427: Take Control: How To Thrive In Your Role And Become Your Best Self

Employee engagement is popular, but it is employer-driven and doesn’t focus on what you can do for yourself.



Rachel Cooke, Founder, Lead Above Noise

Rachel Cooke is the Founder of Lead Above Noise - a team, leadership, and organization development consultancy that unlocks business results by building thriving teams. She is also the host of Macmillan’s Quick and Dirty Tips Modern Mentor podcast – a weekly show designed to inform, equip, and empower listeners to define and create their own versions of professional success.

on this episode

Many companies focus on the idea of “Employee Engagement”, but much of that concept is employer dependent. What most people don’t realize is that you can actually take ownership of your role yourself and make it work for you.

Rachel Cooke joins us today to share how you can take control to deliver your best work, and thrive in your role.

What you’ll learn

  • What it means to deliver your best work and become your best self
  • How you can develop new skills, capabilities, and talents
  • The importance of connecting with your team and community with a sense of purpose
  • What you can do on your own so that you can thrive in your work

Success Stories

Exactly 5 weeks from when I arrived in Canada I got a full time job, negotiated a higher salary and within the next 3 days I got another offer that pays 33% more. I am happy and very thankful to you, for you gave me support when I was looking and offered great tips.

Ingrid , United States/Canada

Scott helped me learn what my strengths are and what is most important to me… but more important than that I learned about what I can't stop doing that I have to have in my work to make me happy

Rhushi Bhadkamkar, Senior Consultant, Strategy and Core Operations, United States/Canada

I think one of the reasons the podcast has been so helpful to me is because you talk to people in different roles, and all of a sudden I have exposure to people in different roles. Talking about why they got there and what they like about it.

Laura Morrison, Senior Product Manager, United States/Canada

Rachel Cooke 00:01
Are there things that are keeping you from delivering the work that you believe you are hired to do? And that might mean things like, are you being micromanaged? Are there lots of administrative obstacles in your way? Are you struggling to have clarity on expectations or priorities? There are a million things that can hold us back from delivering our best work.

Introduction 00:26
This is the Happen To Your Career podcast, with Scott Anthony Barlow. We help you stop doing work that doesn't fit you, figure out what does and make it happen. We help you define the work that's unapologetically you, and then go get it. If you're ready to make a change, keep listening. Here's Scott. Here's Scott. Here's Scott.

Scott Anthony Barlow 00:50
I worked in HR leadership for many years long before HTYC was even never thought of. And I grew to hate the term employee engagement. Why? Well, partially because it's a buzzword and became a buzzword over the last 20 plus years. However, there's another really large reason, so many organizations talk about it, but not really doing anything of serious impact to help their employees actually be happier and more fulfilled at their work. And the crazy thing is that you don't actually have to wait. As it turns out, most people don't even realize that there are things that you can do. So you're not waiting in your organization to drive employee engagement, and actually allow you to be more fulfilled. So what is it that you can do to take ownership of your role in a way that actually matters, and allows you to be more happy more often in your career.

Rachel Cooke 01:51
And I think that there's absolutely a role that companies need to play in helping their teams craft that. But I also think we are all very much empowered to shape shift our own employee experiences, I think companies works really well is when you have both the enterprise and the individual employees all steering in the same direction.

Scott Anthony Barlow 02:12
That's Rachel Cooke. She's the founder of Lead Above Noise and also the host of Macmillan's Quick and Dirty Tips, modern mentor podcast. Today, Rachel's going to share how you can take control to deliver your best work and thrive without waiting on your company.

Rachel Cooke 02:29
I went to college to study psychology thinking that I wanted to be a therapist, and I love therapy, I believe in therapy. But I think I came out realizing I was a little intimidated by the idea of the human as a patient. But what if I could make the organization my patient? That just felt safer for me. So I went back to school for a master's degree in organizational psychology. And I have spent the bulk of my career working in the realm of people and HR. I spent several years doing HR full time and have been consulting on my own for six years now.

Scott Anthony Barlow 03:02
What prompted you to go from working HR full time? Which you and I have that in common. I spent a lot of years in HR as well, a whole bunch of other professions too, but very familiar with the HR side. What prompted you to go from HR to work in consulting?

