I’ve had a number of conversations recently with technical women who are just starting their careers. These dynamic, smart, and interesting young women are coming into the workplace eager for new challenges and want to know how they can gain the opportunities that will let them show their worth and develop their talent within a corporate environment. As I talk with them, I always find myself saying the same thing in one form or another: “apprentice yourself.”
One way we tend to limit ourselves as women is to wait for permission. On some level, we tend to think that opportunity looks like our lead, keenly perceiving the talent we carry just below the surface, presenting us with an assignment carefully crafted for our professional development and advancement.
Rather than waiting to be sanctioned with the power and authority to accomplish a specific mission, we are more likely to be successful when we figure out what is needed and make it happen. The tricky part is developing the judgment to know what is helpful in a given situation. This is the role of apprenticeship.
When it comes to hard problems, I have found over and over that an initial assessment of almost any situation is naïve. There is almost always another side, a deeper context, a different perspective that changes everything. And it is almost impossible, initially, to even know what questions to ask – in fact, the inability to articulate really good questions has become the hallmark of a worthy problem in my mind. At this stage, although there may well be obvious problems to solve and dragons to slay, offering solutions is counterproductive – they are unlikely to be sophisticated enough to address all the spoken and unspoken constraints the people involved are dealing with. Asking how you can help is always useful, but it means putting a burden on someone else to figure out how to use your talents – an obligation leaders in any organization have varying levels of ability to discharge well.
When there is work we want to engage with, our best option is often to apprentice ourselves to the person doing it. At first that may mean the equivalent of making coffee and sweeping floors. “Would you like me to fill out that spreadsheet for you?” “Could I help you find graphics for that Powerpoint?” Whether you are helping your lead or supporting a colleague, you are starting by doing something truly helpful – giving them back some much-needed time without feeling guilty that they are asking you to do something beneath your station and in addition to your normal responsibilities.
Over time and through exposure, you will gain context and understanding of the work at the level your lead (or colleague) is working at. As your understanding gets better, you become more and more competent to begin to solve problems and slay dragons. As a nice side effect, you are likely to develop an appreciation for the trade-offs and complexities that caused those problems to arise in the first place. As an even nicer side effect, not only does your value become self-evident from the work you are doing and problems you are solving, but your deeper appreciation of complexity and judgment in dealing with it are the hallmarks of successful professional development. Congratulations – you’ve just allowed the right opportunity to emerge, rather than sitting around waiting for it to knock.