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Developing Skills to Succeed in the Workplace

Developing Skills to Succeed in the Workplace

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Podcast with Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University, and Tamera Wells-Lee, Senior Level Publishing Executive, Federal Government.

Today’s workplace requires both hard and soft skills to keep up with employer needs. Building and sharpening your skillset is critical for professional success, but developing these skills requires time, effort, and patience.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

In this podcast, APU business professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to Tamera Wells-Lee about the most important skills she learned in her academic and professional career that contributed the most to her leadership development. While it’s important to develop hard skills, learn why it’s also critical to develop soft skills like empathy, creativity, interpersonal skills, and work ethic to make you a strong and compassionate leader.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Kandis Boyd Wyatt. The goal of this podcast is to highlight our local heroes in our community, who are champions of important issues affecting us on a national and international scale.

Today, we’re going to add to the very important discussion happening on both the national and international stage regarding the importance of leveraging your skills. So today, my guest is Tamera Wells-Lee, who is a seasoned speaker, a senior executive leader, a transformational leader and a poet.

Tamera, thank you for participating in the podcast today. And thank you for joining me.

Tamera Wells-Lee: Thank you, Dr. Wyatt, for having me. I’m very happy to be here.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: The honor is all mine. So let’s get started. So there’s so many critical conversations happening today that address the issue of what your skills are and how you leverage that. So can you just tell us a little bit about yourself and then, also, tell us about this important topic that we’re going to talk about today?

Tamera Wells-Lee: Again, thank you for having me. And I would have to say that in describing myself and describing my background, I’d like to just circle back to the theme of leveraging your skills. When leveraging your skills, I view it from the perspective that it’s very important to find your passion in order to fuel your purpose.

So, both in my professional and my personal lives, they are very much centered around a passion that I have for writing, for publishing, for working in the media, for advocacy work, to raise awareness of issues, especially in today’s climate, to help others and to bring about change. So I’m very fortunate that the skills that I have developed and leverage professionally have allowed me to have a very successful career in publishing.

I’ve worked in both print and multimedia-based publishing for nearly 30 years now, beginning in very entry-level administrative positions in the private sector. And now I’m a senior level publishing executive.

Personally, I’m a published author of a book of poetry, titled “Power to the Poems: Turning Points into Poetic Action.” And my book really speaks to advocacy, speaks to unity, to empowerment, to diversity, and to inclusion.

And I also must note that both professionally and personally, I truly consider myself to be a servant leader. And by that, I mean, I give of myself. I absolutely believe in the mission and the focus of any organization that I have, and that I currently work for.

Organizations to which I am involved in my professional life as well. And I, also, think of servant leadership in terms of those I’m charged to lead, and whether they are effective, and doing their work, and if they are being provided with learning opportunities, and opportunities to grow.

And how they leverage their skills to support the mission, how they deal with change, how they deal with issues, again, especially in the world in which we live today. So, I like to be a servant leader to those I supervise, I manage, and also to the causes that I support.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow, that’s amazing. I’ve heard the term servant leadership many times, but I think that was the best definition I’ve ever heard. So thank you for providing that.

So let’s talk more about leveraging your skills. Can you start by talking about some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in the professional world when it comes to leveraging your skills?

Tamera Wells-Lee: Certainly. As I sort of alluded to in my opening, I’ve been very, very fortunate. I consider myself blessed in my professional life and the opportunities that I have had career-wise and for professional growth. But for all of my gratitude and the blessings that have come my way, I have to be honest in noting that they have not come without challenges.

There have been challenges with regard to trying to leverage my skills as a female. And then, to add to that, as a minority female, African-American woman, as well. Sometimes there have been challenges, just however cliché this may sound, just getting a seat at the table to demonstrate that I have the skills necessary to do a particular task.

So it’s just sometimes some nuances with regard to navigating in a professional world, especially as a member of an underrepresented group in terms of ensuring that you’re in a space where you can leverage your skills and be on an equal playing field with other colleagues.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yes, I can really resonate with what you just said that so many times you think the playing field is level and, in fact, it’s not. And sometimes you have to have not only skillsets, but enhanced skillsets just to get you, like you said, that seat at the table. So thank you for that.

The university has a large number of students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. So in terms of school terms and school theories, what did you learn in your career that impacts leveraging your skills?

Tamera Wells-Lee: I felt to share academically; I have an undergraduate degree in communications with a minor in journalism from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. And I have a master’s degree in business from Johns Hopkins University. And through the course of both my undergraduate and my graduate work and also my professional experiences as well, I would say two things stand out with regard to school terms and theories, if you will, that have sort of impacted me.