Rachel Cooke 03:17
Yeah, you know, for me, I felt like I would never have so much hubris as to say that I learned everything that there was for me to learn, there's always more to learn. But at the same time, I felt like a lot of my energy was getting expended on what felt like being a cog in a wheel, I was executing on somebody else's vision, I feel like I was fighting in a rat race I didn't even think I wanted to be in and I didn't really see a path for growth, because for me, it felt like growth meant promotion and getting more senior and sort of being more polished and speaking more corporate speak. And that just wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to not continue executing on somebody else's vision. But I wanted to step out and create change and deliver impact in a way that felt more meaningful to me and that I felt like I kind of needed to be an outsider looking in in order to do.

Scott Anthony Barlow 04:07
So that's super interesting, partially because one of the things that you and I are gonna get to talk about today is ways for... if you're in the situation where your company isn't necessarily providing an amazing experience for you to be able to do that for yourself. And growth is something that it sounds like you weren't getting in the way that you wanted to, to put it mildly. Is that an understatement?

Rachel Cooke 04:33
No, it's totally right. And I think the key there is that growth isn't just one thing. It's what you define it to be. I was getting a ton of growth as the company decided what growth looked like, it just wasn't what I wanted.

Scott Anthony Barlow 04:46
So what's an example of that? What is something that you were not getting that you really were missing or looking for?

Rachel Cooke 04:53
For me, it was really opportunities to have bolder conversations. So in my last role, I was in HR business partner, and my role was really to sit down with my senior business leader and kind of listen and listen to his plans and his vision and help him execute on it. And I didn't feel incredibly empowered to challenge him to push back, to probe, to coach him in a way that might infringe upon his ego. And that sounds kind of terrible. But I think that leaders within a company are willing to take a certain degree of coaching and pushback from an external consultant in ways that they won't from their internal business partner. And so for me, it wasn't about, you know, how is the company grooming me? How are they positioning me for the next level? I really wanted to impact change in ways that I just didn't feel like I had permission to.

Scott Anthony Barlow 05:40
I've experienced that as well, what you said about how sometimes you have consultants as an example, where they're able to come in and deliver a different type of feedback or a different type of advice. And it's paid attention to differently than, and not in all organizations, but certainly in many organizations, I've experienced that as well. So what's an example of tha, where now, if we're bringing this full circle to where you're at currently, you get to have that type of growth and those bolder conversations that you wanted to?

Rachel Cooke 06:15
Yeah, so one example that is very real time for me right now I'm working with the CEO of a business. And he and I keep having this conversation where he talks about conversations in the realm of, he always think about it as a dichotomy. So a conversation is either it's very action oriented, right? We're talking about results, we're talking about something quantifiable, measurable, we're action planning, or we're having a Kumbaya moment, and in his words, and in his mind, either we are executing, or we're like holding hands and singing a song. And where I have had the opportunity to really push his thinking, and I don't think I would have had the opportunity to do this if I were internal is I pushed back and I said, "Listen, I get that we may not right now, with your team, be having a conversation that feels totally like it belongs in a spreadsheet." I said, "But there's a lot of space between spreadsheets and Kumbaya. You know, we're having a conversation with your team right now around, how do they move forward? How do they collaborate more effectively? How do they better support each other and show up as a leadership team versus a team of leaders? And I think that there are genuine obstacles to that that need to be addressed and made visible. And so by putting those things out there by somebody on the team, being willing to say, "Hey, you know, I pitched this idea a few weeks ago, and you guys shut me down. You didn't even, you know, give me an opportunity to explain or you didn't ask me any questions." I said, By raising those things with your team, you actually have the power to move them forward. And I strenuously reject your assertion that that means it's a Kumbaya moment, right? So being able to really push him and challenge him and say, I do not accept your assertion. I don't think you can do that when the person on the other end of the conversation is your boss.

Scott Anthony Barlow 07:55
Under what circumstances have you seen it work where you're able to have that same type of pushing or similar, even if it's not exactly the same? So I'm super curious about.

