me? What do I not know about how I work, where you see me show up at my desk, the kinds of places where you think my skills are the most useful, and it’s really focused on the candidate, the person. The person whose experienced at career trauma. There’s so many reasons why this is not intuitive for us, especially when we are under, or unemployed. Right? Where we feel there’s a common thread with everyone I spoke to, which is this feeling of shame.
A feeling of I was disposable, whether, or not that’s a rational or a logical feeling to have when we’re laying off hundreds, or dozens of people, there is the sense of internalizing that something was wrong with me, so I was disposable. That accompanying feeling of shame prevents a lot of people from entering conversations where it feels like I have to ask someone who has something for something I don’t have, but when the conversation pivots to being about learning, and not about access then it’s a conversation between peers, and equals, and it doesn’t matter whose got what job at what level, we’re just here to have the learning conversation.
Will: This is interesting to me, because maybe I’m giving people the wrong advice here, because what I’m hearing from you is people who thrived used it to learn about themselves, use their network-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: What I often counsel people, or try to do myself is, or when people ask me, “Hey, I’m trying to search for a job or something,” I tell people, “Make phone calls. Touch the market, but don’t go out, and approach, and say, “Hey, look at my resume. What do you think of this? What do you think would be a good role for me?” Because people don’t care about you, again, and they don’t know. Right?
And people don’t really like having that conversation of looking at your resume, or thinking about your strength and weaknesses, but what people are happy to do is call them up and say, “Hey, you’re the CFO at this $100 million dollar Fintech. I’m trying to learn about the industry. I’d love to hear about how you got to that role, and about what you do, and what’s going on in that industry,” because people love to talk about themselves.
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: I guess my approach to that is just focus on the other person, and try to learn, like, “Tell me your perspective about what’s going on in your world,” and not to say, “Oh, and what do you think about me?” But maybe I’ve been giving people bad advice. React to that.
Nayla: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to characterize one thing as good or bad. Right? I think that’s in general everything that I found in my research, and when I think about the ways in which I coach my clients or I talk to my students I try not to use the good or bad. I think that there’s room for variety, and for both approaches. I think there’s a lot of utility in talking to people about industry, and it’s true that everyone’s the star of their own movie, so what most of us want to talk about is yourself, frankly.
I think that when you think about broadening your network, and getting industry exposure, and just starting to understand something that’s new for you, it’s really smart to say, “Talk to me about what’s happening in your industry, in your company, in your career, et cetera.” Our goal in this conversation is to say how do I change my relationship with work? When work has bruised me, and beaten me down, and whether that’s because of layoff, or because I’m just in the wrong place at the wrong time, how do I heal my relationship with work, so that I can fill that sense of renewal, that sense of agency, and choice. If that’s the end game in this particular kind of networking, I think you want to blend the approaches.
I think there’s value in learning about company, and people, and industries. I think there’s a lot of value in learning about you, so what would that mean? That would mean that you have to be very intelligent about who you select to have these conversations with, and so that’s not available to everyone. Right? If I want to say there are five people in my network, tell me what I need to know about me. Tell me what you observed about my best and worst moments, but the places where I added the most value, and contributed the most. I have to be really intelligent about who I chose, but the different kind of networking, I guess that might be one of the takeaways. Right? There’s a lot of value in what you’re proposing to the people who ask you for advice. I think there’s another way to think about networking, also, so maybe a little bit of both.
Will: Okay. What I’m hearing is your kind of question about, hey, reflect to me back my strengths, weaknesses, and that might be for people that actually kind of know you relatively well-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: And can give you some mirror image feedback. Okay. Cool. That’s point one, so differences in how they reach out to people.
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: What [crosstalk 00:16:03]-
Nayla: Yeah. Learning about your network.
Will: Okay. Cool.
Nayla: Learning about yourself, and your network.
Will: All right.
Nayla: The second thing is investing in yourself outside of work. This often seems counterintuitive, because when you are underemployed, or you’re unemployed like the last thing you think you have time for is Italian lessons, or taking another spin class, but what I found is that investing in yourself outside of work, just two things. The first thing it does is it heals the scar tissue that is a result of a bad work experience. Right?