One is a term or a phenomenon, if you will, that I first learned about an undergrad in an interpersonal communications course. It’s something called Queen Bee Syndrome. I had never heard of that until going through my academic coursework. It’s a syndrome such that women in leadership position sometimes may have a tendency to not provide opportunities to other females.

And I had a hard time reconciling that then and now, because especially when I first heard about it, it was at a period of time in my undergraduate career where I had also just joined a dynamic sisterhood who supports each other.

So the idea that women would not support each other in the workplace, it was just so foreign to me. But it exists because I have been on the unfortunate receiving end of that.

And I have been very committed to, first of all, ensuring that I treat all colleagues, definitely my staff, equally. But I’ve been very mindful about providing opportunities and making sure there are other chairs at the table for others in underrepresented groups, such as women.

So that dynamic, the Queen Bee Syndrome is something I’ve learned about academically, I’ve experienced it on the receiving end. But I certainly am not one to employ that in my professional life and how I carry and conduct myself.

And the second academic term is a term that I learned in grad school. When I was in graduate business school, we had a lot of required reading material. And there’s one book that I never forget and I’ve picked it up periodically over the years to refresh my memory. It’s called “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

And in that book, there’s a terminology called BATNA. That’s an acronym for the Best Alternative to the Negotiated Agreement. And it really speaks, in a sense, to compromise.

And you have to go into a situation with the understanding that you may not get what you want, but you should have an idea of what you would be willing to settle for and what would be something that would be mutually beneficial for all parties involved. And that concept has gone a long way professionally, as well as personally. And just coming to the table with the sense that you’re willing to negotiate and reach a best alternative agreement for all involved.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow, I think that’s great. BATNA and Queen Bee?

Tamera Wells-Lee: Yes.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: And I think what you said was really great that every conversation, to a certain extent, is a negotiation. You’re trying to get what you want, but you should also know what you’re willing to compromise or what your middle ground is going to be. So, I think that’s really important.

And then the Queen Bee Syndrome, I, unfortunately, have to say that I’ve experienced that myself. I think that sometimes you just have people that you work with and it’s their first time in that leadership position.

And so sometimes they don’t realize the impact of what they’re saying, or what they’re doing. They may think that they’re doing a good job, but unless you have that spirit of helpfulness, or collaboration, sometimes it can make an uncomfortable environment. So thank you for those two.

So let’s talk about training. So we talked about, first, what did you learn in school that kind of helped you in terms of leveraging your skills? Now, let’s say in a perfect world, what training would be needed to help individuals leverage their skills?

Tamera Wells-Lee: Well, I would say, if we’re speaking in a professional setting and this probably pertains more so to those who work in the government sector, I found that sometimes the best training is what we refer to in the government as work details.

That’s an opportunity to not only leverage your skills, but develop new skills by working on, for a specified period of time, a specific project, or work in another area outside your regular day-to-day responsibilities. I would say more experiential learning opportunities, whether in the academic setting, such as an expansion of traditional internship programs, just more hands on experience, in general, that would provide one with opportunities to leverage his or her skills. So [the] best way to leverage is just to do, but you have to have opportunities in order to be able to leverage your skills as such.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, that’s a good point. I really like the ability to work on your skillset. And I know when I was in college, I participated in several internships and it kind of speaks to what you’re saying in the federal government where you can take an opportunity to search out, and learn about a new environment, or hone in on a different skillset. And just test it out and see if it’s something that might be right for you.

So I wish there were more opportunities to participate in internships not only through a particular organization, but across different businesses and different organizations as well. So that’s really great.

Tamera Wells-Lee: And also Dr. Wyatt, if I could add too, I also encourage others to perhaps join professional associations in your field of interest, and there could be volunteer opportunities to serve on committees within the organization. And that could be a way to leverage, and develop, and hone your skills. And those skills could also be applied in your professional life as well.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, that’s a good point. I’ve benefited from participating in several professional organizations as well, not only for the networking opportunities but, as you mentioned, just leveraging your skills. So, that’s an excellent point.

Let’s go back to curriculum for a minute. So, now that we’ve talked about all the training that we would like to have in a perfect world, what would be some of the changes that if you could go back to your curriculum? What changes would you suggest to help undergraduate and graduate students be more adept at leveraging their skillset?

Tamera Wells-Lee: I would say just looking back, first, let me just note that professionally, I’ve had the opportunity to have a lot of wonderful mentors. So as I reflect on this, I think it would be beneficial to sort of start looking at the concept of mentorship as part of a curriculum in an academic setting.

And it would be different from the internship, but a mentorship. Someone who can guide you, someone who is already working in your field of interest, and can help you make the transition from an academic setting to a professional setting. And this somewhat speaks to what you just mentioned, Dr. Wyatt, about networking.

