By Bari Saltman
I have always been terrified of the telephone. Easily distracted and frequently awkward, I have consistently opted for alternative modes of communication – lunch dates with friends, G-chatting with my parents, texting with my grandmother (which, as you can imagine, does not always yield a timely or coherent response). When I am forced to partake in a phone conversation with a professional contact or a physically distant pal, I often find myself interrupting sentences and my attention drifting to other items on my to-do list (or, more commonly, the episode of The Newsroom that I have conveniently left open in my browser).
Yet throughout the first few weeks of my fellowship at Year Up, I logged more phone calls than I have made in the past ten years combined. As a New Sector Alliance AmeriCorps Summer Fellow serving at the national headquarters of a fast-paced, quickly-expanding non-profit, I was forced to jump in feet first—and jump out of my comfort zone. I’m spending my summer supporting the Human Resources team at Year Up, which provides urban young adults with skill development and corporate internships. Year Up is incredibly people-focused, and my work involves capacity-building projects that will enhance the non-profit’s organizational development and talent acquisition initiatives. Before I could truly make progress and create impact, however, I knew that I needed to gain a better understanding of the practices currently being implemented in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. I also had a hunch that G-chat would not serve as a legitimate form of benchmarking research.
I quickly filled my schedule with phone conversations with human resources contacts at relevant organizations, and used any free time that I had to cold call potential resources (as you can imagine, cold calling literally makes me sweat). My standard phone-induced anxiety was heightened by the fact that I didn’t feel qualified to be making these phone calls: I worried that seasoned professionals would look down on an undergraduate intern, that I wasn’t deserving of their time.
Once I leaned into the conversations and developed rapport with my contacts, however, I realized that my title at Year Up was insignificant. These individuals were willing to speak with me because I made a sincere effort to sound professional, thoughtful and relatable. In some cases, when I hung up the phone I realized that I had sparked a relationship that had the potential to continue past my service at Year Up. Though I had been speaking with strangers about unfamiliar topics through a very uncomfortable medium, I had acted as if I was confident and knowledgeable—and I came off as confident and knowledgeable.
Often, leaning in to a new experience or challenge involves not only taking a risk but also trusting that your unique assets and abilities will carry you through.
Aside from the fake-it-‘til-you-make-it lesson that is so apparent in this story, I learned throughout my research process that I did have relevant skills to bring to the table. While I had never before been directly involved in the human resources space, I was able to draw on my experiences in public speaking and counseling to effectively connect with the individuals on the other end of the phone. My finely honed Googling skills also helped me to better prepare for the conversations. Often, leaning in to a new experience or challenge involves not only taking a risk but also trusting that your unique assets and abilities will carry you through.
Above all, I have found it so incredibly important to take the time to reflect on these accomplishments, to pat myself on the back for leaning in. We too often reserve praise and encouragement for the end of a project or process, forgetting that small steps—like picking up the phone to dial a stranger—contribute to our development inside and outside of the workplace. Not only did my supervisor remark on my willingness to schedule so many conversations with so little preparation, but my blockmates have been receiving more phone calls from me than ever before. Leaning in certainly produces results in the office. Yet the practice also illuminates the strengths I possess, the skills I’ve acquired, and the areas in which there is potential for growth.