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A Conversation Between Friends

On Ambition and Relationships with Shannon Wiley

Hey goal achievers, Kristin here. Recently, I was so excited to introduce my Elite Achievement audience to my blonde ambition partner, Shannon Wiley. Shannon’s support and encouragement have been instrumental for my personal and professional growth over the last few years. I truly treasure the time we have together: power walks, long chats over coffee, and many laughs over a glass (or several) of a great Pinot Noir. I admire Shannon’s professionalism, passion and work ethic. She is the Chief Recruiting Officer for Northwestern Mutual in Atlanta and participates in a National Women’s Leadership Program.

Finding Your “Running Mate”

I start by asking Shannon to talk about one of our favorite topics, ambition. I’m curious what it means to her. 

“Ambition means so many different things to me,” Shannon says. “But the first thing that comes to mind is ambition is whatever it takes: a strong determination and will to get whatever done that you are dreaming about. And, it’s typically probably something really big. So, ambition is just that drive and chasing a dream, with determination attached to it.”

We all have a lot of really big dreams that we are going after, so I ask Shannon to share what helps her stay motivated and connected to achieve those big dreams.

“Staying connected is number one,” she begins. “It’s my dream, right? It’s something I’m dreaming about. So, first and foremost, it came from within, and it’s mine. And then I think attaching it to short and long-term goals and visions, and having people to run alongside you on those, has really helped me stay attached to those big dreams and goals.”

Shannon mentioned having people to run alongside you, and she has, without a doubt, been that person for me. We met in a professional setting, and we were able to attend a lot of different training programs and events together, but our friendship carried on throughout our corporate roles. And if it wasn’t for her, often encouraging me or reminding me of my strengths, I’m not sure we’d be connecting today. I ask Shannon for advice or insight for women who might be looking for that partner to run with. How can other women start to develop those professional relationships that can be so critical?

“Gosh,” Shannon says. “Thinking back to when I first met you, Kristin, a lot of it was unintentional, right? It’s kind of like dating! Which is funny to think about. Because you don’t know when you meet someone if they’re really going to be your person and get to know you and you’re going to click with them. Candidly, when we met Kristin, you were far ahead in your corporate career – much further ahead than I was. I had an opportunity to fly out across the country and watch you present. And since I was flying out there, I said, ‘Hey, can I just shadow you for a couple of days and see how you do your work?’ I’ve asked a lot of people that same thing at Northwestern Mutual, and they’ve been so incredible to me. I think you just don’t know how the relationships are going to form coming out of that. I mean, we were strangers when Kristin and I first met, and I flew across the country! So, my point is, you’ve got to be willing to step out and meet a lot of people that you’re interested in learning from, and friendships may come out of it. That’s the great byproduct of working relationships. And I think when friendships can come out of it, those are the people that help you really attach to your dreams because they know deep down in your soul, who you are, where you want to be. And I think when they know you from the inside out, it’s so much more than a professional relationship, and they can help you course correct and get you back attached and focused to your dreams.”

It’s so interesting to me that Shannon perceived me to be further ahead in my career because I perceived her to be an incredibly fierce Boss Lady. And I had so much respect and admiration for her and what she was building. I remember back in those early days thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I had half of the confidence that Shannon has.’ If we never had the chance to be vulnerable and get to know one another, Shannon and I would have always lived with those perceptions, which would have probably kept us distant. Her advice to meet a lot of people and build those relationships is very sage – reality is often very different from what we perceive it to be. 

Shannon shares, “One of the things that’s so amazing about relationships is with really strong relationships and running partners or running mates – one always thinks the other is better, but they’re equally just really strong individuals chasing their dreams. And there’s enough space out there for all of us to go for our dreams. And so, in this world, we’re not taking from the other no matter how successful both of us are. We can both wildly chase those dreams.”

I agree with Shannon wholeheartedly. The more successful I become, the more successful you become, and the more successful you become, the more successful I become. So, it really becomes a collaboration and a partnership. And I think one of the things that makes my relationship with Shannon really unique is the connection to being in a male-dominated industry. Today, she is still very much thriving in a male-dominated industry. I have since pivoted and changed careers, but I’m still doing a lot of work in this industry. But I’ve always experienced Shannon as her authentic self and ask her to share how women working in a male-dominated industry can maintain their authentic selves.

