What have you learned this year?

6 December 2023

2023 has been a year of growth and challenge for me. I have learnt a lot about myself and the world around me. I like to reflect on my experiences and lessons at the end of each period, whether it is a year or a project. I ask myself: What have I learned? Where have I succeeded? What could I have done better? What’s next for me?

Challenges are opportunities to test ourselves, improve ourselves, fail and learn from mistakes; and ultimately grow and be better. I have been thinking and collecting ideas for months, and I want to share with you the best lessons I have learned in the past few years:


1.       Keep Showing Up

There were times when my life was overwhelming with many tasks, deadlines, and problems; particularly, with my kids’ daycare sicknesses taking a big mental space.  My impostor syndrome has kicked in at times, “maybe I cannot do it all?”. I felt I couldn’t handle it all. I doubted my abilities and my time-management skills. I was also exhausted. Just in time, two very wise role models gave me a very needed pep talk and said, “You are doing amazing, and when life gets too much, you just need to keep showing up”.


2.       It takes a village or a whole community

This year I heard someone in a senior position dismissing the important of having a network. I think this is the wrong message and the wrong attitude. Networking doesn’t mean you have to be a social butterfly, but rather develop meaningful relationship based on deep strategic and complex conversations. This will help you collaborate, learn and grow We are social animals, and an individualistic approach will not get us far.


3.       Promote Diversity, all types of diversity

This is closely related to the previous one. Make sure your community is diverse. Make an effort to include people that have different cultural backgrounds, family set-ups, socio-economic backgrounds, neurodiversity, and other dimensions of diversity. Diversity will enrich your perspective, enhance your outcomes, and make you wiser.


4.       The strength in vulnerability and kindness

I used to think that showing my vulnerabilities was bad for business, and as a result I was harder on myself than on anyone else around me. I have worked in male-dominated industries most of my career, so I thought I had to be stronger and more confident, “tough but fair” was a term I used a lot. That was not good for my mental health, and it also led me to fail multiple times. I am not perfect, and I don’t want to be perfect. I want to show my weaknesses and work with a team that understands them and helps me improve. This has also made me more empathetic, compassionate, and humble.


5.       Embrace the Change

Change is constant and accelerating. For some, it is scary; for others, it is a survival skill. We need to keep up with the changes in our industry and our world. For me, the key is flexibility, being flexible and adaptable to new situations and challenges. Adaptability is not a matter of age or gender. If you are a leader, embed change management in your culture, not only with technology, but also with policies and practices. Create a culture where change is expected, proposed, and encouraged, where open communication is essential.


6.       The art of Storytelling, communication that is connection

Storytelling is probably the best way I have found to learn, and it is probably the reason I love historical novels. Storytelling not only communicates, but also forges connections between people. Effective storytelling requires a deep understanding of the audience’s culture, motivations, and emotions. Self-awareness is key to effective storytelling; every good story has the power to start a change.



7.       It is possible to improve your essential skills

Some people call them soft skills, but I prefer the term “essential skills” that I saw used by Kellie King. These skills are personal traits that help you interact harmoniously and effectively with others. Finding the right balance between being nice, assertive, and confident is an art that you can master with practice and skill. Some people have a natural talent for it, but others can learn it too.


8.       Have incremental improvement through continuous learning as a must

Life is busy, work is busy, we need some disconnection, but we also need to keep learning new skills and developing ourselves. Dedicate at least 2-4 hours per week to learning. Ask yourself and others the same questions we ask our children when they come from school: “What have you learned today?” or “What have you learned this week?”


9.       Cherish Constructive Feedback & Give positive feedback

I had a conversation with someone about the difficulties of being kind and empathic when giving constructive feedback. It is a fine line, and it is complicated. There is no magic formula, but at least do it in person and customise it. I have made it a priority to ask for feedback, from my director, my team, and my peers. It can be something as simple as: “Am I talking too loud during online meetings?” or “What would you change in the delivery of the presentation?”. We should cherish constructive feedback; someone cares enough to give us advice on how to improve. Let’s take it in, reflect on it, make changes when necessary. Also, my new rule when giving constructive feedback is to also give some positive feedback. We all have good and bad traits, let’s not focus on the negative only!


10.   Praise people in public and correct them in private

It goes with our saying that we need to praise and, thank each other more, but also make it public. There is something extremely satisfying about receiving a public thank you. However, when correcting or giving negative feedback, always do it behind closed doors.