The truth is, I mean, we spend something like I don’t know 90,000 hours of our lifetime at work, so when that goes bad, it’s going to leave a mark. Right? Like any relationship, when it goes bad there’s scar tissue, and reminding yourself what it is you love to do, and who you are outside of work, and treating yourself like the whole person that you are. There’s a lot to kind of refine about those feelings, so that you feel like yourself again.
The other thing, having an investment outside of work does it right sizes the role of work in our lives. I know that I have been obsessed with my job in the good times, and in the bad times, and in the best of times I still sometimes wake up thinking about work, I go to bed thinking about work. God knows in the worst of times, I have woken up thinking about work, and gone to bed thinking about work. If you’re unemployed, or you’re underemployed, or you’ve been broken up with by your job, it’s just bad, you think about work all the time. Doing something that you love, and that’s good for you outside of work does is put work where it belongs. Right?
It’s part of your life, it’s not your whole life. What I found were the people who had picked something up, or retrieved like an old hobby something that they had loved to do, so this might be sports, it might be arts, it might be taking an Italian lesson to kind of keep your brain sharp when you’re not working. When they went back to work, they had good habits around having a broad and diverse set of things they do in their weeks, and months, and it allowed work to kind of fit into their lives rather than dominate their lives.
I think that’s something a lot of us, especially for working parents we just don’t do. Right? We think, well, I have work, and I have family. This was something where I really found myself taking a really strong lesson from my participants, and my study to say, “Oh, yeah, that there’s more to me than just being a professional, and being a wife, and mother, and I want to make sure I’m feeding that part of me, too.”
Will: Yeah. What were some of the things that the thrive group did in terms of investing in themselves outside of-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Work?
Nayla: Sure. A lot of them, I think everyone has that thing they wish they had kept on since they were kids, or teenagers, or in college, so I had a number of people who had an artistic venture that they had let fall, so painting, or pottery, or something that they had loved and really enjoyed in their youth that they had let fall to the wayside. I had a number of people who had made a lot of time to read things that were not connected to work, like everyone has a reading list of the novels they wish they’d picked up, or the biography of that person they admire.
A lot of them made time to read things that has nothing to do with seeking a job, succeeding in a job, that kind of stuff. A lot of travel. Then a lot of things for personal wellness, too. A lot of the people I talked to, whether, or not they appeared in my study would say, “You know what? I had let myself get out of shape,” or, “I had stopped playing tennis with my old club that I loved,” and they just made time for it, and then when they were back to work it was part of their routine, to say, “You know what? I do this thing, I play tennis three hours a week, and I got to just make it happen. I can’t let that fall aside, again.” How about you, what do you do outside of work?
Will: Me?
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Well, let’s see one thing that I love to do is build things. We have this farm in Pennsylvania and it’s been in my family for five generations, and-
Nayla: Wow.
Will: With my wife and kids we go back there for six, seven weeks during the summer, and every year I try to do one building project with my dad. We built a tree house, a chicken coop, a garden, a couple sheds. Over this past fathers day, my dad and I along with my daughters and my son, who helped, we built a lookout tower up in a tree with a bench for reading.
Nayla: Wow.
Will: That’s kind of, you know, so much of my time as a consultant is indoors on paper, doing-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Something relatively intangible, it’s nice to actually put in some lag bolts, and-
Nayla: Yeah. I’m sure.
Will: Deal with some pressure treated lumber.
Nayla: I think that’s probably true for a lot of us, like a lot of work is very cerebral, and I could pour hours and hours into something and never have a product to show for it, and so it’s nice, for me, it’s a lot of time in the kitchen. I love to make things. I’m not as creative as I want to be in other ways I can’t really draw or paint, but I can make things in the kitchen that great, and even look great most of the time. That to me is all those things we talked about, like getting something from beginning to end, it provides just a retreat from the chaos of work, and from the overwhelm of work, and making a commitment to myself that I want to have dinner that I make on the table at least three nights a week means I have to shut the laptop at a certain point in the day. That’s important, otherwise work will creep into every corner, every spare moment. Yeah. That was the second practice.
Will: That’s number two. Okay.
