Navigate the winding path to your flock

Remarks by Niki Steckler, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Division of Management

Dr. Niki StecklerFaculty Speaker
OHSU Graduate Studies Hooding Ceremony
June 3, 2018 Oregon Convention Center

Navigate the winding path to your flock with your heart and your scientific mindset

I am truly honored to have the chance to speak with you all today – graduates and loved ones, staff and faculty. I had a phone call first thing this morning from both my sisters together, calling to tell me how proud they were of ME today and that they were thinking of me. My 82-year-old mother has been calling me for weeks wanting to know what I was going to say, gathering quotes and themes for me. So the first thing I really want to say to you all is, here's to our families! The ones we are born into and the ones we choose to gather around ourselves. Please join me in giving a giant shout out to all the loved ones who are with us here today – in person and in spirit!

My sisters this morning were sharing their stories about the day I first wore this robe. Each university has their own colors and designs for academic robes – this is Harvard's PhD robe, and they call this color "crimson," and as you can see I am joined by colleagues with all different degrees from all different universities. It also got me thinking about this symbolic ritual of hooding where your faculty will add these hoods to your robes so that people can see what kind of bird you are by your plumage. I want to congratulate each of you receiving degrees today – on behalf of staff and faculty, all of us – we are truly proud of your extraordinary and significant accomplishments!

It all takes me back 30 years to when I was sitting in your seats – I've been asking myself – what do I know today that I wish I'd known then?

The first thing I wish I'd known is that a career path isn't a straight line, it's more of a winding path. The first job I got out of graduate school was perfect for me on paper, it was exactly the type of job my notion of a straight-line career path said I should take. What I didn't anticipate is that I was terrible at it, and I hated it. I didn't connect with my students, I had nothing in common with my fellow faculty colleagues, I didn't care about the things I was being asked to teach there. It had looked as if it would be a great job from the outside, but it was pretty different how I felt inside, working in that job – it just wasn't me. I had followed the steps and it hadn't worked.

Which brings me to the second thing I know today that I wish I'd known then –

It turns out that career development actually benefits from a scientist mindset. Old-school career ideas use a more engineering mindset: "figure out where you're going, and then make a step-by-step plan on how you're going to get there."

What I know now is that for most of us, it's more useful to think like a scientist – testing out hypotheses, running process improvement "PDSA" cycles. It turns out that this is a helpful strategy in looking for a job, in looking to advance within your existing organization or line of work, if you're looking to change industries, or if you're looking to increase your leadership capability. Ask:

  • What's your hypothesis of what you think you will enjoy and be good at?
  • How could you design an exploratory experiment?
  • What's your preliminary data, and how are you going to analyze it?
  • Based on your preliminary results, what's the next experiment you want to run?

One of the reasons we don't think of our work lives as hypothesis-testing experiments has to do with what types of data we pay attention to.  For career experiments, there are external data points all around us:

  • You apply for a job – do you get an interview?
  • You apply for a grant – your proposal gets scored and funded/not funded.
  • Your boss gives you a performance review.

These external assessments are potentially valuable, and yet they're not the whole picture, and sometimes we get unhelpfully focused on those external evaluations. I had a kind advisor Rivka Perlman tell me back in college that 80% of the feedback you get from other people is about them. 20% of it might be about you, but 80% of feedback is about the sender. And yet it's really human to get focused on those external evaluations.

Which brings me to my final "what do I know today that I wish I'd known then?" The main thing I've learned in these last 30 years is that there's really valuable data in here (gesture to my heart). It might be some of the most important data of all, if I'm trying to find a place where I can use my own unique gifts to make things better in some context that's important to me.

I've learned that I've got an internal compass built-in. It's not the kind of GPS where you type in the final address and it tells you the complete route. It's more like one of those old-fashioned pocket compasses, and the first thing I need to know is, what is True North for me? What are my values? What matters most to me? That's why it helps to have a clear vision of what difference I want to make, and a clear sense of why do I care? What's my "why" for the work I want to do?

I learned that my own internal compass needed some calibration. I needed to take seriously the data I was getting from inside myself, my own experience. My sister Michele's phrase for this is, "does this feel accurate for me?" It's her way of saying, is my compass pointing me to keep going straight ahead, or to turn left or right or even make a U-turn?

So a pivotal experiment for me came a few years in to my business school professor years when I had the chance to teach a new organizations course at an engineering school in Hillsboro as an adjunct faculty member. I developed a brand-new course for engineers who were learning how to be managers. I loved it, and much to my delight and amazement, so did they.

The students were all working professionals and the classes were these intense Friday/Saturday classes, every few weeks. And the content was on developing yourself as a leader, how to navigate complex organizational challenges in a high-integrity way. Quite a few of you here today have taken a version of this same exact class with me here at OHSU. I found my subject, I fell in love with the content of what I was teaching in a way that I never had with the content I was teaching at the business school.

I had found my True North – I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other people. I wanted to help them navigate their work lives more successfully. My first job wasn't meaningful for me – I didn't see a path to making a meaningful difference in the world, and I wasn't inspired. That all started to change when I worked with that first group of engineers, and it's really changed working with all of you here at OHSU.

Which brings me back to how delighted I am to be here with all of you right now. How much I enjoy connecting with each of you and how much I'm looking forward to witnessing where your paths take you next in your work and lives.

So what do I know today that I wish I'd known then?

  1. It's not a straight line, it's a winding path.
  2. A scientist mindset is useful in navigating our career paths – it's all our own individual series of hypothesis-testing experiments.
  3. The most important data in these experiments comes from in here. What is there for me to learn from this experience? Does this work energize me or drain me? How can I take good care of myself, so that I can find a way to use my unique gifts to make a meaningful difference in the world around me?

In closing, my wish for each of you graduating today is that you find your flock. Looking out over all of us in these robes with these splashes of color here and there, it does really feel like we are a flock of birds with our colorful plumage.

Remember that we will always be part of your flock, your fellow students in the seats next to you and also the staff and faculty you've worked with over these years – we are all now your colleagues. Keep flying. Keep experimenting. Remember to use your own internal compass to guide you until you find your own flock in your professional life.

Thank you very much. 

Read our full coverage of the 2018 OHSU Convocation and School of Medicine Hooding Ceremonies.