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Stop Being a Dutiful Student at Work

Stop Being a Dutiful Student at Work

I recently attended a women’s leadership conference where I was surrounded by ambitious, talented women. Each was there on a personal leadership journey, seeking insights and inspiration from the speakers and sessions in which they participated. The energy and enthusiasm were palpable.

Throughout each session, I took time to look around the room and observe the behaviors of the women in attendance. I was repeatedly struck by the intensity of note taking. As each presenter spoke, the majority of women kept their heads down, furiously attempting to capture every insight. Some took pictures of the slides to ensure they had visuals to accompany their copious notes. Keep in mind that, as conference participants, we were provided with copies of each presentation.

I scratched my head wondering, “What are these women going to do with all of these notes?” If they’re like me, most will file them away when they return to their everyday lives and rarely, if ever, reference them again. Yet, there is something almost compulsory about taking notes.

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Women aren’t just taking notes during leadership conferences. We’re transcribing discussions in key meetings at work. While many executive men don’t even bring a notebook to meetings, women scramble to chronicle every last detail. Why do we do this?

My theory is that we’re taking notes because this is what allowed us to be successful during our academic lives. In high school and college, taking notes had a purpose. We captured the lessons we were taught and diligently reviewed them in preparation for exams. Our attention to detail and comprehensive understanding of the material led to academic success.

For many of us, work is an unsafe place. Maybe not physically, but in traditionally male-dominated environments, many women struggle with anxiety about how to show up. We worry that, if we ask a question, we’ll be seen as incompetent or unprepared. We worry that if we don’t know everything, the fragile bond that ties us to our roles will be irreparably severed. So, we lean on the skills that served us well throughout our lives – our study skills.

If I could only read one more book on this topic, then I would feel so much more confident having this discussion. If I only had one more training in this area, then I would feel more prepared to engage in this project. What’s the definitive textbook that will give me the answers I need? This is how we think. And it translates into our everyday behaviors at work.

[Related: Seven Career Tips for Succeeding in Corporate America]

While these study habits may have gotten us to where we are today, they’re not going to help us advance to higher levels of leadership. Here are several reasons why:

  • While we’re feverishly taking notes during each meeting, others are actively engaged in the discussion. They’re asking thoughtful questions, synthesizing information in real time. When our heads are down and our pens are moving, we’re not observing the body language and political dynamics around us. And we’re not showing up as leaders.
  • While we’re waiting for just one more course/book/lesson to adequately fill the gap in our knowledge base, others are out there taking risks. They’re leveraging their curiosity to connect with others. And they’re trusting that they know enough to be worthy of their roles.
  • While we’re keeping our heads down, perfecting every last report or e-mail, others are building trusted relationships. They’re finding casual opportunities to personally connect. They’re focusing on higher value-added activity.

Congratulations on your academic success! It has undoubtedly led you to your current role. But it’s time to let go of being a dutiful student.

Instead of taking notes, studying unnecessarily, or obsessing over every last detail of every written document, use your natural curiosity to build powerful connections with others. Find experts and ask powerful questions. Share your ideas and seek input from those around you. That’s where you’ll find the visibility and influence you need to advance your career.

[Related: How To Use Roadblocks As A Jumping-Off Point To Learn And Grow]


Kim Meninger is an executive coach and consultant who specializes in women’s leadership. She is passionate about helping women in traditionally male-dominated fields to build their confidence, visibility, and influence.

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