Nayla: The third thing is, and this was like a 100% true for everyone I spoke to who met my criteria for thriving, for experiencing career renewal. They had developed a reflective practice. What’s a reflective practice? John Dewey, who’s like the father of American education had this expression that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. Having the time and space to make meaning of what’s happening to us, and to interpret it, and to apply insights into the next thing. A 100% of the people who met my criteria were doing this, it didn’t always look the same, but a reflective practice is anything that creates that space in time for you to think, and evaluate, to feel, and to draw insights.
For some people this looks like prayer, or meditation. For some people, it looks like writing with journaling. For some people, it means walking or exercising. Running, something that feels meditative in nature. For some people, it meant a support group, or in some cases counseling, like having someone who provides that forum where you can experiment and explore ideas. It allows you to draw on things like your experience, of course, your values, it allows you to manage your emotions, your attitude. It was a chance for a lot of people to think back at other times where they’ve had setbacks, so whether it was in sports, or in school, or if they had, had trouble at work in the past, and really say, “Okay. What did I learn last time that can keep me motivated, can keep my positive, can keep me moving this time?”
Again, it’s one of those things that we might look at, and say, “Well, if I don’t have a job, I certainly shouldn’t be spending 30 minutes journaling in thee morning, I should be looking for a job.” It is essential in my view. When I think about the work I do now with private clients who are looking to change their careers, or have been laid off and are trying to get back on their feet, this is something I insist upon, that they do something that gets them out of their head for a little bit, out of the kind of runaway train of thoughts into creating some space, so they can learn from what they’re experiencing, and draw on the richness of their other experiences to have deeper insights.
Will: Wow. That really resonates. Just even five or 10 minutes a day of writing in a journal, doing morning pages, like Julia Cameron recommends, or some meditation, that just magic starts to happen, and just ideas seem-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: To come to you when you start that.
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: That was amazing. That was a 100% of the thrivers were doing that-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: And is it also true that the stuck people, or the stuck, or the settle people were not doing that?
Nayla: Were not.
Will: Wow.
Nayla: Were not.
Will: That’s amazing.
Nayla: It’s funny, before we got on, I think before we started recording you mentioned the idea of routine, like what do people do, what do I do for a routine, and I think this is the kind of thing, some people are naturally wired would be wrong word, but they have habits around this before career kind of steps in. Right? Either you’re an active journaler, or a meditator, or you have that long walk every morning with your neighbor who you talk to, and gives you that moment of reflection.
Not everyone, the good news about this is most people who I studied who did it learned to do it the hard way, they learned it because they felt backed into a corner by the pressure, and the sadness, and the frustration of this experience, and they were testing things out, which we’ll talk about in a minute, and they kind of found that you know what after four weeks of just waking up feeling awful every day, my dad gave me a notebook, or my wife said, “We’re going for a walk,” or something kind of pushed them into a routine. I say that because I think it’s important to know that it’s not like people who were meditators before a layoff who found this practice helpful.
This is an epitome of a learned behavior of just something where you say, “You know what? I can put in 20 minutes a day. I can build it into my schedule to write, to pray, to go for this walk, to join a group that meets twice a week to talk about this stuff.” It’s available to everybody, and you mentioned Julia Cameron, which I love, and I give that book to a lot of people for the same reason that it’s a way of feeding ourselves that we just don’t do anymore. I think it’s super critical, and the evidence is there in my research, and every client I’ve worked with since that this really unlocks a lot of access, and the richness of our own insight.
Will: Learn about yourself from your network. Invest in yourself outside of work. Have some reflective practice. What is number four?
Nayla: Okay. Now, we’re going to move outside of the inner work into action, that’s externally facing.
Will: All right.
Nayla: I call these practices to be around claiming your value broadly. The first one of them is owning your expertise. This was a big surprise for me, and this was also something that was deeply resonate for me as I was doing the research, and I’ll tell you why. Owning your expertise is about being able to be really confident, clear, and certain about what it is that you’re great at, and what you do to add value that’s agnostic of your organization, or your title. Of course, when you have been laid off you can’t hang your worth on I do this function at this company. You have to be able to say what it is that you do regardless of who employs you, who pays you for that.
This probably will feel very available to you as a consultant, I’d love to hear the story of how you got here, but I’ll tell you that for me being the dean of students at Columbia Business School was a really easy way to describe what I did, so if I met someone at a cocktail party, or if I was somewhere in town, and someone said, “Oh, what do you do,” which is one of my favorite questions but, “What do you do?” I can say, “I’m the dean of students at Columbia Business School,” and it was like [inaudible 00:27:55] it fit into like a text box, more or less people had a sense of what that meant. When, as a result of all the many things that were happening in my life in the period that I was doing the dissertation I started thinking, maybe I want to do something else.
