Remote Career Development: Marlo Lyons On How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely
An Interview With David Liu
Collaboration and Connection — Help your IT team find the right collaboration software tools, whether it’s Mural or Teams or Zoom. It can make a big difference in helping teams connect and collaborate, even if it takes time to set up meetings for such collaboration. Consider proposing no meeting days within your team or specific collaboration days with your team or work group to allow for brainstorming and connection to others.
Career development is the ongoing process of choosing, improving, developing, and advancing your career. This involves learning, making decisions, collaboration with others and knowing yourself well enough to be able to continually assess your strengths and weaknesses. This can be challenging enough when you work in an office, but what if you work remotely? How does remote work affect your career development? How do you nurture and advance your career when you are working from home and away from other colleagues? How can you help your employees do this? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely”. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marlo Lyons.
Marlo Lyons has spent more than 20 years inspiring, motivating, and empowering people to excel in their careers. Marlo’s own career trajectory from TV news reporter for more than a decade, to entertainment lawyer at NBC and Viacom, to HR executive in both the entertainment technology and medical technology industries, to executive and career coach, has provided her unmatched expertise in how to help people find their unique career pathway forward. Her most recent accomplishment is sharing her Career Transition Strategies® in the best-selling book, Wanted -> A New Career, The Definitive Playbook for Transitioning to a New Career or Finding Your Dream Job which can be found on Apple, Amazon and Audible.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I grew up in New Jersey, went to college in DC, and like most students at the time, thought I’d have one career. But after a decade as a TV news reporter, I was fired. This was the mid-90s and I realized the internet was taking off and TV news wasn’t going to be a major source of news anymore, but I also had no idea what career to pursue outside of TV news. So, I moved to Oklahoma City for a Consumer Investigative Reporter job and went to night law school as a career backup, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to practice law. An expensive hobby, right? Three years later, I moved to Los Angeles and took a job first at NBC and then at Viacom as an entertainment attorney, performing diligence on reality show participants and managing immigration, foreign travel compliance, child labor, safety, and security on sets. After more than a decade in that career, I was growing bored. I took a hard look at my values and defined what was important to me. A recruiter helped me align my values to a new career — strategic HR business partner. After completing my coaching and HR certifications, I transitioned into an HR business partner role working with the C-Suite, while helping others successfully transition careers or find their dream job.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was fired. I was 26 years old with a hot temper. Six months prior to being fired, I was unengaged. My sadness over that heartbreak exacerbated an already short fuse and my anger spilled into the workplace. This was long before emotional intelligence was in our lexicon. No one asked me why I was so angry all the time or gave me feedback to course correct. I was just fired. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. While it was devastating at the time, I’m sincerely grateful it happened so early in my career. It gave me an opportunity to self-reflect, work hard on changing my emotional responses to other’s behaviors, and grow into the person I wanted to be and the person I am today. Today you wouldn’t know I had a quick-fire temper when I was younger, except when my kids ignore my pleas to come to dinner. I use that experience to coach others on soft skills because in today’s workplace, “how” employees do their work is just as important as “what” employees accomplish.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my first reporter job, I was filling in on the sports desk for the sports anchor and, quite frankly, I knew nothing about sports. I saw on the ABC newswire that there was footage of a handicapped horse race at Monmouth Park, NJ, near where I grew up. I thought I’d run the video and talk about the race results. But I felt like I didn’t have all the information I needed, so I called the ABC news desk in NY and asked, “Why are the horses handicapped?” The person on the line paused so then I asked, “What’s wrong with the horses?” He responded, “I don’t know. I’ll find out and call you back.” I was serious. He was serious. It wasn’t until I talked to my father the next day that I realized my mistake! What I learned was you will never be wrong if you are curious. Sure, my question was silly, but sometimes the person next to you, or in my case, the person on the other end of the line, may not know the answer either. If you have an idea and ask it in the form of a question, you will a) be told it was tried before and why it didn’t work which is okay because you were curious and you are learning new information or b) be brilliant because your idea was never tried before. I try to use this simple skill every day versus telling people what to do. And yes, that was my last time anchoring sports.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life isn’t linear. Your career, like your life, will have ups, downs, and will pivot sideways at times. I’ve moved upward, lateral, and even down in title (and sometimes compensation) to take a new role or work in a new industry because I knew each job would provide me the opportunity to gain more skills, enhancing my overall value to any organization. When I moved from TV news reporter in a top 30 market to a smaller TV market, Oklahoma City, I transitioned from general assignment reporter to Consumer Investigative Reporter, a more coveted role. Later in my career, I also moved from VP at Viacom to Director at Roku as I transitioned careers from attorney to HR Business Partner. If you believe all your moves need to be upward, you may miss a great opportunity that could be more fulfilling and have even greater upward mobility later.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?