Stay True to You: Your Authentic Self

“I think women can and will maintain authentic self,” Shannon shares. “Yeah, we are in a male-dominated industry, and it’s funny to think about your authentic self in that space. Because sometimes, I know I have an authentic self and I have a brand – what people perceive of me. But sometimes, you’re not as aware of it until you really start to pull back. As you mentioned, this Women’s Leadership Program that I’m in, I had to ask people around my life – professional and personal – that I respected, how they perceived me. And a lot of the answers were around my true authentic self. Sometimes I would dig in a little bit more and ask questions. Often the word “refreshing” is tied to it. So, it’s very refreshing when you’re authentic, especially in a male-dominated world. I think staying true to your authentic self – which looks different than someone else’s authentic self – and having fun with it. And also checking in with the people you really trust. Learning more about what that means to other people. I think people will be surprised how much others respect you for being your authentic self.”

As I reflect back on my career, I know there were times that I showed up as less than my authentic self. And I think that was deeply connected to my confidence. Or maybe I was trying to compete in ways that weren’t necessarily healthy. I ask Shannon if she has any insight or advice for others who might be struggling to have the confidence to be their authentic selves in an environment that might feel challenging.

“One of the first things that comes to mind,” says Shannon, is to think of the people you most trust. Choose three people and ask them how they experience you, almost like taking an inventory or an audit of your authentic self. So, learning a bit more about how people experience you can be very surface level first, when you think of authentic self. Very surface level to me is I love a certain cup of coffee every morning, I carry a portfolio and I love tweed suits, right? Like that is very, very surface level. That’s what people see driving down the highway. But there’s so much more! That’s the very tiny layer of authentic self. So, I think sitting down with people, it’s almost like thinking of how I would clean out my closet. This is so cliche to say as a woman, but if I was to clean out my closet, I would let you sit on my bed and go through my closet. You’re going to help me better understand my wardrobe and what I need to get rid of, and what I never even wear. Same thing with your authentic self – it just creates awareness. And there are so many layers to authentic self that you might not be aware of quite yet. They are all really good things that once you learn, you can lean into a bit more.”

As we think about showing up as our authentic selves in a male-dominated industry, sometimes we overemphasize gender. But as Shannon has worked and grown her career, I’m curious how much she thinks about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Is that something she thinks of regularly, or has it become normal?

“I’ve been in this industry for 16 years, right off the college campus,” says Shannon. “So, I really don’t know an industry other than this. So one, yes, it is my normal. But two, I do think about it often because I have a passion for helping women and Northwestern Mutual. I may not see it clearly every day. But I know it is definitely a male-dominated industry. And so I think, ‘Yeah, there is a gender difference.’ But I also think there are characteristics that lie outside of it. Over time, I started to see the characteristics that make people just absolute stellar rock stars in the company. And it’s not tagged to just being a woman or just being a man. It’s really more about the characteristics and qualities that they’ve accomplished over time.”

I’m hearing Shannon say that it really boils down to certain characteristics that lead to success or “rockstar” status. With sixteen years of experience, I ask Shannon to tell us what some of those characteristics are that build success and how we can grow those characteristics. 

“Rockstar” Career Characteristics

Shannon begins by sharing that our ability to verbalize those characteristics is so important. “I just read a great book called How Women Rise that’s phenomenal. I encourage everyone to read it – it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, because a male encouraged me to read it because he had read it. The first habit inside that book is that women often don’t take credit for their work. And I mean, you can close the book at that point, right? Because I think when we talk about characteristics, it’s not that men and women don’t have equal opportunities to achieve and excel. It’s just how men and women filter and learn things differently. Women don’t talk about what they want to do, where they want to go. For example, in law firms, men come in right out of law school, and they’re always talking about the partner track. Well, there’s a partner track in my company as well and it’s taken me a long time to say ‘I want to make partner one day’ publicly. Sometimes you read books and think, ‘Man was this book written for me?’ Every woman that has read it has told me the same thing. For women, the characteristics are taking credit for the work that they’ve done. Women are so gifted at giving credit to everyone else and serving themselves last. And second, telling everyone what they want to be and where they want to go from day one out of the gates.”