One of the things I found was that being attached to that title made it really hard for me to think about what I was good at, because what I knew was that I was the dean of students at Columbia Business School, and what it really came down to like what are the things I know how to do, what is the value I had? What is my expertise? I needed help figuring that out, because I had become so defined by the title, and the role, and the organization. Once that’s gone, like if you’re no longer employed you can’t say, “I’m the such and such at the such and such.” You have to say, “This is what I do.” I find that a lot of the work I do with clients is around answering this question, because everyone knows what their job is, not everyone knows what their expert at, or what they’re great at, or where they add value.
Will: When you say that owning their expertise, was that just personally coming to terms with it, or was it like being able to articulate it, and put it on LinkedIn, or being able to say it with a straight face to somebody?
Nayla: All the above.
Will: What do you mean? Okay.
Nayla: All three of the above. It’s so interesting because you’re right you start with being able to answer for yourself like what is it that I actually do well? Like what is it? I sometimes say this to people, “What do people call you for? What is the reason you’re brought to a meeting besides your title, besides like the role, the official role that you have in a company? Why are you asked to be in a meeting? Why do people knock on your door, and say, “Can I have a second? I need your insight on something.” Right? You start to answer the question about what you do in those moments. First it’s for most of us to say, “I don’t run the office of this, that, and the other thing. I do this, I solve problems. I create programs.” Whatever the act is that you do, whatever the thinking is that you do. Then there’s the part about getting comfortable talking about it. Right?
Here’s one place from in my study where gender really showed up, because my study is not about gender, but in this place it was really interesting, that when I would say to people in the course of all these interviews, “What was the thing you thought you would do professionally right after the layoff?” On average, I was talking to people who had 10 to 12 years work experience, minimum. All of them had a college degree. Most of them had a graduate degree. All the men I talked to said, “Well, I thought I’d consult. I thought, I’ll hang a shingle, and I’ll just share my wisdom. I’ll solve problems for other people.”
Will: Because lord knows anybody can be a consultant.
Nayla: God, knows. I’ll I got to do is hang a sign. Right? Print up a business card, voila you’re a consultant. Every guy I talked to said this. The women, all said, “Well, I’m probably going to go back to school, and get another masters, and then maybe I’ll take a consulting skills course, and then probably I’ll get certified in something, and then I’ll think about consulting.”
Will: Wow.
Nayla: It was a 100% of the women said that, even the women who had 20 years of experience were like, “I have to go, like my ability to consult or to be an expert is around the corner. I just need to do a couple things to get there.” The men were like, “I’m ready. Put me in.” Right? I thought that was so interesting, because the women didn’t have less experience, they just hadn’t learned how to talk about what they knew how to do.
You mentioned like LinkedIn, and all, yeah, I mean, I think part of it is knowing what you know how to do, and figuring out what lights you up, what you’re great at, where you’re uniquely qualified to add value, solve problems, create opportunities. But then to be contrary about telling the story without wanting to vomit. Right? Would be being able to tell the story in a way that feels real, and feels comfortable, and meaningful, but it was surprising to me how many people as a virtue of having their what do you do question answered by a title, which is suddenly like, oh, my God I got to answer that question without my business card.
Will: In all seriousness, I mean, that’s actually I guess somewhat surprising to me this stark difference, and also just concerning, and what do you think is the driver of that, and about why there was that gender difference that you found?
Nayla: You know that’s a great question I don’t know if I could answer it broadly. I can tell you for what it was like for me, and if I refer into a couple of the clients I’ve worked with lately I think it might be in my case especially when your achievement oriented, there’s these kind of milestones we create for ourselves around, if I could hit a certain title, and a certain role, and a certain level in my organization then I would have made it. Right? That equals success.
I think that becomes the yardstick through which we measure, great, like if I have something I can say on LinkedIn that sounds really impressive, or that it meets the criteria to get me the A plus, and a lot of my clients are women, and a lot of us come, you know, I don’t want to point my finger at any one organization, institution, you know, family unit, whatever, but there’s a lot around measurement, and how we have been trained, and rewarded for measuring up.
