Cultivating an Inner Circle for Your Career, with Soumary Vongrassamy

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 239:

Cultivating an Inner Circle for Your Career, with Soumary Vongrassamy

Air date: April 15, 2020

Mac Prichard

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

One of the most effective ways to enjoy success in your career is to cultivate an inner circle of advisors.

Here to talk about the difference such a group can make in your job search and your professional life is Soumary Vongrassamy. 

She’s a specialist in equity and conflict resolution with the Multnomah County Government in Portland, Oregon.

Soumary, here’s where I want to start, what do you mean when you talk about an inner circle for your career?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

I can start with my own personal story of why that has worked for me and why I think it works for a lot of folks.

The world of work is really designed for white men to succeed and that’s just how it is. And as a woman, as a person of color, and who was raised in poverty, we’ve faced tremendous barriers and it’s too heavy to manage alone, and you’re trying to navigate it and you’re trying to succeed through the world of work.

Doing it on your own is just not feasible and it’s not healthy. And I’ve gone through the business school. I went to school for HR and marketing, and thankfully, they’ve taught you very well how to play the game and how to dress the part, how to get through interviews, how to find new jobs, but it’s exhausting.

It’s exhausting when you have to turn parts of your identity to be able to succeed and navigate that. And so from that, I was able to really cultivate my own inner circle. A group of folks to hold me accountable, to remind me to lean into my own natural strengths, so that I’m not forgetting to turn parts of myself off in order to succeed.

Those include things like listening to my own intuition, brokering multiple social identities, how to navigate different cultural groups, and also caring for the collective, the whole community.

Mac Prichard

I want to dig into each of those topics. I’m curious, why do you think people try to go it alone?

Do they not know any better, Soumary? Or because, as you said, because of your education, you learned models, you learned that there is a different way. Why do you think people try to do it by themselves?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

I think there are multiple factors. There’s…the world of work is where we just need to be productive and we need to show our own individual strengths. But then, America is also a very individualistic society where, “to each his own.” There are so many expressions that you can learn about how to show up as your own self and it’s a highly competitive world.

I mean, now with politics and sports and businesses, awards, there’s just a lot of competition and it just really feeds into the very individualistic society. And so, it’s hard to step out of that and really see that we are a collective, we are whole, we do operate in social groups but trying to balance that is very difficult.

Mac Prichard

Now, you’ve talked about the difference an inner circle has made in your own career. I know you have colleagues who rely on these groups, too. Can you give an example of the kind of difference having an inner circle of advisors can make? Either in a job search or career.

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Yeah, you know, I know there’s…I know you’ve done some sessions before around having groups of advisors, so it looks very different. I’m just going to speak personally from my experience as a woman of color. I can share some helpful tips.

For example, if I’m sourcing employers, if I’m looking for the right employer for me, I will have to ask myself and ask my friends to tell me, “Is this employer going to support me as an Asian-American woman in a leadership position?”

And that looks very different than just, “Oh, this culture looks really great. They provide the right kind of benefits.” But in the end, will the organization, will the manager support me as an Asian-American woman in a leadership position?

If I’m sourcing a job, if I’m looking at a job description, I have to check with myself and my inner circle saying, “Hey, are the job responsibilities and expectations allowing me to really meet my values, uphold my values, and use the natural strengths that I have and can contribute?”

It means everything from being an introvert to be community-oriented to being soft-spoken. “How do we make sure that that job is actually designed for me to succeed?”

Mac Prichard

Well, let’s talk about the circle itself because those are excellent insights. And so, they have to be so invaluable when they’re considering a job position or actually interviewing for one. How do you build an inner circle of advisors, Soumary? And who do you ask to be part of it?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

There’s a lot of correctiveness around building an inner circle. It’s a lot of relationship building, taking the time, and I mean, you can call it networking, call it friend-making, just being out there and growing your own social network without the expectation that it is for work. Because, in the end, these are the folks that will understand you and all of your natural strengths, your vulnerabilities, and they are the ones that would really be to tell you the truth about whether something makes sense for you or not. I think that is, by far, the most helpful and it’s really just leaning into that closer circle.