Rachel Cooke 08:05
Well, what I think is that when you are a cog in the wheel of a company, and this is totally just my experience, I think there's an unspoken expectation that you're there to be part of the team and to support executing, but the whole group is executing. When somebody brings me in, they're going out of their way, they are making a conscious investment in wanting to hear a contradiction, in wanting to be pushed, in wanting to be challenged. It's not just that I have permission to do that. There's an expectation that I'm doing that, otherwise, what are they paying me for? So there's a bit of a self selecting thing that's happening there. I'm not saying every leader in the world is going to want my pushback. But what I am saying is the ones who have sought me out are the ones that do. So I don't have a choice, but to be a little bit bold and brave and candid with them. Otherwise, what are they paying me for?

Scott Anthony Barlow 08:54
Well, I think what's particularly useful as I'm listening to you tell that set of stories and what has worked for you is that you have to either find those environments in which you're getting the right rate areas of growth. In this case, you know, we started talking about growth, or you have to go and to some degree, create your own or find another one, right. So that brings us very much brings us full circle, because one of the biggest things that I wanted to ask you about is, what if it isn't working? What if you're in that position, let's go back, how many years ago was it that you were working in HR and having these slots? Okay, so six years ago, let's go back six years ago for a minute and say that, you know, for someone who's in a similar position where they're not quite getting the growth that they want, or they're not getting their buttons pushed in the right way for them, you know, how can they impact that? How can they enhance their own employee experiences?

Rachel Cooke 09:50
So what I will say is that for me, there were a number of life circumstances that were converging. So everything I said, is the honest truth. And also, I had kids and this was obviously well before the pandemic. And so there was an expectation that I was commuting. And I felt like I wasn't present for my kids. And so there were a whole bunch of circumstances that were converging that told me that my path was to step out and hang my own shingle and start my own business. I do not believe that that is necessarily the path for everybody. And I do not believe that for anyone who's maybe feeling like they need a little bit more love at work, the only answer is just to step out, I absolutely think that would be a terrifying thing to say, I think if you're in a position where you're not getting exactly what you want, but you want to make it work, you know, you love your company, you love being an employee. And by the way, there's nothing wrong with wanting to be part of somebody else's vision and playing a role and executing it. And I don't mean to imply that that is a bad thing. It just wasn't what I wanted personally. But if you love being part of a company, believe in your company's mission, you want to stick around, but you're just not feeling the love. You know, I do a lot of work with organizations on crafting meaningful employee experiences. And I think that there's absolutely a role that companies need to play in helping their teams craft that. But I also think we are all very much empowered to shape shift our own employee experiences, I think companies works really well is when you have both the enterprise and the individual employees all steering in the same direction. And so the framework that I use with companies, and that I use with CEOs and leaders, I think works just as well for the individual. So I love to talk about the employee experience through the lens of four pillars. So I think that there are some companies that think the employee experiences about, like, you know, pre COVID, it was, you know, we had food and foosball tables in the lobbies, and free massages. And you know, maybe now during the pandemic, it's more, you know, zoom happy hours, and virtual yoga, and those are cool, like, those are fun. And if you want to keep doing those as a company, I say go for it. But don't confuse those kind of sizzle and physical benefits as your employee experience. As far as I'm concerned, what creates a really powerful employee experience is when we can do four things: we can deliver our best work and our best selves, we can develop new skills, capabilities and talents, we can connect with our teams with a community with a sense of purpose, we feel belonging, and we can thrive, we feel well, we feel supported, we feel recognized, we feel like we have boundaries. When I work with organizations, those are the four pillars that we focus on. But I believe that an employee has certainly the power to take some steps in those four realms on their own, depending on what feels most absent for them. So let me pause there and see how that lands and I can keep going for hours. But that's probably not feasible.

Scott Anthony Barlow 12:43
I feel like we could probably have an eight or nine long hour conversation, maybe with bathroom breaks, I don't know about these particular topics. So here's what I'm particularly interested in, you know, when people are thinking about it not working, in this case, the employee experience, let's keep using that lingo, the employee experience is not working, they usually means that something is missing, or misfiring or something is not connecting, an expectation is not being met in one way or another, the expectation of the employee. So my question for you, is about, you know, when you think about these four pillars that you mentioned, what are some examples of each of those pillars? And specifically, how people can impact of this employee experience, maybe even what might be missing in each of these pillars?