What I think that might do is just pivot the attention really on the external yardstick of greatness, and away from our internal definition of greatness, or success, or competence for that matter. I think that might be part of it. That in a landscape that has this kind of collecting credentials, and degrees, and titles, and institutions with great names, so that we feel recognized, and it means like, oh, we’ve done something meaningful. It’s to move away from saying oh, but the thing that’s meaningful, but I know how to solve this problem, or I know how to do this thing. I think part of it is just early on. I talked to my women students about this, like early on in your career to think about what it is you know how to do, what it is you know how to solve, and how you contribute, agnostic of the title. Agnostic of the role. I think that’s part of it, at least for me.
Will: Well, I mean, this research I think that you’ve done is so helpful to kind of, and I’m sure your coaching clients, but to make that apparent, you know, to men and to women, and perhaps someone who thought she had to go back to school, and, oh, everybody would have to go and get another masters, and get certified, and so forth, making it clear that you know what, all the men think they can just go out and do it.
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Maybe that-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Maybe making that clear that it’s actually not necessary, and-
Nayla: Yeah. I think that’s really true, and I think that is something actually leads really well into my final practice, which is around conducting experiments. The last thing that everybody who is in this group was doing differently is they were putting experiments out there, they were building these small, safe ways of testing ideas, and impressions, assumptions, and they were gathering more data. One of them was, do I need to go back? My one woman, who had worked in a nonprofit, and she was very attached to the mission of the nonprofit, and had been climbing up, and then they just lost their funding, and they ended up laying off more than half of their team.
She was thinking that maybe she uses this period of time after layoff to get more certification, because in the long run her goal was to run a nonprofit, and she said, “You know, I don’t have a ton of fundraising experience, I need it, I’ll need it, because I want to be the president, or the chairman, or the chairperson of a nonprofit, so I should go take a fundraising course,” and when she got the price tag of the course, she kind of had this moment where she’s like, “I don’t think I should be spending this right now, so I wonder how I can figure out if I actually need the course to get the experience.”
She basically pitched her services pro bono to another nonprofit she had been volunteering with and said, “I’d love to help you with this fundraising thing you’re doing,” and to see if there are skills that, that job requires that I don’t have or that I could learn by doing. That was just one example of how people were just designing these experiments to test them about thinking. Is it true that I must work in a classroom to be happy? Is it true that I must have this course to be able to add value in this particular way? Is it true that I don’t like client facing work anymore? They were designing these small experiments that they could control, and then learn from as part of their recovery from the experience.
That I think for me personally has been the most impactful, and it’s been a big driver in how I’ve shaped my life since Columbia, and it is probably, I try not to give too much advice, but if I were to give a lot of advice this would be it, which is if there’s something you’re curious about, or interested in, or you can tell that you have a belief that might need to be challenged, design an experiment to find out. Something safe. Something small. Something manageable. And put it out there.
Will: Wow. I’m such a fan of that, of experiments, or you could position it as a side project, but just doing small things I guess somehow I stumbled on kind of that philosophy myself-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Like a number of years ago, I just thought, “Oh, it would be kind of cool to give training on consulting skills,” so I just found someone to donate a room, like a law firm or something, and put it out there in the Columbia Business School list serve, and 12 people, 14 people signed up for a day, it was super fun. Right?
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: That was years ago, and then that kind of lead to doing these professional development sessions kind of eventually helped grow into Umbrex.
Nayla: There you go.
Will: I mean just doing a little side projects, or start a blog, or-
Nayla: Yep.
Will: Just start something, and start it super small, and using free Google list serve, or whatever.
Nayla: Sure.
Will: And that’s amazing. What were some of the experiments that you saw people doing? Can you give any examples of those experiments that-
Nayla: Sure.
Will: You gave one about the nonprofit-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Any others?
Nayla: Yeah. Some of them looked like the job search itself, and some of them looked like creating work, what I call creating work, or making work. For instance, I had one, one of my participants was a guy from Wall Street who had been laid off this was like half his firm, and he was someone who had what he felt was a version to networking, where he thought it felt kind of smarmy, and icky to talk to people about what he did, and to ask people what they did, he just didn’t like it, but when six months in he hadn’t found something, he wasn’t getting of course bites from submitting to job boards, or anything like that. He called someone he used to work with, and they said, “Try to give yourself a big target, and see if you can have a 100 conversations in a 100 days.” That’s a big number. Right?