It’s not going out to find an expert who does resume writing. It’s really just leaning into, perhaps, “I have a friend who has managed a team of ten and has done countless interviews. I’m sure they could go through my resume and tell me if there are some things that I’m underselling myself or if there are things that I can better articulate.”

So that would be one example. But it really takes a lot of patience, a lot of time to be out, and there are many ways you can build relationships. You don’t always have to just go to networking events; you can cultivate it within your own social circle.

Mac Prichard

Is this a formal group, generally, or is it based on your needs while you’re progressing through your career or perhaps doing a job search? In other words, are you actually pulling people together for a call or for a meeting of some kind, or are you identifying people who might help if you’ve got a specific need?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

For me, personally, it’s a more casual group. For others that do a need a little bit more formal structure, I’m sure a mastermind group would be very helpful for them, too. So, it looks different for everyone.

I have the folks that I go to when I need to be leaning into career advice. My needs, I have someone to help with negotiation and salary transparency, I have folks I lean into for interview practice. It looks different for everyone, but for me personally, I have a more casual network that I often go to and I do ask for help, and if they’re available, fantastic, if not, I’m okay with that too, and I have other folks that I can lean into.

Some people have it more structured. They say, “Hey, I’m going to be hopping into a job search right now. Would you be able to step in in this kind of role for me.” And there are some folks that have reached out to me in that kind of formal request, and yes, there are different ways to do it.

Mac Prichard

For people who do like more formal structures, does it take the form of a one-time conversation, where perhaps you give feedback about a resume or is it an ongoing relationship where you might meet occasionally to talk about specific challenges?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

For the folks that have reached out to me with formal settings, it is an ongoing conversation. I’ve looked at resumes over and over for the same person, just to make sure that it is differentiated for different jobs, that they’re not underselling their skill sets. So, yeah it could look different for everyone but for the folks that have reached out for a more formal setting, it is a more ongoing basis and for me personally, too, it’s always the same folks I would reach out to.

Mac Prichard

When you reach out to people, what do you recommend to a listener who might be uncertain about what to ask for? Can it come back to a specific request, like an introduction to a particular employer or perhaps the review of a resume? What do you see as the most effective, Soumary?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

It depends on who you are and where you’re at, what you feel like you need help with. I think I already named a few things, right? Sourcing employers, sourcing jobs, folks that help out with resumes, cover letters, then interviewing and negotiation.

I mean, those are huge buckets that you can go to any one to focus on. I tend to make sure that I have the whole suite for myself, so that I’m not swimming alone and I like the consistency, which is really helpful. But some folks just need to zero in on one of them, and you should lean into maybe your former managers or your colleagues that are in the space of hiring to let you know, what are the areas that you need help in, but it looks different for everyone.

Mac Prichard

In your experience, both for yourself and for people that you’ve worked with in the past, is this a big group of people, or are we talking about maybe 5 or 7 individuals in all, that might be a part of your inner circle?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Oh, well, mine is relatively large. I’m also, as an extrovert, I tend to lean into many groups. So, I have a book club, that we do career transitioning together. I have a group of women that talks about leaning into our intuition. I have a group of women of color that we talk about our salaries and our benefits and kind of compare notes and how do we help each other leverage and grow? So, I’m blessed in that space, where I can tap into multiple groups.

There are some folks who are maybe more introverted where a small group of 5 may be more efficient or even 2.

Mac Prichard

I’m impressed that you have a group focused just on salary negotiations. I’m curious, how did that get started and how do you continue it? Are you all comparing notes regularly?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Yeah, and so this is very interesting. So, a few of my friends, all women of color, we went to a session where it was acknowledged that the transparency around salary keeps us all in the dark and we are not able to make the right decisions for ourselves.