Rachel Cooke 13:42
Absolutely. So if you think about the first one, which is deliver, you know, there's some great research out of Gallup, they publish every year, their state of the American workforce report. And what they say year over year, is that the number one driver that employees are looking for when they're evaluating new jobs is to what extent do they believe they're going to have the opportunity to deliver what they were hired to do. People care deeply, they want to show up and do their best work. So when I talk about deliver, what I push people to think about is, are there things that are keeping you from delivering the work that you believe you are hired to do? And that might mean things like, are you being micromanaged? Are there lots of administrative obstacles in your way? Are you struggling to have clarity on expectations or priorities? There are a million things that can hold us back from delivering our best work. So I really encourage people to think about if that feels like the space where you're sort of falling down, you're not getting to do the work that you care about. Ask yourself what would feel different? You know, are there... are you sitting in back to back meetings all day and you feel like you're not able to get anything done? And what can you do about that? Can you talk to your boss and say, "Hey, I'm in meetings all day. I've identified two that I really just don't think I need to be in and I feel like I could have so much more impact if I spent those two hours doing something else." You know, it's finding the things that hold you back and then proposing small solutions that might make things incrementally better. Right? Sometimes we're not able to get our best work done, because we need to collaborate with another team that isn't showing up as we need them to. So can you pull somebody? Can you sit down with someone on the other team and just say, "Hey, is there a better way for me to request the data that I need from you?" Or is there a better way, you know, but it's about having the conversations being a participant in finding the solutions, but those are the types of things that I would look for under the deliver pillar.

Scott Anthony Barlow 15:35
That's really, first of all, thank you for your exact language and an example. That's super helpful. And second of all, I think that when you're talking about those areas that are not working, I think it's really easy to point out what those areas are that are not working, it's much more difficult to be able to identify potential solutions, and then go and do something to impact that. So I so appreciate you saying that and just wanted to notate that and any other examples that you have for these pillars where we can demonstrate, you know, here's how you would go to your boss, or here's how you'd go to another team member that's super helpful to make that impact.

Rachel Cooke 16:13
Yeah, so let's do one in develop, right. It's all about developing new skills. And I think for a lot of people that translates to, like, I need to go to a four day training program, or I need an executive coach. And the truth is, there are a million ways that we can find development, and maybe your company isn't investing in really rigorous programs right now. But hey, is there a project that you want to get a chance to have your hands on? Is there a committee you can ask to sit on? Is there something that you watch your boss do that you would like to suggest that you take off of his or her plate, right? Hey, you know, I watched you deliver this weekly report to your boss every week, can I help you put that together? Can I lead a team meeting? Right? It's about finding small ways to challenge yourself within the confines of your everyday work and asking for what you want. But not "Hey, can you give me $10,000, so I can go to this conference?" I mean, if the money's there, go for it. But don't let yourself off the hook and say, "Well, if I can't go to this $10,000 conference, I'm just not getting development." It's about being creative, and finding ways to challenge yourself and grow your skills that are easy, they're easy for your boss to say 'yes' to. How could your boss say, "No, I prefer to do this heavy lift myself, you go back to your desk." right? It's sort of a can't lose situation. So that's the type of example I would look for there.

Scott Anthony Barlow 17:32
Well, I think what's really interesting about that, too, is after you build a behavior pattern of doing that, what people don't think about is their training their boss or training their co workers to be able to be responsive to that. And after you do a couple of those smaller requests, you're starting to build a track record, you're starting to build a pattern of behavior, and they're expecting more of that. And then it's easier to go to the "Hey, can we use this $20,000 for development or whatever it might be?" It's so much easier to take that bridge from there.

Rachel Cooke 17:59
Totally, that is exactly right. That is exactly right. It is about creating small wins and building momentum along the way so that over time you gain permission to maybe ask for bigger ones.

Scott Anthony Barlow 18:11
Yeah. Okay, this is so good. Let's do another pillar.

