When Keka DasGupta was interviewed for one of her first jobs in public relations, she was given the dreaded request, “Describe yourself in one word.” Forgoing a standard power term, she went with her gut and said, “I’m nice.” It was a risk – in the corporate world, being nice is often perceived as a sign of weakness or being a pushover.
Ms. DasGupta got the job and her “niceness” worked to her advantage in the stressful PR industry, making a hectic role easier to navigate for not only herself but the teams and producers she worked alongside.
“Yes, I’m nice and that’s what makes me different and powerful, and that has nothing to do with being extroverted,” says Ms. DasGupta, founder of Art of Life-ing, a platform offering workshops and training sessions to students and corporate audiences.
Extroverts are generally celebrated and seen as natural leaders, but Ms. DasGupta doesn’t believe in “introvert” or “extrovert” labels. “We have moments of [being] one or the other, or we [may] identify as both in different circumstances,” she says.
Ms. DasGupta has adopted what she calls “quiet leadership.”
The power of listening and observing
Quiet leadership is a conscious choice to lead with a focus on being open-minded and gentle. It’s about being approachable, liked, respected, compassionate – nice, if you will – and communicating with people using a one-on-one approach instead of the typical one-on-many format.
Recognizing that employees have varied workplace learning styles, a quiet leader shapes and delivers information to each person in the unique way that they need it. It’s an approach that’s applicable to everyone, “extroverts” and “introverts” alike.
That kind of accommodating leadership feels more necessary than ever. A 2021 report by LifeWorks polled 3,000 Canadians and found that 24 per cent felt that their mental health was affected by work. Ms. DasGupta believes that quiet leadership can help employees struggling with mental health by helping them feel “seen.”
Those who identify as introverted tend to be great at seeing strengths in others because they are quietly listening and observing, she says.
“They pay attention and can see what people need and give it to them. That’s their superpower.”
Ms. DasGupta uses quiet leadership as an opportunity to develop and nurture discussion and find the potential in people and circumstances. This often looks like providing support for those who may not see that value in themselves yet.
“It comes down to the one-on-one connection – responding and listening, and then supporting and championing,” she says.
As well as extracting untapped potential, quiet leadership also identifies opportunities, Ms. DasGupta says. These moments matter in the grand scheme because they plant the seeds of future growth. And while a listening and observing approach may not seem to have the quick impact of barking orders, the results will come with time, she adds.
How to lead when you don’t feel like a leader
If a leadership role doesn’t come naturally to you because you’ve been suppressed by the louder voices in the room or you feel shy, Ms. DasGupta recommends remembering that ego is about competing against others while confidence is about growth and finding your own path.
She also suggests not putting extra pressure on yourself to fit a mold.
“Take a look at where your strengths are and look for how you can apply those strengths within the organization in terms of helping people there,” she says.
There will always be assertive, more in-your-face leaders, but Ms. DasGupta references the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all the boats.
“We no longer have to worry about one boat,” she says. “It’s a collective, exponential impact.”
Ask Women and Work
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Question: I’m interested in finding a mentor to speak with about my career ambitions. I’m looking for someone in a senior position that I can learn from and who can help me reach my goals. How should I choose a mentor? And what is the best way to approach them? I’m worried it could be awkward afterwards if I ask someone I work with and they say no.
We asked Toronto-based leadership coach and HR consultant Cindy Harvey to field this one:
Before choosing a potential mentor, you first need to get clear on what it is you want to accomplish with your own career. Ask yourself, ‘What are my career goals? What is my next step?’ Having clarity on that will help you to identify who might be a potential fit for this mentoring relationship based on what they have achieved in their careers.
Then, build a list of three to seven potential mentors so that you’re not relying just on one person to say yes. Flip open LinkedIn, scroll through your connections and see who may be in the right place in their career and who would be a good fit for your goals. You could also share with your network that you are looking for a mentor and ask them for some referrals.
Before you tap anyone on the shoulder or send an e-mail, spend some time getting clear on what you’re looking for in the mentoring relationship. What do you want to learn? What are some of the gaps in abilities or experience that you’ve identified? You don’t need to have the full picture – that can be something you can co-create with your mentor. But having an idea or two will help the mentor decide whether they can support you in closing some of those gaps.
Next, you will need to be able to answer the ‘Why me?’ question that a mentor may ask you. What is it about their professional experience that you admire or that you are inspired by? Have a couple of points about that question for each person.
Lastly, what kind of commitment are you asking them to make? How frequently do you expect to meet? That can make a big difference to the mentor based on their availability. Are you looking for in-person coffee meet-ups or virtual conversations? Are you looking for your mentor to introduce you to their network? Put pen to paper and write these things down, so you have clarity in your own mind before you reach out.
In terms of how to reach out, send an e-mail. If you have a mutual connection, a warm intro is even better than a cold one. Be genuine and honest about what drew you to that person. Ask if they are open to being a mentor for you, share what your goals are and invite them to have a chat to see if there is a potential match. But sure to let them know it’s okay for them to say no. For example, ‘If this isn’t up your alley or it’s not the right time, no problem at all.’
If the person does say no, that’s not a bad thing. You’ve had a chance to practice making the request. It doesn’t mean that you’re horrible or you’re never going to find a mentor, it’s just maybe not the right time for them or they’re not the right person. Thank them for being honest with you about it and move on to the next person on your list.
You can also ask them for a referral. Say, ‘Thank you so much for letting me know. Is there someone else that you might suggest that I reach out to?’ Then, you could have another candidate on your list and a warm introduction.
Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.