So, it just became a natural conversation that we all share our salaries and what the benefits that come with it and knowing that we have well wishes for each other to do our best and get our best and so, recognizing that we care about each other, we were quite comfortable sharing. And then that led into all sorts of conversations about supporting each other and we weren’t comparing who was better or who’s gaining more.

It was really supporting where everybody was starting at, and then I carried that conversation to another group. There’s an Asian-American women group that I do brunch with every month and I said, “Hey, in this other group, this is what we shared.” And we started talking about our salary in that space too.

And it looked very different, and we talked about more benefits because many of them were mothers and so they were trying to figure out, what’s the right kind of family plan and the benefits that they should be advocating within their organizations. So, it was almost like a bit of an awakening and like this veil has lifted.

And we were able to be honest and open to talking about it. And I work in government, where our salaries are quite open, and that makes it a little easier to start talking about how to make sure that it was equitable and that we were being paid fairly.

It helps us talk about conversations about our worth. Too often, we don’t know, are we making enough and what is our worth. How do we know, what is our worth?

Mac Prichard

It’s fascinating. I want to take a break, Soumary, but when we come back I’d like to talk more about how those groups that have, it sounds, grown very organically and informally continue.

Stay with us, when we come back, Soumary Vongrassamy and I will continue to talk about how to cultivate and serve an inner circle for your career.

One of my top takeaways from today’s conversation with Soumary is the importance of community.

You don’t need to go it alone. Recognize instead that a job search is a team effort. Those you know well, and often not so well, stand ready to help.

And you also need to understand what matters to employers, too. Every hiring manager you meet wonders if you’re the one who can do the best job.

That’s why companies ask behavioral questions.

What will you say when you get one of these questions?

Go to macslist.org/questions.

We’ll send you a free guide with a list of the 100 most popular behavioral questions.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

Of course, there’s an infinite number of behavioral questions. So we’ll teach you a simple, four-part system to answer any of them.

Get your free guide today, 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

That’s macslist.org/questions.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Soumary Vongrassamy.

She’s a specialist in equity and conflict resolution with the Multnomah County government in Portland, Oregon.

Soumary, before our break, we were talking about some groups that you’re involved in that grew, it sounds like, very organically, that are focused on sharing information about salaries and career opportunities.

I’m curious, how do those groups continue? What keeps people swapping information and continuing to meet to exchange information and ideas?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Oh, I believe, it’s not just myself but a number of my friends are extroverts and event planners and love to eat and break bread, and so these are our excuses to always come together, and we do make it a regular occurrence.

Many of them are just monthly meetings, book clubs, brunches. Others we try to do every other month because of childcare factoring. Yeah, and I just have amazing friends that want to keep it going and it actually shows during this time with the pandemic happening. Despite it all, we’re still, we’re moving it to virtually and we’re doing virtual hangouts and groups and continuing that connection because it’s so invaluable.

Mac Prichard

Are there things that you recommend that a listener who might be part of an inner circle of advisors or is cultivating one, not ask advisors to do?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

I think, a question that I often forget and I have to be very intentional and remind myself of is, have the folks that know you well to remind you or help you see whether that job is the right fit for you.

Too often, we go after jobs because of titles and pay and prestige or power. But in the end, does that job speak to you where perhaps you’re an introvert and this job is call sales. How would it fit your needs and your natural disposition? And often we don’t ask that because we just go after those other things and it’s just helpful to be reminded, for them to speak to you and be able to help you be more authentic in this new job, in this new role.

Mac Prichard

What’s an effective way to do that kind of reality check? Do you recommend if you’re interested in a position, even before you apply, you talk to one of your advisors and get their feedback?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Oh yeah, sure. Yeah, and one example is, there was an opportunity to lead a team and I had to really sit with that. For someone who, am I more of an individual achiever and would rather not manage a team? Even though I may have skill sets to be strategic in coordinating a whole team.

But I had to check in with some of my friends that knew me well and just give me some guidance; not tell me what to do about it but really coach me through it and say, “Hey, you know, what does your day look like if you were to manage the team? And would you be zapped, would your energy be zapped by the end of the day? Would you be fulfilled?”