In my entire career, I have never heard so many employees describing their burnout as I’m hearing right now. We are working more frenetically and longer hours than ever before with less resources. I would advise leaders to have empathy for employees’ personal situations outside the workplace. Leaders should create psychological safety through transparency and proactive communication while giving team members a safety net to try something new and fail. Leaders should actively find ways for employees to reenergize and connect with each other, whether it’s trivia, a team lunch or happy hour, even if remote. Finally, leaders need to acknowledge great work in detail, not just say “great job;” the detail of what and how the employee accomplished a goal lets employees know their leaders understand how hard they are working and will help employees feel like all their hard work is worth it. Most importantly, lean in, be curious, and care.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunities, but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?
Some of the main benefits of working remotely include no commute time which provides more opportunity to use that time for creating healthy habits, whether that is exercising more, cooking healthier meals, being more present for your family, or having more personal time. Working remotely may also provide an opportunity to save money on gas, childcare for school aged children if you are able to do drop off and pick up from school, as well as lower dry-cleaning bills and food bills if employees prepare lunch at home versus eating out. For those employees who work better in an environment where people aren’t stopping by and interrupting their work, working remotely also provides that quiet space to be more productive and perhaps more creative.
Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?
- Visibility of impact — When working remotely it is harder for the impact of your work to be as visible to your leadership. You may be making progress on a project, but without the opportunity to “stop by” someone’s office or cubicle and banter, your work may not be as noticed by your leader. Make sure your one-on-ones with your manager or other leaders don’t focus just on tasks being accomplished; discuss your thought process and strategy behind the deliverables. Visibility of strategic thinking and business impact to senior leadership is key to being seen as a high performing contributor, which leads to career advancement.
- Inclusion — It takes extra effort for leaders to be inclusive and for employees to feel connected. Unconscious bias is real in many aspects of work. It is harder to identify when our behaviors or thought processes are not inclusive when working remotely because we are not surrounded daily with people who are different from ourselves. This can create additional rifts between coworkers if employees become more siloed in their thought processes.
- Collaboration — It is much harder to collaborate with colleagues when you can’t just “grab a room” to white board an idea or stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question. You have to set a meeting on someone’s calendar or try to catch a colleague between meetings to move work forward. With less collaboration, your team may become disjointed or there could be overlap in work. It takes a lot more effort, and in some companies many more meetings, to ensure the team and company is headed in the same direction.
- Culture — Many companies have strong cultures and as a new employee, it is hard to embrace a company’s culture when you have never been to the office or seen how people collaborate in person. As companies scale, it is therefore harder for them to maintain the culture that was so carefully cultivated over the years. Employees, especially new employees, need to make a more concerted effort to understand how to be successful within the cultural norms established by the company.
- Creating work boundaries/space to breathe — When working remotely, it is easy to overwork. There is no longer a commute that draws a line from work life to home life so it’s critical to create a line when work ends, and home life begins. Without a commute, there is no space to decompress. And there is no lunch break with friends to break up the day. Without creating boundaries, stress and burnout can become more prevalent.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?
- Visibility of impact — Ask your leader to include you in higher level meetings with the next level of leadership at your company. Everyone is moving so fast; your manager may not have thought to have you present to higher-level leadership. Also, make sure you are proactive in stakeholder alignment and management, so stakeholders know where you are with a project, the challenges with any deliverables, and next steps. Every conversation should include strategic insights, not just tactical updates of what was accomplished this week and what you will be working on the following week. Finally in your performance reviews, highlight the impacts of your most strategic accomplishments, not everything you’ve accomplished all year, which will muddle the larger value you have brought to the company.
- Inclusion — If you have ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) at your company, participate in ERG events and if you can, join the boards of such groups. Consider starting a group if none exist at your company. Hearing how others view their world at work will make you more conscious of any unconscious biases or behaviors that could be perceived as biased or non-inclusive. Further, leaders need to make a concerted effort to provide psychological safety to all employees through encouraging participation from all team members equally, creating team building activities, and making sure coveted projects are distributed fairly. As an employee working remotely, be courageous and speak up if you don’t feel included or if you need additional mentorship or guidance to feel included and connected to the team and company.
- Collaboration and Connection — Help your IT team find the right collaboration software tools, whether it’s Mural or Teams or Zoom. It can make a big difference in helping teams connect and collaborate, even if it takes time to set up meetings for such collaboration. Consider proposing no meeting days within your team or specific collaboration days with your team or work group to allow for brainstorming and connection to others.
- Culture — I spend a lot of time helping to onboard new employees and teaching them how to listen more deeply, be curious, and glean the culture from their conversations. Listening more deeply and watching how others interact, rather than speaking or “trying to prove” what you know, allows employees to understand how to “fit in” the culture and where your approach to the work may need to be adjusted. Also, seek feedback not just from your manager but coworkers as well. Everyone around you wants you to succeed in the culture after investing in hiring and onboarding you.
- Creating work boundaries/space to breathe — I’m getting better at this! Most recently, I started making sure at least 30 minutes are blocked off for lunch and I no longer eat lunch at my desk. I sit outside, or in another room and either eat quietly or read or stream TV. Anything to rejuvenate my brain for the rest of the day. I have also tried to fit in a 10-to-15-minute meditation or walk around the neighborhood to think or breath. At the end of the day, it is hard to give yourself some space to decompress before jumping into family life, especially if you have children. Acknowledge you need some time to decompress from the day, whether it’s a walk, cooking dinner if you enjoy that, streaming a podcast or TV show, even if it’s for a short period of time. It will allow you to be more present for after work life.