I am so excited for Shannon to go public and say she wants to make partner, and I will be cheering her on along the way! I agree with her so much about that book, How Women Rise. It was a phenomenal read. I read that book and I thought, ‘Where was this book in my early 20s? Where was this book at the start of my career?’ Because there are so many insightful nuggets to help us as women understand how we are showing up and hindering our own success. And I think it’s also a very valuable read to understand some of the ways that we might need to change our thinking to excel professionally. 

Shannon mentioned how women often don’t vocalize where it is that they want to go. In my work, about 75% of my current clients are women and one of the things that I have found is that women in general, not all women, but in general, really struggle with drafting vision. And I am so passionate about helping women grow the confidence or the courage or break through the fear of failure, fear of success, to write that vision. I ask Shannon to share a little bit about her vision, where she wants to go and how she has gotten there.

Drafting ‘Vision:’ Where do You Want to Go…

“Wow,” Shannon says. “You know, when I first started working on my vision, it was 2020. I went to my managing partner, who I adore and think the world of, to work on my vision, and I said I kind of feel like it’s a blank slate right now because I’ve never written one in sixteen years in my career. And he said, ‘That doesn’t surprise me.’ And I said, “Tell me more of what you mean?” It wasn’t that I didn’t have a vision, it’s just that my vision was so big and there were so many details. I think we’re afraid to put pen to paper or type it, however you want to do it, because we’re so afraid to put ourselves out there – what if it doesn’t happen or come to reality? We’re trying to connect today to the future with a vision. And actually, Kristin, you helped me a lot with my vision. You were in California, I was in Georgia, and I was on a power walk. You were giving me a talk around vision and you made me go set a timer for 45 minutes and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, it’s not going to work. It’s not going to work.’ But it was lovely. It was the fall, I sat outside, and I set this timer and I worked for 45 minutes. And it was the most amazing freeing thing to get everything out on paper to really get started. I can still hear you saying in my head, ‘It’s just a draft. It’s just a draft. It doesn’t have to be final. It’s not getting published anywhere. No one has to see it today. Just start working on it.’ And it’s evolved so much this year. It takes a lot of courage to share it with people. We were in annual planning today in my firm, and I was actually coaching people in my firm around their goals for 2021. And they said, ‘Hey, we want to see your vision.’ And I thought ‘Wow, I’m glad I have one.’ And I’m nervous to let you see it because it’s pretty broad and detailed. And what started out as challenging to write for 45 minutes is now a five-page single-spaced typed document. You’ve got yourself a novel! 

I so appreciate Shannon’s vulnerability and sharing how she came to write her vision. It has been my experience with a lot of my clients that it’s not that we don’t have these goals or desires within us, it’s fear of putting it out there. And what if I fail? Or what if I don’t achieve this? Or, sometimes, what if I achieve this? Will I be a different person and what happens to the life that I know? To have the courage to do that and set the timer, write it out, and then just share – that is phenomenal. 

Shannon also mentioned in her story a relationship with her managing partner. And it makes me think about the individuals that don’t have such a fantastic sponsorship or mentorship. I ask Shannon what things she has done to develop such a wonderful relationship with her leader, who’s ultimately going to help her get to where she wants to go in this vision.

“Yeah, I can’t take all the credit there for sure,” She begins. “Because it is a relationship. There are two parties involved. And the partner that I work with, I’ve really known him my entire career. But I haven’t always worked for him and been his essential partner in recruiting. I think we have a mutual level of respect for each other and when we decided to partner together, it was a really exciting time for both of us. There’s a book that I’m sure a lot of people have read, but it’s Find a Sponsor, Not a Mentor. And I encourage all of you to go look up the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. A sponsor is that next-level person; he’s really elevating me, and he’s putting me out there, and he’s encouraging me to do things that are very scary, but he sees things in me much more clearly than I do. And that lens of fear that may be in front of me, he helps clear up for me a lot. He sees things differently, and the way we can talk to each other really helps elevate me. He encourages me, he challenges me, but I think I do that for him as well. So, we have just become a really great partnership. And it takes time, just like any relationship. These things can’t be taken care of overnight, but they build over time. And the relationship is really, really important.”