And I really had to check in with the folks that are a little bit more intuitive and that pay attention to those pieces, and I’m grateful for that.

Mac Prichard

Well, I have to ask the question that I’m sure is on a listener’s mind, did you pursue the position or did you decide to focus on something else instead?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

I did not. I did not pursue the opportunity, a fantastic opportunity, but I’m quite…I’m pleased with it and I think I really did pay attention to what I’m more naturally inclined to, and that is just deep work as an individual contributor, and yeah.

Mac Prichard

Many of our listeners are doing a job search and you’ve given great examples of how a listener might turn to a circle of advisors for specific help, say about a resume or a question about how skills or interest in a position might actually match up with a person’s abilities.

Once somebody finds a job, how do you recommend a listener stay in touch with a circle of advisors?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Pay it forward, please. You know, you’ve gone through that process, it’s fresh in mind, and you can share out what lessons you learned.

Help others to not repeat some of the frustrations that you have gone through and you know, with us, where we’re at now with the expectation of a really high unemployment rate, this is going to be the call for all of us that are privileged to have stable jobs and support, to be able to lean a hand to the folks that will be leaning into us and needing help.

If you can, please pay it forward. And I’m very privileged to be in that place, to be able to be able to provide a bit more clarity for folks who are just kind of getting lost in all of the demands.

Mac Prichard

Yeah, it’s an important point that you’re making because while we’ve been talking about an individual’s inner circle of advisors, people that they know well, it’s important too, isn’t it, Soumary, to help people you don’t know very well or who might even be strangers, isn’t it?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Mhmm, just make yourself available and there are so many platforms so just say, “Hey, I’m available to look at people’s resumes. I might not know you well but I could maybe copy-edit it for you.” There are so many ways that we can show up for each other.

Mac Prichard

Often when people hear the word networking, which is another way to say what we’re talking about, they think it’s just about asking others for help, but serving is really important isn’t it?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Yeah, you know you can reframe it as friend-making. I think that would be a better, more practical way to approach it.

Mac Prichard

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation. Tell us, what’s next for you,  Soumary?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

You know, I need to be centered with my values and we’re going through such a very difficult period for all of us across the globe. We’re collectively grieving right now and I can imagine it’s just a bit of a spiritual awakening for us. So, I am just currently focusing on how I can be there for my family, friends, and colleagues to grieve right now.

I can’t even focus on anything beyond this, so that’s really what’s next for me.

Mac Prichard

Well, I appreciate you sharing that.

I know that people can learn more about you and connect with you by visiting your LinkedIn profile.

And when you think about all the useful tips you’ve shared today about cultivating an inner circle of advisors, what’s the one thing that you want a listener to remember?

Soumary Vongrassamy:

Pay attention to your intuition. I think that just takes a little bit of practice and a little bit of patience with yourself, and if you can just take a moment and just sit with your intuition, it can very much guide you with your career path.

Mac Prichard

You don’t need to do your job search by yourself.

Ask others for help and use resources like our free guide, 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

On our next show, our guest will be Toni Patterson. She’s a career coach who helps smart, driven women get the salaries, promotions, and jobs they want.

Because of the COVID-19 virus, most job interviews are now happening virtually. And that means you need to learn new skills.

Toni and I will talk about her job interview tips for a stay-at-home world and what you need to do differently.

I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

When you’re looking for that perfect job fit, you need more than just a network. You need a group of people who know you, your needs, and your personal values. Find Your Dream Job guest Soumary Vongrassamy says you need friends who will remind you of what’s really important and who will help you ask tough questions about the job. Once you find your dream job, Soumary says it is of the utmost importance that you “pay it forward,” creating that inner circle for others and helping them through the job search process.

About Our Guest:

Soumary Vongrassamy is a specialist in equity and conflict resolution with the Multnomah County government in Portland, Oregon.

Resources in This Episode: