Adopting a self-advocate mindset: The value of speaking up and asking for what you want

July 26, 2021     
By Tina Deignan, Ph.D., senior vice president, U.S. Immunology

About the author: Tina Deignan, Ph.D., senior vice president, U.S. Immunology, is passionate about defining business opportunities that help serve patients and building strong, collaborative teams that value innovation. 

In her current role, Deignan leads the U.S. Immunology business, which addresses disease states that include multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time, she is building the U.S. Immunology strategy, organization and capabilities in preparation for future drug launches. 

Prior to joining BMS in 2007, Deignan launched and built product portfolios across Immunology and Oncology at Novartis Ireland and Novartis U.S. She earned her Ph.D. in immunology from Trinity College Dublin and a Graduate Diploma in Business Studies from Dublin Business School.

Growing up in Ireland, I was the youngest of four in a lively, opinionated family. My three siblings—all engineers—are very smart and true lovers of debate. To keep up in our family, you need to contribute your opinion. I learned at a young age that to survive in that clan, I had to speak up for myself, and that skill was hardwired early on. 

For many people, though, speaking up and advocating for themselves doesn’t come naturally. Research shows that for many individuals, speaking up at work in meetings, asking for a raise or applying for a job that may feel like a reach may stretch outside of our comfort zone. But understanding your skill set and self-advocating are essential skills if we’re going to reach our career goals and be effective in our work.

Throughout my years in this industry, I’ve learned not only what my strengths are, but how to hone my self-advocacy skills, and I have shared that knowledge with my peers and staff alike. In that process, I’ve learned some important lessons from my peers as well. Below are some of the techniques I learned to determine where I wanted to go in my career, how I wanted to get there and how to talk about “my story” in a way that allowed me to self-advocate clearly and constructively: 

Never sell yourself short

One of the most common mistakes people make is to assume they’re not qualified for a position unless they meet every one of the listed requirements for the role. I almost did that myself when I was starting out. 

Early in my career as an immunology post doc, I realized I wanted to see more closely the impact of our research on patients. I made the difficult decision to jump to the business side of things. But when a friend showed me an advert for a position at a pharmaceutical company, my immediate reaction was “I’m not qualified.” I looked at the requirements and said, “I don’t have this; I’ve never done that; they’re looking for someone who is already in industry.” 

My friend immediately pushed me by saying, “So what?” When it comes to experiences and skills, there’s a lot of crossover between roles and even industries. He helped me see that my experiences as a post-doc and researcher matched up with the critical skills the company was seeking. In about 30 seconds, he showed me how I could position myself to succeed in the role. In the end, I went for it and started on the career path that was right for me.

Know where you want to go

When people ask me for career advice, I always ask them, “Where do you want to go?” A lot of people squirm at the idea of articulating an ambitious goal, like a place on the leadership team or a C-suite job. 

But what you’re doing is setting a vision for yourself and then mapping out a path to achieving it. You can decide along the way how you want this path to evolve. Maybe you stay moving in the same direction or maybe you feel satisfied with where you are. Perhaps you want to move in a new direction. The key is to set an aspirational goal and identify that destination and then really focus on the experiences and skills you need, as well as the scopes of responsibility you want to pursue.

I started talking about where I wanted to go in the long term, describing my goals and aspirations, and identifying what I needed to get there. It changed the narrative—and my career—like a switch.

Write your first draft

Once you have your goal, it’s time to think about how you want to get there. What can you use from your experiences, what skills have you developed, that will help you as you progress, and how do you position those experiences as a cohesive story to prove you’re ready for the next step? 

Of course, once you have identified your aspirations and the path to them, you can be flexible. Your story is never really finished, after all. You can keep updating and changing it along the way. I always tell people to keep an open mind for those opportunities and insights that arise out of the blue. They could open up a whole different direction you hadn’t thought of—or that hadn’t existed earlier—that you want to explore. 

Talk about your story, not just your goal

As I continue to evolve on my path, I’ve gotten clearer about the competencies and skills I want to refine. I’ve become clearer about the responsibilities and challenges I would like to take on. Yet, it wasn’t always this way. Even though I was comfortable speaking up for myself, I found I still wasn’t getting what I wanted. I was getting frustrated because I knew what kind of role I wanted, but I felt I wasn’t making progress toward my goals. The problem was that I wasn’t being clear with managers and leadership. When I asked for more responsibility, they only heard “promotion.” What they didn’t hear was that I needed to gain greater and wider experiences to progress toward my ideal role — my long-term goals.

A former boss and mentor helped me clarify and articulate my career aspirations. Instead of asking for a promotion, I started talking about where I wanted to go in the long term, describing my goals and aspirations, and identifying what I needed to get there. It changed the narrative—and my career—like a switch. 

Find your own voice

It took me some time to understand my personal strengths. In the course of working with a variety of teams and individuals, I started to see areas where I could differentiate myself as a business leader. I realize not everyone is as comfortable advocating for themselves. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a voice and use it to great effect. I’ve found that if you can figure out your career story and your pathway to your goals, you’ll have something to say. You can practice with peers and mentors if you need to and get their feedback and ideas. Then, armed with that story, you can look for opportunities to advocate for your needs. And when you know what you’re going to say, you won’t be as nervous speaking up. You’ll have a voice.

Six ways to be your own advocate

  1. Seek advice and insights from leaders and peers alike
  2. Tout your skills and experiences
  3. Determine your destination
  4. Plot your pathway
  5. Be clear about what you want
  6. Find – and use – your voice

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