Rachel Cooke 18:13
Oh, okay. So Connect. I think connection has always been important. But it is at the top of my list right now. There's so many people who are feeling so disconnected. And I think that we need to be intentional, I think what's most important is that we don't default to assume that connection only happens in one way, that there are zoom happy hours. And if I don't join the zoom, no, people are exhausted. Everybody needs something different. Right. And there are some people right now who are working and homeschooling their kids, and they've got toddlers and then there are other people who are maybe in a different phase of life, and they live by themselves and their kids are grown and they're lonely. So you know, finding ways to connect with people and ask them you know, what do you need, you know, if you yourself are feeling disconnected, what can you ask for? How can you role model reaching out, checking in with somebody asking for help? I think that's a really important thing to do, but also staying connected not just to individuals and not just to community but also feeling connected to purpose. So if you take a look around at how you've just spent your day, can you see how whatever tasks you've done, actually drive whatever impact your company is delivering? Or do you feel like you've just spent your day doing a whole bunch of busy work that just feels really disconnected? And if you can't find that connection, go talk to your boss, go talk to a colleague, but ask them "Hey, help me understand like, listen, we're in financial services and as a company I think it's amazing that we help consumers you know, get access to loans so they can buy a home or you know, they finance that they can retire" but like "I spend six hours a day in this spreadsheet that feels pretty mundane and administrative, like am I adding value here?" You know, find ways to really check and by the way, if you are spending six hours a day on something that isn't adding value, can you find a way to simplify that a little bit so that you can get a little bit more time back and do something that makes you feel a little bit more connected to customers, you know, do some customer research or do some, you know, whatever would make you feel more connected to purpose, but being mindful of how connected do you currently feel, and what can you do to take one small step in the right direction.

Scott Anthony Barlow 20:23
I think that's so powerful. And the research around all of that is unequivocal, all the studies, every single one that I've seen supports that if you cannot directly see and connect how what you're doing is making an impact, then it's not going to feel fulfilling for very long, there's going to be an expiration or a honeymoon period that wears off, and then it's going to not be particularly rewarding in any way whatsoever. So I appreciate you pointing that out. Okay, we have one pillar left here.

Rachel Cooke 20:52
We have one left. Oh, and it is thrive and thriving is really just about like if everything else is getting you to baseline, thriving is where you're kind of soaring. So this to me is about boundaries. It's about feeling recognized, right? It's about feeling like people would feel your absence if you weren't there. If you feel like you're burning the candle at both ends, and you're burning out, can you talk to your boss? Can you ask for help? Can you ask for the boundaries that you need him or her to respect? Or if you feel like you're giving it your all and you're just kind of being taken for granted, can you ask for recognition? And you don't have to call it recognition, you know, you don't have to say "Listen, I've been working hard. So I would like some extra cash or a reward here." Now that can feel really uncomfortable. But what you can do is sit down with your boss and say, "Hey, I've really been putting my all into this project. And I just don't feel like I've heard much. I wonder if you have any feedback from me, you know, how's it going?" And a lot of times what will happen is your boss will say something like, "Oh my gosh, you know, I'm so sorry, I've been so focused on the people who've been underperforming, I just haven't had a chance to come back and tell you like, hey, you're doing an amazing job." Or if there's a chance that you're putting your all into a piece of work, and it's actually not being well received, then it gives your boss a chance to give you that feedback. But either way, if you're not feeling recognized, asking for it, or asking for feedback to help you understand what could get you recognized, and also letting your boss know or your peers know how you like to be recognized. You know, some people like a public celebrations, some people just want to quiet email, some people see recognition as you know, when I'm doing great work, I feel recognized when other people seek out my expertise, you know, recognition comes in many forms. And so reflecting on how you like to experience it, and then asking for it and also role modeling it, those are some great ways to turn up the dial on that one.

Scott Anthony Barlow 22:46
And I think that's a really common theme for every area that you've mentioned so far. Whether it's recognition, or whether it's how you connect back what work you're doing to having an impact or any other area, it looks different for every single person. And recognition is such a great example of that. Because I have met many people over the years where they have a negative association with recognition based on some of you know, how they were raised. And like, I don't need no recognition. I don't know why that voice comes out. That should what it came from. However, yeah, that's real. And understanding that it looks drastically different per person, it can be so useful, because then you can go and have that conversation that you're talking about and say, "Hey, look, here's what I need." And you know, here's a good example. And I'm super curious to ask what works for you too. But for me, part of recognition is having conversations with people where they will confide in me, and would never tell what they're telling me to anybody else. Like I've had that happen with so many co-workers over the years. And that's something that I love. I love being in that... I love that having the relationship that leads to that. And that's when I feel recognized where they're sharing things they wouldn't share with anyone else. And that was a great space in HR, like that worked really well as an HR partner in some cases. But so what is it for you?

