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Lessons from My College Boss

Erin Hunter, as sketched by Rita J. King

A formative early work experience for me came from a part-time job I had in college, working in the Events Office at my University. I fell into the job “on accident,” but looking back, I’m especially grateful for the experience because of one reason: My boss became a mentor, and I learned much about communication and “soft skills” needed in the workplace.

Now, over a decade later, I reconnected with my college boss, Erin Hunter, to talk with her about how new and experienced workers can learn from each other in the workplace. Our conversation began with discussing communication skills, but it ended up going much further. We also discussed personal accountability in the workplace, how the digital world has affected our tolerance for friction, and how new workers can navigate the complexities of remote and hybrid work. Read below for the full interview.

There’s an idea that young people today show up to work and don’t know how to communicate. So companies are teaching young people how to shake hands and say hello—those “soft skills” needed to navigate the workplace. But I’m not convinced this “soft skills gap” is unique to Gen Z, because I also remember how much I learned from you when I was a college student about navigating communication in the workplace.

Erin: I’ve worked in many different environments…schools, event planning, and now business operations for a small business. I’ve hired and fired people, and when it comes down to it, it’s not just about professional experience. Communication, or problems with communication, is the first sign of trouble in the employee/employer relationship.

It really starts with accountability in the workplace: One has to have an attitude of service combined with personal accountability.

What is accountability in the workplace?

Erin: It includes realizing our digital persona is not the same as our personal presence. The workplace requires accountability: accountability to the job, accountability to service of others. When you’re creating a persona online, it’s all about you and how others react to you. But when you’re of service to others, it’s about you and how you respond to others.

How do you think the digital world—and generations growing up in a digital world—is impacting the workplace?

Erin: The digital world creates instant gratification, but in the real world, in a job, things take time. How do you respond when you are hit with the traffic jams of the real world, if you are used to algorithms governing your anger, pleasure, etc.?

It starts with mutual respect: Understanding each others’ goals and motives, which gives you clarity to move forward.

People who grew up digital natives now are experiencing the “real world” as they enter the workplace. It’s almost like these people are taking their first steps into “traffic jams” and “things don’t go your way” — what do we recommend for these people who are used to everything being delivered according to their taste?

Erin: We have to teach them coping skills. How can you maintain patience when things don’t go your way?

It’s also vital to have empathy for those around you—everyone around you is going through something. They are rushing or struggling for a reason. It’s not your business to judge or define what should or shouldn’t be bothering them.

I always joke that I’m not high maintenance; I’m low tolerance. My mindset is: “I want to get the job done right, fast, efficiently. I want to be the best at what I do.” But I’m still going to encounter problems along the way, likely from friction with others.

Then I have to do less talking, and more listening. Communication skills are what help you connect with others. It’s often not what you say, but how you say it, or sometimes, even what you’re not saying. I try to leave people with the feeling, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

In a work environment, you have a shared goal. But the more friction there is, the less possibility you have to complete a shared goal. How do you suggest we help people overcome friction and work towards a shared goal?

Erin: It speaks to the motivations behind our actions: Are we approaching our work with that attitude of service and personal accountability?

Also, it’s important to analyze the motivation behind what we are asked to do – is it benefitting the company, the team, or just my boss? Experienced professionals might say, “You need to pay your dues!” But the tools were different then! The tools have changed, so we need to examine: What is the task at hand, and how will it move the company forward?

Yes, and sometimes less experienced workers push back on “the way things are done,” which leads to friction—I’ve definitely experienced this dynamic in the workplace. How should teams navigate this friction when it arises?

Yes, I experienced this dynamic, too, in the beginning of my career. I was a young teacher, directly out of school, and I was frustrated that the team of veteran teachers I worked with didn’t want to change the way our team was teaching. They weren’t open to new ideas. I ended up moving to a district where the administration wanted me to share what I know.

The thing is, new workers don’t know what they don’t know. And both groups of workers need to open up the dialogue to let each other know what they don’t know. There’s a lot to be learned from other people’s experience. If we would take the time, in the workplace, to open dialogue and learn from someone’s experience, it will really help us navigate with the friction we encounter.

Again, it’s about mutual respect. If it’s not there, the communication won’t come across clearly. Mutual respect creates clarity—clarity around mission and motives. And that feeds into our attitudes, which speaks volumes into how successful our shared goals will be.

Right, the less friction there is in the workplace, the better you can work towards shared goals.

Another big topic now is how do we adjust to new work environments: both hybrid and remote scenarios. So much of what I learned from you came from our in-person interactions—you looking over my shoulder at emails, etc. With today’s remote and hybrid work environments, what do you think companies should do to ensure new professionals are getting the mentoring and soft skills they need to succeed in the workplace?

Erin: I’ve experienced both work environments: in-person, and now, I work remotely. There’s a lot to learn when you physically sit next to someone. You laugh and joke more, and it’s easier to develop a friendship when you’re in person.

When I transitioned to fully remote work, about a year ago, it was disheartening at first. I felt like I had lost friendship and connection. But, now with the time I don’t spend commuting, etc, I apply it to other parts of my job that are more fulfilling for me.

I think it’s important for young workers to identify their personality type, in complete honesty: “Am I more productive in a place where there are 1:1 interactions, where I can speak in person?” Does reading the body language and studying the behavior of others, in-person, help them be better at what they do?

The remote world isn’t for everyone. Some suffer; others thrive. When I started working my first job, no one asked me what I needed to thrive; I had to adapt.

But now, employers have to look at their employees and make sure they are fulfilled and that they’ll appreciate the job they have.

Right, there’s ebbs and flows to remote work. That’s a big part of what Power Pairs works towards: the ebbing and flowing of team dynamics. Now we have to learn to think about work differently. It used to be us adapting to the work day; now, many of us have the opportunity to design a work day that works more effectively. Which pieces need solitude, or interaction? And then you can bring yourself fully to your work.

Erin: It’s an authentic and humbling way to live when you can design it for yourself. It’s really about learning, and being self-reflective, especially when you don’t yet have the experience to understand what works and what doesn’t. I think our new workers will benefit from incorporating a self-reflective practice, and an “always learning” mindset.

So true, and that’s where those soft skills really come into play.

Thanks, Erin. It’s been a joy to reconnect with you!

Our conversation with Erin Hunter highlighted how friction in the workplace keeps us from achieving our shared goals. Curious how Power Pairs™ can help you achieve better business outcomes with less friction and less stress? Contact us for an assessment today.


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