Warning: Don’t Be Caught Off Guard When Asked About Your Career

Waiting for the elevator is often a mindless task. You push the button, touch the screen or do whatever you have to do to make the elevator stop. Then then you stand there waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, you push another button to get to your designated floor or if on an ultra-modern elevator, it takes you to your designated floor because you instructed it to prior to stepping inside. Nevertheless, you’re not thinking about answering questions. You may get asked, what floor you want, but that’s about all you expect. And your response is usually a number – elevator protocol.

Unfortunately, I had a different experience not too long ago. I was standing amongst a group of people waiting to get on the elevator for a conference event. Right before the elevator door opened a person made eye contact with me and I smiled. That person smiled back, but said something that threw me off…

“So where are you from?”

My response was to share where I lived, a very simple answer to a very simple question, or so I thought.

This person looked puzzled when I answered. They asked again.  I replied in the same manner. Then they became visibly annoyed, rolling their eyes. I was thankful that the elevator opened.

As we were getting off the elevator, it immediately dawned on me that this person was asking me about what company I represented since this was a business event.  Also the person was carrying a bag with their company’s logo on it when I looked down.

There was no way to recover in that moment. I had blown my opportunity.

We got off the elevator and went our separate ways never to speak again.

I had learned a valuable lesson.

Being able to verbally communicate who you are as a professional is critical to your career success as it can often set you apart from others helping you to stand out when there is a need for your skills or abilities. However, we often have a tough time doing this especially if we work within an organization. We are more apt to explain what we do (the job description) at work versus who we are. Having worked in many organizations, I get this. But, no one remembers what your job is about, your laundry list of projects, or accomplishments nor do they even care. This is especially true if it is the first time they are interacting with you or you both see each other rarely at the office.

Though the question caught me off guard, I could have simply relied stating what I say to individuals when they ask me, what I do. I share that I am a professional speaker, author and entrepreneur. Then I share what that means or what project I am currently working on if it is relevant to the person I am speaking with. Obviously I didn’t do any of that.

My inability to answer, “where are you from” may have cost me an opportunity for a future speaking engagement or a networking connection. I will never know.

What I do know is that we bumped into one another a few times that night, but there was nothing else to say. I learned that there are times when you cut your losses and keep moving. This was one of those times.

So irrespective of how you are asked about what you do whether in an elevator with a complete stranger or with your CEO, you should always be ready to communicate something that will leave a positive and memorable impression about who you are not just about all the tasks that you do.

Here are a few conversational scenarios that may be helpful in how you successfully share who you are, so that you leave the right impression:

The Elevator Conversation: Always remember your role at work. When you are asked how you are doing, be ready to mention your function, then maybe a tidbit that they should know about something you’re doing that day or working on that’s important – no details are warranted. If the person wants details they will ask. But if not, just return the question they’ve asked you. It is that simple. By that time you both will have reached your destination. They will remember you later if what you share is meaningful.

The Business Conversation:  Again, remember to share who you are then what you do. In this scenario you may have a little more timeso engagement in a conversation can work to your benefit. Think about sharing what problem you are working on to solve and what value you bring to that issue. If you deem that the person may have some insight or be able to help you (or you help them), this is potentially the time to ask to have further dialog later on, follow-up.    

The One-on-One Networking Conversation: Sharing who you are is still important, but there’s more time for you and the person you are networking with to really have a chance to get to know one another and for you to share. This is about building a relationship so think of not only sharing the problem you may solve for and your value proposition, but why you are solving this problem. Also be prepared to not just discuss what you need, but ask what you can give or share with the other person you are speaking with. Hopefully you’ve done your homework on this person before you speak with them.

Remember it is about engaging someone to continue the dialog with you, not sharing everything about you or what you’re doing. You want to be memorable. Each scenario above is a gradual conversation that you can build upon or use independently, but the core of each one is sharing who you are then what you do. As I share in my new book, The Ultimate Career Pocket Guide, “your words have meaning.” Make the most of them as you often don’t have a lot of time nor does the other person, so having your career pitch is being savvy with your career.

I am Francine Parham. I professionally speak and write about successfully navigating through business environments and organizational cultures. My first book, “The Ultimate Career Pocket Guide” from the Career Pocket Guides™ series is available now in Amazon. This book is written to help you master the skills and professional behaviors essential to achieving your career goals.  Please join me at my next speaking engagement at the Rutgers University Business School on July 14th to learn how to build effective collaborations as you grow your successful career.