Rachel Cooke 24:03
Yeah, so for me, it's not about glory, it's not about thank you, the greatest way you can recognize me is when we're having a conversation and you say something like, "Oh, I hadn't thought about it that way" or, "Oh, I hadn't realized that." But you give me a verbal indication that through our conversations, something has unlocked for you. That is the greatest gift you can give me.

Scott Anthony Barlow 24:26
I love that and I appreciate you sharing.

Rachel Cooke 24:27
Of course.

Scott Anthony Barlow 24:28
That is really helpful. And thank you for going into all of the examples. Something else that I wanted to ask you, just in our last little bit here is, you know, if you're... well let's go back to that maybe even pre six years ago, you're in that position, where you are not getting what you need, whether it is growth, whether it is any of these four pillars, any piece of any of these four pillars, you know, what advice would you give that person who's there and recognize that they're not getting what they want?

Rachel Cooke 24:59
The biggest piece of advice I can give to anybody is, if you're not getting what you need, do not sit back and say, "Well, I guess my company is failing me, I guess the organization is failing me, I guess my boss is failing me." I would challenge you to... now sometimes that is true, right? You might be in a toxic environment, you might not have a career path. But before you make that decision, I would really challenge you to sit back and say, "Well, if they're not going to do it, what can I do for myself?" And really think that through and sort of implement as many tests and experiments as you can before you decide to call it.

Scott Anthony Barlow 25:38
Rachel, thank you for not just the advice, but thank you for unlocking a few pieces for me. And this has been incredible. I also want to find out where can people go if they want to get more Rachel? If they have to have more Rachel, how can people do that?

Rachel Cooke 25:54
Wow, two places. I am the host of the Modern Mentor podcast, you can find that wherever you get your podcasts or you can go to my website, which is leadabovenoise.com. And I will just say really quickly, for anybody who is either a people leader or an aspiring people leader, go ahead to leadabovenoise.com/simple. We are running a free six week challenge designed to help you simplify what you do in order to amplify what you deliver.

Scott Anthony Barlow 26:22
Why does making a career change feel risky to so many people? I mean, I get it, if you're in an organization where the pay is great, or the benefits are awesome, or you have the flexibility that you want to continue to have. Or maybe even the people are absolutely wonderful, and you're afraid of losing all of that. Here's the thing, even if you're not really happy with the job, and not really happy with the situation, then what goes through so many of our heads is, is it worth taking the risk on a new career and possibly losing all the good parts? Have you ever considered why it feels risky to you? Now, I would argue two things. One, that after doing this many, many years, not just the podcast, but helping thousands of people through career change, we don't typically see that people are losing all the good parts, that we see that that rarely, rarely ever happens. And instead, I would argue that the far larger risk is the risk of doing nothing and staying for more years of your life in a situation that's no longer good for you.

Stephanie 27:38
I don't like interpersonal conflict. I don't know who does but I'm like, risk, it's my kryptonite. But man, did it get me out of my comfort zone, did it challenge me, did it keep me on my toes, that got me in a better space to be broader in the way that I was thinking and just more welcoming of discomfort?

Scott Anthony Barlow 28:01
That's Stephanie. She worked for years in a community college environment, and was plagued by an aversion to risk. I think it's pretty safe to say she was comfortably unhappy in her role. Now once she finally saw the writing on the wall, she decided to face her fears and embrace the unknown to find her ideal role. Now here's the really crazy thing. If we fast forward to what happened at the end of her change, she ended up surpassing her own expectations by a longshot in terms of salary and what was possible, for her and her happiness in her career. All that and plenty more next week right here on Happen To Your Career. Make sure that you don't miss it. And if you haven't already, click Subscribe on your podcast player so that you can download this podcast in your sleep, and you get it automatically. Even the bonus episodes every single week, sometimes multiple times a week. Until next week. Adios. I'm out.

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