So mentorship also provides networking opportunities. I would recommend that, but I also recognize it could be a challenge to have like one-to-one mentorship in an academic setting, depending on the size of the university. But I do think that focusing on mentorship early on and not just necessarily once one gets into a professional job, I think that would be a significant way to enable one to become more adept at leveraging skills.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Okay, that’s great. So, let’s stay on this topic of a mentor for a minute, because I know that many of our listeners may not truly have a good understanding of what a mentor is.

I’ve also heard the term coach. So, could you just take a moment to describe what a mentor would be, what a coach would be, and then how both could help a person when they’re trying to leverage their skills?

Tamera Wells-Lee: A mentor, from my respective, I view a mentor as not someone that necessarily has to be in your chain of command, doesn’t have to be someone who is necessarily at the management level in a professional sense. In the professional world, it could be a peer. But if we’re talking about a mentorship program and implementing it in a curriculum, it could look a little differently.

But a mentor just is someone to guide you, to offer advice, someone that you truly can go to in confidence, really. Especially in the professional setting, things that you may not necessarily want to or be able to share with your chain of command, you could share with your mentor to get advice on how to handle challenging situations, career advice, training advice.

And then, for a coach it’s somewhat similar, in my view, to mentor. And sometimes the terms are used one and the same.

But this is just purely my opinion. I don’t profess to be an expert in organizational development.

But sometimes a coach can offer the technical guidance that may be needed to steer your career and enable you to leverage your skills. A coach can, for instance, provide guidance on communicating in a professional setting, writing in a professional setting; it could be very focused and very technical.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, that’s a good point. I resonate with both of those definitions that you provided. But it’s usually someone, like you said, who’s off to the side, who might be able to see things from a different vantage point.

And then, what I’ve also found with the mentors or the coaches that I’ve had, they have no dog in the fight or no stake in the game. So meaning whatever decision you end up making, it’s going to, hopefully, be for your benefit, not for any other benefit. So thank you for taking the time to kind of help make those definitions a little bit clearer.

So let’s talk about soft skills because, as you mentioned, so many of us obtain a degree. And the degree teaches you those hard skills so you can go out into the work world and you can champion that job, and you can build a career.

But sometimes I’ve found that soft skills are really needed to leverage your skillset as well. So in your opinion, what are some of the critical soft skills that those entering the professional world will need to help them leverage their skillset?

Tamera Wells-Lee: As I reflect on this, I would say from my perspective, I think one of the most critical of the soft skills is empathy. And especially as a leader, I think back to my undergraduate years, I had a college professor whom I still keep in contact with today.

And he always stressed the importance of being an empathetic leader and to be able to really show genuine care for others, whether it be for those you lead, or just peers, colleagues, those within your personal or professional space. So, I think empathy is very key.

Especially in today’s climate, you have to be able to understand where others are coming from in order to be able to work together, in order to be able to face some of the challenges that’s happening in our world that is also manifesting itself in professional workplaces. So I think if more people would have that innate empathy skill — or trait, if you will — that would make a significant impact in dealing with some of the challenges we face.

I would say another soft skill, and some people may not consider this a soft skill, but I think work ethic is a soft skill. I’ve regretted it. I hated it, to be honest, when I was in high school when my parents made me work at like fast food restaurants, as soon as I turned 15 or 16.

But looking back, I wouldn’t take that back for anything because it really taught me [a] work ethic. And as long as you work hard, no one can take that away from you. So, I think it’s important to come to the table with skills that really speak to having a strong work ethic that shows commitment.

Also, I think interpersonal skills are key and that’s sort of related to empathy as well. You have to be able to bridge the gap in terms of collaborating and working with a diverse group of people. And diversity and inclusion, it’s so broad.

And by diverse, it’s not always just race and ethnicity. It could be diversity of opinion. So you, you have to be able to have the skills necessary to navigate among different personality types and different traits.

And, finally, I would say you have to bring to the table, creativity. Technology has been a game changer in our personal and our professional lives. And with technology, it brings more opportunities to be creative in the work you do, essentially, any field of study, and your personal lives. So, I would encourage others to sort of come with some level of creativity in whatever you’re doing and bring that to the table when you leverage your skills.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. I think that’s great. And I really want to touch on that last one, when you talked about technology. Because now that we’re in this environment of, unfortunately, a global pandemic it’s caused so many of us to literally pivot at a moment’s notice.

And technology has truly been a driver for businesses and individuals as well. Just as an example, in a traditional setting, we might be sitting across from each other and recording this conversation as a video for people to see.

