Culture Corner: Speaking out and listening – two parts of the same equation

Each month, we interview a Richter partner to gain insight into how our leadership finds balance and focus in a demanding job, and what non-technical skills contribute to career success.

Speaking out in the workplace is not the easiest of things. Whether you are a new employee, you just got your first full-time job, or you are more introvert than extrovert, you might wonder how other people find the courage to share their ideas or express contrary opinions. This month, we’re asking partner Mindy Mayman to share her best tips on how to get started.

Speaking up in a meeting; sharing ideas or thoughts can be intimidating to some people. How should a junior professional approach learning to speak up in a new workplace?

A lot of young employees start out being unsure of themselves and conscious of the fact that they’re coming into a new situation. They don’t know what they need to know to fit into their new environment. I think that they should never be afraid to ask questions: it’s a great way to learn, and the earlier they are in their career, the more leeway they have, because they are not expected to know. When new employees come on board, we always tell them that they can ask as many questions as they need. Even after a few months, they will still encounter new situations, like meeting with a client for the first time–even if it’s a long-time client of the firm. Asking questions is a great way to engage new clients because most people want to talk about themselves and want to help you do your job better. If you are respectful of people’s time, it is always the right time to ask questions.

Speaking of timing, how do you determine if the moment is appropriate to speak up?

An essential part of this equation is listening: it is never wrong to speak out, but by asking questions to understand and learn, you get more context and then you can form an opinion that can be shared. When I go into a meeting with a lot of people, it may be my working style, but I am often not the first one to speak because I like to hear what others have to say. I usually have ideas already formulated in my mind, but I have had many experiences where listening allowed other people to bring up a point that I haven’t thought of before or to present a different perspective than mine. I also believe that sometimes less is more. To be more impactful, take the time to think through and sort out the most important points, as it will help you get your message across in the most clear and concise way possible. Finally, tailor your message to your audience. You wouldn’t speak in the same fashion to a client, as you might to a colleague or an employee.

“By showing an open attitude, you demonstrate that you are willing to learn and be engaged in the discussion.”

Do you feel that everyone has this kind of sensibility? Does it come with experience, or even with personality?

We all naturally have some sense of it. However, the more work experience you have, the easier it gets to know when to speed up an explanation, when to slow it down, and when to find a different way to convey a point. It’s not only a matter of listening to what clients say: it’s also about paying attention to their body language (Are they still looking you in the eye? Are they twisting in their seat?). When you’re less experienced, you’re very focused on making sure you get all the information out, and you may not take in all the feedback from the client. Over the years, you gain confidence, and you won’t get put off by being interrupted or looking for the client’s reaction.

In a group discussion, how do you deal with people who have stronger opinions or personality?

In a group, every participant should get the chance to speak, and everyone should be respectful of others’ opinions. In the world of money management, one of the main cultural indicators of a successful firm is one where the people are all able to respectfully challenge each other regardless of their level of seniority, and then be able to leave the room and still respect each other. The main reason is that it creates better decisions, because it may lead someone to rethink their process or dig deeper to get more information and come up to a more accurate conclusion. You may not always agree with others, but it’s essential to respect their perspectives.

Being involved in many other organizations, do you think that speaking out is generally easy?

When you first join an organization, you need to understand the players, their perspectives and their experiences. As a new person, it’s harder to contribute because you might not have context or history, and you might not understand all the constraints. If what you hear at a meeting isn’t sitting well with you, you can introduce your concern by saying that while their point of view is interesting, you’re not sure if you see it the same way and that there may be parts that you don’t understand yet. By showing an open attitude, you demonstrate that you are willing to learn and be engaged in the discussion. If you still end up having a different opinion, then at least it comes from an educated place.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?

The piece of advice that really stuck with me over the years was from my father who once said to me that the right opportunity never comes at the right time. Try to be open to new opportunities whenever they come up. If you’re being offered a promotion but you have doubts about the timing–being a parent of young children, for example–if it’s something you’re interested in, then you should try to seize the opportunity and make it work.


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