… and Who Can Help You Get There? Sponsor vs. Mentor

The difference between a sponsor and a mentor was a very helpful concept in my own career growth. That sponsor is really that person who helps get you into the groups or the next level development programs you need to be a part of. I ask Shannon what insights she has to find a sponsor, for those who have big careers and big ambitions and know they need one. 

She shares that it takes a lot of relationships to know who your sponsor is. And that to start, it’s helpful to make a list of what a sponsor would do for you and then use that list to be clear when you begin looking for one. “What you want may look very different than what I want,” Shannon explains. “But I was really clear when I started partnering with one what I wanted to be. I wanted to be the Chief Recruiting Officer. I wanted to be in the Women’s Leadership Program. I want to become a Managing Director and eventually a partner. Those are really big bullet points and career dreams, and we’ve got to fill in everything in between there. But that sponsor gets you in the right places at the right times. And it may not be your direct boss – don’t miss the amazing sponsors that could be out there that could be running right beside you. I think Kristin, you’re one of my greatest sponsors, right? It may be someone who’s your cheerleader, who promotes you, who loves you on YouTube. Your sponsors can be someone your age, or they can be younger than you. They could just be in a position that they’re really well networked in your company. And I mean, every chance I get, I’m saying, ‘Get Kristin Burke on the docket here,’ right? Like, she’s the best thing we’ve got going. And every company needs to be hiring her to work around achievement coaching. I’m not anyone special, but I’m sponsoring you in that way. So, I think you can find sponsors in so many different ways. If you want to chat with me and talk about sponsorship and where you may find sponsorship in your life, let’s talk about it.”

I thank Shannon for always sponsoring me and being my cheerleader and supporter from the bottom of my heart. I know that she has been in that role for so many people. And it is fantastic to hear the level of support that she is getting right now on her growth and her development journey. 

What I’ve heard throughout this conversation, which are a couple of critical components, is one: an extreme amount of clarity. And two: that it takes some time. This clarity doesn’t just come overnight, but Shannon has an extreme amount of clarity around what she wants and where she wants to go. That clarity is now articulated in a vision. So, she has a formal document that she can review periodically to make sure she continues going in the direction that she wants to go. She has also become very intentional with a lot of her different relationships. And I think one of the things that we can learn the most from our conversation is how to understand who the people are in our life that can be our cheerleaders, our sponsors, that can be people to run with. Ask them to be that person for you – don’t just assume that they can be that person for you. And so, really, if we can all take a look at our own networks and start to identify what roles people play, I think that can be really helpful on our career growth and development journeys.

“Absolutely,” Shannon confirms.

I’m curious what advice Shannon has for men who have the pleasure of leading an ambitious professional like herself.

Shannon starts, “Let them be their true self. And my partner always says that to me. He always says ‘Just be your true self.’ So, I think if you let the women be their true selves, that’s also where the relationship comes from. And we can learn so much from each other. Because the way I can learn from a man, a man can learn from a woman, if we both just get to be our authentic self.”

Another lesson I learned in my corporate career is I had a lot of beliefs or a lot of expectations, but I wasn’t always openly communicating those with my colleagues. The more that you start to create that dialogue and seek to understand, I think that can be really powerful. I also remember reading, and I don’t remember where I read this, but if you lean in and get to truly know people, it’s hard not to like them. And I think that can be so true, because we can all be very quick to judge. And so just leaning in and getting to know people can help us develop those deep relationships. Shannon is obviously an expert at building relationships, and I ask her to talk about some of the things that she does to lean in and really get to know people and understand who they truly are.

Building Relationships & Avoiding the “Comparison Trap”

“One of the things I’ve always heard my entire career was don’t miss the assembly,” says Shannon. “So anytime people are gathering, whether it’s a fun lunch, or if they’re bringing in chicken biscuits, or there’s a meeting on a topic you don’t understand. I think relationships are formed in some of the places you would never imagine them forming. I’m a very social person. I’m an extrovert. I’m an enneagram eight. I’m the challenger. So, I’m always showing up as the life of the party. But here’s the thing. I typically am not attracted to those types of people because they’re high energy like me and that’s too much for me to take in. To build relationships, you’ve got to work at it. And don’t compare yourself to someone else and their relationships – go form the ones that you want to form. And you just don’t know the beautiful things that are going to come out of it. But it takes time and work.”

