Learning about Professional Development in Washington, DC

PHoto by Marsmet544/Creative Commons By Beau Lancaster, Colin Powell leadership fellow.

Prior to my summer experience of interning in Washington, DC, I did not understand how much of a quintessential New Yorker I was. As a quintessential New Yorker, I am often direct, honest, and non-apologetic in my beliefs. However, I soon discovered this is not the communication style of the professional world. In order to succeed in the workplace, you have to know how to communicate in the workplace. My summer interning at the Partnership for Public Service taught me how to communicate professionally while still being myself.

In the summer of 2012, I was an Education and Outreach Fellow at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC, which advises the federal government on methods it can use to be more effective and efficient. Interns at the Partnership are treated as full-time members of the staff. Our supervisors assigned us portfolios, and we were expected to schedule daily meetings with staff to work on projects. In addition, we were mandated to attend all company and individual team meetings, wherein we gave updates on our portfolio. Interns at the Partnership were expected to conduct themselves in a professional matter at all times.

Sitcom Situations My biggest challenge of working in the Partnership was not my workload but learning to communicate in an office. My first three weeks at the Partnership felt like a "Curb Your By Enthusiasm" episode. I would constantly overshare with colleagues during short talks and speak out of turn during team meetings. My supervisor and colleagues interpreted this behavior as rude, but I wasn’t doing it on purpose. This was my first professional work experience. I complained to my fellow interns that colleges should offer a course entitled,  "Communication in the Professional Workplace,” but I was wrong. Learning to communicate effectively in the workplace is something that can’t be taught; it has to be experienced.

The first obstacle I had to overcome was learning when to pick your time to speak. Unlike in academia, every time someone asked if you have a question or a comment, you do not have to feel pressured to contribute. In the workplace if you have a comment or question, it should be something that contributes to the conservation. Nothing is more unproductive to a work environment than a comment or question that doesn’t contribute to the conversation. The second obstacle I overcame was learning about professional protocol in a work environment through body language.

Weighing Your Words Before my internship I thought of communicating in a professional manner as being boring and phony. However, I learned that communicating in a professional manner is neither boring nor phony. It is smart. Communicating in a professional matter doesn’t mean you have to be someone completely different. It just means you have to carefully pick your time to speak and to weigh your words carefully. I’m still very much a New Yorker, but I’m now more of a professional person.

Read about Beau Lancaster and our other contributing authors here