11.   Give Culture a seat at the VIP table

I could talk about Organisational Culture for hours. To me Culture is key and should have more importance than it does in many organisations or even industries. Culture is shaped by the people who form it; organisational culture represents the core values held by an organisation that are assimilated by its people. Communicating our vision, mission, and values to our people regularly and having them discuss them is key to the success of a team or an organisation. Keep that present. As Peter Drucker said “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”. Regardless of how good your strategy is, the culture of your organisation will determine your success.


12.   Aline your professional purpose with your personal purpose

Dr. David Keane introduced me to this concept during his 10 Behaviours of Successful People. He has defined success for himself (from a personal and professional combined perspective), and he has it written on a piece of paper that he carries with him.

He mentioned it took him about 10 years to develop his purpose. Mine is work in progress, and sometimes I feel that it indulges in my privilege, but I love the idea of alignment.



13.   Challenge yourself – Get out of your comfort zone

Take that risk and dive in, the comfort zone is your dying zone. If you don’t have a challenge (of any kind), you are already in the process of perishing. Challenges make life interesting, but they also allow for growth. We have all fallen, stumbled along the way, while trying to do something new. But we stand up again and keep trying. It can be very scary to try something completely new and different from what we usually do, but any small changes count.


14.   Bore yourself to create space for ideas

I find it sometimes overwhelming and distracting to constantly need background noise. I prefer to have some quiet time every day, when I walk my dog, clean, or cook. These repetitive tasks are the times when I have the best ideas or solutions to the problems I am facing. I leave some space without noise and distraction to think about my ideas, my problems, my projects. I highly recommend this for at least 30 minutes a day.


15.   Manage Expectations

This is something I probably repeat to my team at least once a week, “We need to manage expectations”. This is part of being transparent, but it also sets boundaries and standards. It helps to maintain good relationships. To put a silly example, if I let my toddler eat in front of the television at any given time, the expectation is going to be that it is perfectly acceptable to do so again.


16.   Welcome the power of a 5 minutes’ call

We need something from a team, a client, a manager, and we prepare a perfect nice email. No answer. After a couple of days, we send another email, if it is urgent, a text. Life is busy and we don’t want to interfere, a call seems invasive these days. However, a 5-minutes call can not only clarify lots of things, but it can also give you a better idea of the receptiveness and the attitude of the other person, a voice tone can say a lot. Let’s bring back the call! Making a couple of calls a day can make you 10 times more efficient and effective.


17.   Support others

Oxytocin, also called the hormone of love, gets released when we help others. And the interesting thing about it is that the more we do it, the more we want to do it. It also counteracts cortisol (the stress hormone). When we talk about helping others, it doesn’t need to be volunteering or donating money, it can be as simple as having others in mind, getting an extra coffee if someone is working long hours, assisting with a project that is out of your scope, proposing someone for a deserved promotion, having someone’s back in a time of need.


18.   Be Genuine

This does not mean being a jerk. You can be genuine and not be rude. Authenticity sometimes is misinterpreted, and people end up being either too bold and abrupt or they take it as a popularity contest. Being genuine does not mean being controversial or impolite to others’ views or knowledge, but it also does not mean trying to please everyone. The most influential people are not popular, but they are genuine, they show the real them, they apologise for their flaws, they strive to improve but they also show their real face.


19.   Check with your SMEs

Subject-matter experts (not Small and Medium Enterprises, though they are also very important) are key. From legal frameworks to network designs, from crisis communications to educational curriculums, having subject-matter experts that can give you the right information and advice and assist your business case is fundamental. Never underestimate the power of SMEs.



20.   Prioritise, compartmentalise and block your calendar

Time is limited and we love to say things like “I don’t have time for…”, which translates to “This is not a priority for me”. Time management used to be one of my superpowers, though kids have made it a lot more challenging these days. With the new challenges, it has all been about prioritising and compartmentalising similar activities. But it also means limiting activities that might not add value and that might just be filling a void like watching a terrible TV show, scrolling through your phone endlessly, or activities that don’t add value. Prioritising has gifted me with more quality time with my family, helps my mental health, and allows me to achieve more with less.


21.   Shit happens!

You can excel at your work, deliver a great service, create an amazing product, have a solid strategy, do your research well, have a superb risk management…and still face SHIT. It can be huge, it can be ugly; it can be internal or it can be a global crisis. An apology can help, a discount too, but the most important thing is, do what you can to fix it but not more. Learn from the experience, adapt to the situation, and move on. Shit happens, but it also passes. Nothing is worth your health. Say it with me, no project or business is worth your health.


When I feel lost, when I feel frustrated, I remind myself of the above. The ultimate goal is to keep progressing and keep going, improving by 1% every time and creating value without burning out. I hope to have a longer list of achievements in a year.


Salome Bowman