Assuming we are writing to an audience looking to get ahead in their careers, and many of our clients have shown this to be true, why should we be concerned with “self-advocacy” in the workplace, the competing job market, or in business school? If you have done a definition search for “self-advocacy” at this point, you may have found this description:
an individual’s ability to effectively communicate, convey, negotiate or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs, and rights. It involves making informed decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions. (VanReusen et al., 1994)
So where does that leave you, the aspiring manager or partner, the job seeker, or the international MBA student? More importantly, where does that leave you as an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) speaker working and competing in the U.S. marketplace?
Daily workplace challenges often present themselves to our clients in the form of cultural distinctives, or stem from the differences in a cultural mindset often times in opposition to the American business practices around them. One major example is the notion of “bragging,” or publicly or forcefully declaring one’s own work as worthy of particular recognition. Many cultures outside the U.S. prize the efforts of the group over the individual. While this is not entirely lacking in many American firms, it is more often expected that one “advocate” for him or herself in the workplace; thus the independent actions are often emphasized. Without proactive movement on the part of the individual, many workplace efforts may go unnoticed, unrewarded, or at worst, claimed by one’s peers. This can indeed be a defeating and frustrating experience for many ESL professionals. If this describes you, here are some practical tips that you can take with you this week and begin to apply immediately:
- If you are still wondering whether “self-advocacy” is no different than “bragging,” take some time to meditate on the definition provided here. Seek the perspectives of your American peers and advisors and successful ESL executives. Try to think back on instances of “unacceptable” or “unrewarded” behavior shown by ex-pats in your own country. What cultural business practices could they have benefited from had they embraced them early on? What cultural mindsets were counter-productive?
- Determine your strengths, needs, and interests first. If you are not sure, seek the advice of your mentor or a close advisor who is senior in rank.
- Write out a career goal for the rest of 2009 and a list of communication obstacles—individual (language, culture, etc.), interpersonal (team meetings, client engagement, etc.), and organizational (hard-to-penetrate in-groups, information sharing not actively encouraged, etc.)—which appear to be the most prohibitive to your goals. Knowing your challenges is the first step. Self-knowledge is the first step towards advocating for your rights. You need to know your strengths, needs, and interests before you can begin to advocate.
- Identify someone in the firm (ESL speaker) who, from a communication standpoint, seems to have done “all the right things” to reach career goals. Start paying more attention to their approach to communication, whether through memos, emails, management of team meetings, presentations, networking, or other. If it is at all possible, reach out to this person for insights. It can be a casual coffee; you can say you are interested in learning more about how he or she (as an ESL speaker) has exploited their strengths in the company.
- Keep a record of your achievements in a desktop folder, i.e., “Track Record.” Every time your ideas are applied, your work is recognized, or something that you do creates value for clients, colleagues, or affiliates, write these things down. Print out a congratulatory or praiseworthy e-mail and save it in your folder. If it’s a major win for the company, make sure you find the time and appropriate venue to let a partner or senior member know about it. Not sure how to go about this? Start by asking your mentor or advisor. We’ll cover that topic in a future post, so stay tuned!
Competing in the job market or attending business school? Look out for future posts- nudge us a little here or on Twitter, and maybe we’ll move faster. Final take away: We hope these ideas will help you muster up the courage to view your achievements as the individual building blocks of your most marketable asset—yourself. If you don’t speak up for yourself, who will?
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