But he made himself a board. He made himself like a whiteboard in his office at home, and he made a 100 day calendar, and then I’m going to have a 100 conversations in a 100 days, just to see if I can do it, to see if I can do it without hating myself at the end of it. He almost gamified it. Right? It turns out that he didn’t get all the way to a 100, it’s a really big number, but he got to about 60 conversations in a 100 days, and it showed you a couple things, one it gave him a really big target to work with, and it ended up yielding the right conversation at the right time for the right opportunity, but more importantly it tested his assumption that networking was going to feel awful, and that he would hate himself for doing it. That was one.
A lot of people did this kind of side hustle thing you’re talking about, which is either in or outside of their scope of primary work, so I had a couple participants who had these things they loved to do, I had one who was a baker, I had one who was a jewelry maker, I had one who was a spin instructor, who basically said, “This other thing I love in my life, and it is not to do with my main work. I’m going to see if I can monetize it. I’m going to see if I can have fun with it. If I could learn about marketing by selling jewelry on Ebay, and just kind of building those little kinds of experiments.” Then I had other people who were doing side hustles that ended up morphing into their real job, into primary jobs.
That woman who went to the nonprofit and said, “I want to think about how to gain skills in fundraising, and I want to do it through work, not through a class,” she ended up doing a great job over the course of eight months, and it actually converted it into a full-time role, and now she’s leading that organization. I think that there’s a lot of ways to play with the idea of experimentation, but the important thing is that it provides data to you about you, about do you love this thing? Can you become good at this thing? Can you thrive in an environment that maybe you thought was not for you? That’s how my coaching business started.
I was telling a friend while I was still at Columbia that this was where I wanted to spend at least a third of my time, and he said, “Put it out there, so the people that you’ve worked with, and have been your students over the last 15 years, just let them know that you’re going to be launching this as a side hustle and see what happens.” I sweated for the first two days that I was crafting the email, and sending it out to groups of people, and it yielded so much knowledge for me about what I love to do, what I’m great at, and where I add value. It turns out that it can be 30% of my work. It’s been really great for me.
Even stepping out of Columbia period was a big experiment for me. I made the decisions, part of all this research I was doing I was giving a lot of thought to what I was great at, where I add the most value, where how I was feeling in a relationship to my work, was work running my life, or was I running my life? I ended up saying, you know I think I need to step out of higher ED for a while, and try something in corporate and see. I have this belief that I have something to say, and that I have a way of looking at leadership development, and creating programs, and building leaders that’s really useful.
I also carried an assumption that corporate might not be for me, but I want to know, I don’t want to just walk around with that belief, because I spent 20 years on a college campus. I kind of experimented myself out of one job into another. I think all of us kind of owe ourselves this way of testing, and that’s why I say, “Start small, and then you can grow your experiments to be big.”
Will: Yeah. You’ve taken your own medicine.
Nayla: In many ways.
Will: If someone uses their network to learn about themselves, they invest in themselves outside of work, they have a reflective practice, they claim their own value, and they experiment. Do you have anything to suggest and maybe with your coaching practice that it’s not just something inherent in the folks that were thriving, but if someone who were stuck like adopts those practices, or some subset of them that it will then start changing, you know, moving the needle for their career, is it something that someone can decide to adopt those behaviors, and then it’ll actually kind of make a difference?
Nayla: Yeah. I mean, I am a 100% a believer that we can adopt behaviors that are for us, and that will move us in the right direction. I think, and I’ve seen it not only in the research I did for this dissertation, but also in my own work, both with my kind of day job, and the people I worked with there, and in my coaching, and in my teaching. I think the hard part is really wanting to make the change, and then sticking to it, like building the scaffolding, and structure that make you get on the right track until these new behaviors are habits.
Then it is the way that you’re working. This is the framework I use when I talk to people and coach people all the time, I mean, there’s a lot of other tools, and processes I use, but when people say to me, “I feel stuck. I’m not happy. I know I can do better,” or “I just need to get back to work, and have been out of work for whatever reason I’ll use most of these tools, and say, “Look, let’s start creating a direction for you, and let’s start building some momentum.”