Let’s talk about Career Development. Can you share a few ideas about how you can nurture and advance your career when you are working from home and away from other colleagues?
Many employees don’t realize they are 100% in charge of their own career advancement. That’s right! Your manager is only responsible for providing opportunities once you have identified what areas you want to grow and advance your career.
Development plan — Always have a development plan prepared and determine how your development plan aligns with business needs today and in the future. Consider what skills and competencies the company will need as it grows or business changes in the future. Questions to ask yourself:
- Can you gain those skills or competencies?
- How will you gain them — classes, self-taught, stretch assignments, mentorship?
- Does anyone else already have those skills and competencies?
- How will gaining those skills and competencies bring more value to the company?
Then, align with your manager on what skills you’d like to develop and how your manager can support you in achieving your development goals. If your manager can’t see progress in your daily work or in meetings, update your manager quarterly on your progress so your manager knows you are actively working on your development.
Stretch Assignments — Bring your knowledge and expertise to a stretch assignment outside your current remit. This will give you visibility in other parts of the organization where you can show how you bring value to the company in new ways. The more people who know you and can validate your value, the more opportunities you will be considered for at your company.
Prioritize Development — The same mantra is echoing everywhere, “I have no time to develop myself!” Welcome to the club! But making development a priority for the benefit of the company is just as important as the daily work. So, determine how you will invest in yourself. Will you use one hour or a few hours once a week and guard that time from other work and meetings? Will you ask to work on different projects or assignments during your normal work day to achieve your development plan? Determining a schedule for when you will work on developing yourself, even if not perfect, will not leave your development as the last priority or the thing you never get to by the end of the week.
Can you share a few ideas about how employers or managers can help their team with career development?
Not all employers have prescriptive ways of developing employees. Where employers do have programs, managers should follow those development programs guidelines. Whether development programs exist or not, I recommend:
Employer transparency — Transparent communication from the highest levels of an organization about where the company wants to /needs to grow, and what skills and competencies will be needed by employees in their departments to achieve the company’s goals is critical for employees to know where they need to grow or pivot for career longevity. Employers whose senior leadership participates in progressive organizational talent planning combined with prescriptive direction about the importance of employee development to prevent skills gaps will help managers understand how to prioritize development for employees. If employees feel like development is a company priority, they will be more engaged and have more loyalty to their company.
Managers engage in proactive conversation — Managers should have proactive communication with their employees to understand the employees’ ambitions. These conversations should happen multiple times a year and not just during the performance review cycle. Ask simple questions such as:
- “Where do you want to grow?”
- “How do you think about your career journey so far?”
- “Have you thought about how you see your career progressing?”
- “What skills do you think will be needed to get to where you want to go?”
Help your employees understand what skills and competencies the company needs and where the employee can bring the most value. Then engage your employees to view their answers to these question in alignment with the skills and competencies needed at the company. Engaging in this conversation will show you care about your employees’ future growth and career ambitions instead of just the work that is due that day. Finally, ask, “What can I do to support your growth?” Then listen carefully and provide that support and opportunity for your employees which will make them feel you are invested in their future.
Managers create opportunity — Once the plan is set, managers need to keep an eye out for and/or create opportunity to achieve the development. Can the employee attend a high level meeting the employee usually doesn’t attend? Can the employee take on a stretch assignment that may be more valuable than the work already assigned? Can that daily work be moved to someone else? Can the employee intern in another department to gain the skills needed? Can you, as a leader in the company, work with the HR department to create rotation programs or other learning opportunities in your function or cross-functionally? While your employees own their own development, you hold the key to unlock their potential.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Success at work no matter what company you work for stems from one thing: being curious. Questions create harmony, resonant decision making, and collaborative understanding:
- Your career: How did you land in your career? Was it a choice or by accident? Have you ever sat down and thought about whether your career aligns with your values? If you’re not happy, be curious about what you can do with your skills and capabilities. Just because you have done one job for a long period of time, it doesn’t mean you need to stay in that job or field forever. You have skills which are transferable. Be curious about what could be and be open to all possibilities.
- Influence without authority: By being curious about someone else’s idea and asking smart questions you will either help the other person come to a resonant understanding why their idea won’t work without saying, “that won’t work” which is dismissive, or you will help them come to a resonant understanding why another idea might work.
- Conflict between people/ teams: If you ask questions and come to any issue or conflict with curiosity, you will understand others’ dependencies more clearly and how you can help the other person help you reach your goals.
- Humanity: If you are curious about another human, you will learn something you didn’t know which will create a deeper connection, deeper understanding, and deeper relationship. You will be more successful if you build relationships separate from discussing the daily work and goals.
Curiosity unlocks the world. Never stop being curious.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can check out my website: www.marlolyonscoaching.com and link-in to me on my coaching LinkedIn Page or professional LinkedIn page. I am also a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and post LinkedIn articles regularly.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.