But, now in the new environment, we’re seeing the benefit of maybe having a podcast that can be broadcast to more people in real time, or also when they can conveniently find a time for them to listen to the message as well. So I totally agree with you that technology is definitely going to be a driver as we move forward

Tamera Wells-Lee: And sort of to that point. And you’ve mentioned the global pandemic and technology, and I think technology has forced a lot of us to change the way we do our work as you’ve just described. So, I think a number of people can look at that as they’ve developed new skills, just in dealing with some of the technology aspects of the unfortunate pandemic that we’re dealing with at this time.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. So, also, let’s talk about the other side of this topic. And what I want to talk about is inherent biases, because you mentioned before that sometimes there are challenges when you’re trying to move forward.

And you mentioned the fact that you are an African-American female. So, because we know that we’re in an environment of inherent biases and assumptions, especially when it comes to someone’s skillset based on demographics such as race, or gender, or education, how would you suggest that one identifies and addresses these issues?

Tamera Wells-Lee: Well, in terms of identifying the issues, for those who are in the underrepresented groups, like myself, it’s something that you don’t necessarily have to identify because it’s something that, unfortunately, is a part of day-to-day life. But in terms of addressing it and biases that are faced, I think probably it’s best that I share a particular example of a preconceived notion.

I was tasked in a professional setting a couple years ago with working on a major report and leading a large work team on this particular project. And I knew that some in senior management probably had concerns or had preconceived notions about my ability to work on this project. And I found that the best way to tackle that was to just actually do the job.

And I think you mentioned earlier, Dr. Wyatt, that sometimes we have to work harder in leveraging our skills. On this particular project on which I’m speaking, I recall that I worked overnight until four o’clock in the morning to pull together this draft report just to prove that not only I could do it, but that others who look like me could do it as well. So it’s unfortunate that I had to do that.

But after I did that and delivered on that particular project, there was no question about my capability. But there should never have been, quite honestly, a question about my capability. So, sometimes you just have to go the extra mile in terms of overcoming some barriers to the inherent biases that are faced when leveraging your skills because of preconceived notions, based on how you look, who you are, your gender.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think that really resonates with me, especially with the recent passing of John Lewis and all that he stood for with the civil rights movement. I often put in perspective that someone fought for me to have this opportunity. And it really settles or resonates with me when you that. So thank you for that.

So as we start to wrap up, what could you tell our listeners about resources? What are some of the resources you have used or provided in the past to help individuals better leverage their skills in a business setting?

Tamera Wells-Lee: In a business setting, I touched on this earlier, definitely if you work in an environment where there’s a concept of work details. And even if you don’t, in the private sector as well, there should be professional development opportunities.

And I’m a strong believer in providing others with resources that will help them in their professional development, whether it be through work details, assignments to special projects, where one can lead and coordinate the project.

Also, I think it’s important to be supportive of professional training opportunities, networking opportunities in one’s field of study as well. And that’s something as a leader, as a manager, that I encourage my team to explore in terms of training and professional development.

In terms of other resources, like from a management perspective, I mentioned earlier the book that I was exposed to and first read in graduate school, “Getting to Yes.” But there’s also another book that some view as somewhat of a Bible in business school, it’s called “Leadership Is an Art” by Max DePree.

And that really speaks of some of the servant leadership qualities that I spoke about earlier. And it really offers a reflective reading on what is considered good leadership. So, that would be a resource that I would recommend for managers.

But in terms of resources that I would recommend for individuals, like on a work team, again, that would be work details, professional development opportunities, training and things of that nature.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow, thank you. That is great. Thank you for sharing your expertise and your perspective on this issue. And thanks, again, for joining me today for this podcast.

Tamera Wells-Lee: Thank you. And I’ve enjoyed being part of this.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Okay, well, again, this is Tamera Wells-Lee talking about leveraging your skills, and we also want to take a moment to thank our listeners for joining us today. You can learn more about these topics and more by signing up for the bimonthly newsletter. So, until our next podcast, be well and be safe.

About the Speakers

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

Tamera L. Wells-Lee hails from outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and has resided in the Washington, D.C. area for most of her adult life. She has worked in the publishing industry for nearly 30 years, in both the private and public sectors, and currently is a senior-level executive.

Ms. Wells-Lee also is a poet, author, and advocate who firmly believes there is deep power in words that speak the truth. She released her debut collection of poetry last year, “Power to the Poems: Turning Points into Poetic Action.” Her second book, “Praise and Protest in a Time of Pain,” is scheduled for release this fall.

Discovering her passion as a poet has enabled her to discover her purpose and best leverage her skills, leading to personal and professional growth. Whether applying her skills to pen a poem or plan a project at work, Ms. Wells-Lee approaches each activity with a mission of highlighting or upholding the aims and benefits of a diverse and inclusive culture.

Ms. Wells-Lee has a B.A. in communication with a minor in journalism from Old Dominion University and an M.S. in business from The Johns Hopkins University with a concentration in Management of Technology.

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