I think the hard thing like anything like developing a healthy workout, or eating habit is that there’s a lot of things we say we want, and yet we’ve somehow become attached to the way things are. Right? Like there is something about saying, “Oh, woe is me, I’ve been wronged by work,” that feels maybe not great, but it feels familiar. What this requires you to do is a lot of work, I mean, there’s work behind this in the same way there’s work behind getting ready to run a marathon, or to lose 20 pounds, or anything else that you want for yourself.
That’s what’s hard is not, it’s not knowing what you want, but it’s kind of making the daily, weekly, monthly changes, and having that consistency to get where you want to get. The thing about the people I studied was that they felt like their options were exhausted. Right? When you’ve been out of work, and you need to pay your rent, or your mortgage, and your kids need to go to school, or camp, the momentum you give them, the meaning behind getting it done feels really, really big.
I think the hard thing is that when you find someone whose in a job that’s acceptable, it’s not great, but it’s acceptable it’s easy to kind of stay, and be happy with that discomfort, or be content with that discomfort rather than just say, “I’m going to push myself to put these practices into work, consistently to get where I want to get.” That’s why people join groups, or coaching, so that they have someone whose going to keep them accountable, keep them moving through it, but they have to want it.
Will: Any tips that you have that you maybe you use with your coaching clients on how practically to implement some of these new habits? Because it’s so tough to change your-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Own behavior.
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Anything that you found that really helps people implement one or more of these?
Nayla: Well, there was an article, I get the Daily Stoic mailing list thing, and there was a piece yesterday about routine, and structure. I hate to admit that I have to do that, like I’m not someone for a lot of the things, for work this is the field I spent all my time thinking about, so this is less difficult for me, but for me for instance getting physically fit is not something that I’m naturally wired for. I don’t wake up, and think, whoa, I can’t wait to put my sneakers on, and go to the gym. I have to build routine, and infrastructure.
I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. We kind of act our way into new ways of thinking rather than kind of waiting for that moment of inspiration to strike. I think building routines into your calendar, and having people who keep you accountable for me it’s a trainer, really makes a big difference, and so for people who I’m working with a lot of the time I’m playing that role of accountability partner to kind of, you said you wanted to do this thing, this is the work for this week, are you doing this weeks work?
If you’re someone who can live by your calendar, if your partner, your spouse can play that role, if your running group, or if your career group can help play that role, I think having a routine that’s, I call it scaffolding, like building the infrastructure to keep things going even when you don’t want to, because if we’re waiting for the moment of want, I think it’s going to be hard, and we’re going to have moments that feel very inspired, and productive, and we’re going to have days when we just want to watch Netflix.
I think having scaffolding makes a big, big difference. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all for scaffolding, I think sometimes it’s people, sometimes it’s process, like your calendar. That’s why testing is so important, it’s another form of experimentation, “Let’s try this for a week. Can you get up? If your Outlook calendar tells you, you need to spend the hour between 9:00 and 10:00 at the gym, or 9:00 and 10:00 making two phone calls, and you’re able to stick to the calendar, fantastic. If that’s not working, let’s try something else,” But I think building the consistency through routine, for me, for my clients, from everything I read, I think that’s the way to go.
Will: Nayla, it has been awesome having you on the show, and great to hear about this. These are super practical tips, and I’m motivated now to go back and think about how I can implement more of this.
Nayla: That’s great. Thank you. It’s been great to be here, and I’m always happy to talk to you, and talk about this stuff. I look forward to hearing how-
Will: How can people-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: I’m sorry. I wanted to ask you, before I forgot, how can people find you Nayla, if they wanted to followup, or potentially approach you for some coaching, or-
Nayla: Yeah.
Will: Find out more about your work? What is the best place for people to go?
Nayla: I’m hoping this summer my website will be up and running, naylabahri.com, but right now it just points to my LinkedIn profile, which is how a lot of people find me, through referrals, but my name is my website, and my handle for my LinkedIn, and I’d love to hear from people.
Will: We will include those links in the show notes.
Nayla: Thank you so much.
Will: Nayla, it’s been great to have you.
Nayla: Thanks, Will.

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