I noticed Shannon brought up comparison and I believe that comparison is the thief of all of our joy. As she has worked to elevate herself professionally, I’m curious if she has found herself comparing and what she does to avoid it to stay in her lane and run her own race?

“Absolutely,” Shannon says emphatically. “I compare myself all the time. And your exact definition is the definition tattooed on my business. Not really, but I see it all the time, right? I constantly compare the path I’m on at the speed in which I’m progressing and achieving results or getting the next level of opportunity. I think, number one, if it’s specific to your industry, that’s probably just something that’s going to happen. But I also think going back and tying it to your vision helps you remember, ‘It’s my dream. It’s my vision, it’s my timeline, and it’s where I’m going.’ Stay more focused on your vision and less focused on the comparison trap. Because it is the thief of joy, and I need to savor the moment and the joy that is happening for me right now because it is so abundant. But if I’m constantly comparing myself to everyone else in my firm or my competitors, I’m going to really lose focus of that vision and where I’m going. So, it actually is robbing me of the joy of what is here and what is to come.”

I noticed that Shannon talks a lot about joy in her response. And I know from my friendship with her, that she is one of the most positive people I have met. I think that level of positivity is required to go after big goals and to live out a big vision, so I ask her to share what things she does to keep that positivity so high. 

Life’s “Instant Shot of Espresso:” Joy

Shannon explains that it is important to know what fills you up. “What brings you joy is a great question that everyone should be able to answer,” she says. “First and foremost, my nephews bring me joy. I have three nephews and they’re teenagers, eighth grade, 10th grade, 12th grade, and they live across the street from me. I went from high-rise city life to buying a farmhouse across the street from them. And they are my greatest source of joy. My faith is another really big source of joy for me. And I’ve really been focusing on it and really trying to grow in that journey. And I think family and friends, being around people who fill you up. I just turned 40 this year. So, I feel like I’m learning a lot about myself – kind of coming into the grown-up life. And I think what you learn is to spend time with people that fill you up. You don’t have time for people that don’t and so if that means flying across the country to hang out on Halloween weekend with people that just fill up your soul and seeing the joy in their daughter, then do it. You have to go find your joy because it’s out there! Calendar it, make it happen and make sure you’re getting it on a daily, weekly, quarterly basis because I can deplete myself so much. And the joy fills me right back up. It’s like that instant shot of espresso. I’m feeling good when I got that joy in my heart.”

The daughter she’s talking about is my daughter, Scarlett, who loves her to pieces. Shannon is so right – we have to be intentional with our joy. And I know one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve calendared a monthly call. We started pretty structured because I probably had an agenda (I’ve been known to be a little rigid from time to time). But as we’ve done these calls, they’ve truly evolved to such a fantastic time to catch up and support and challenge and talk about our businesses and our goals. Joy doesn’t just happen sitting around waiting for it – you have to be intentional. And it goes back to clarity – clarity around what brings you joy because what brings me joy might be different. 

One other thing that I want to highlight is that I believe our joy will evolve and change as we grow and evolve and change. Shannon talked about the high-rise condo that she was living in, and now she is living in a totally different location. Our family, we were living in downtown Los Angeles. It was this hustle and bustle across the street from the Staples Center. And there came a point where that no longer brought us joy. And so, we moved to the beach, which brings us a ton of joy. So, our joy can definitely evolve and change over time. 

As we approach the first quarter of 2021, I ask Shannon to share what success looks like for her this year. 

“I think about success on so many different levels,” she says. “Personally, my nephew’s graduating from high school and going to play baseball. So, we’re so excited about that. My family is healthy –  hallelujah. And, professionally, there are some things in the works that are probably right around the corner and close to coming out publicly. I also think success is finding joy in the work that we’re doing and impact in the lives of those that we’re working with.”

I’m excited for Shannon to share what she’s working on and ask the best place to follow her in the meantime. She suggests her social media or email shannonwiley@nm.com.

With that goal achievers, keep celebrating your weekly wins, learning from your lessons and identifying your priorities. So, you can consistently pursue progress in the direction of your goals.