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Dr. Maya Rockeymoore: 'Be a student of yourself'

Imagine being offered an opportunity to manage a Congressional office but turning down the offer because you weren't sure you were ready for the responsibility. Envision the alternative too: accepting the role and getting the opportunity to meet global leaders, strengthen office operations, and work on historic legislative initiatives. Both scenarios happened to Maya Rockeymoore, now the founder and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a boutique social change strategy firm in Washington, DC. At the age of 27, Texas-born Rockeymoore accepted the role of Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor under Congressman Charles Rangel.

Leaving the House Ways and Means Committee for a promotion in the Congressman's office was an indication of the success that would follow in Rockeymoore's career. Subsequent to her service in that office, she squeezed in the time to complete a PhD in political science before going on to serve as the Senior Resident Scholar for Health and Income Security at the National Urban League and as the Vice President of Research and Programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Learning and growing from the sum of her collective experiences, she then set about the work of founding her own firm in 2005.

I sat down with Rockeymoore to learn what skills were vital in her remarkable ascent and eventual move to entrepreneurship. In particular, I wanted to glean what strategies she recommended to younger, less experienced women.

Woven throughout our interview, Rockeymoore stressed that durable relationships are what propel careers forward. Said Rockeymoore, "Networking and mentoring are vital. That's the number one thing that can help women." She also elaborated on the resilience and leverage that outside relationships provide, explaining, "Sometimes when your strengths are overlooked within your immediate organization, you need outsiders to affirm your talents. This is especially important from a networking perspective, because often times your employer will respect you more when they see that other outside groups respect you."

Rockeymoore's candor about career successes--and missteps―was refreshing. She spoke openly about how personality is often a driver in advancing on the job. "[A] considerable amount of business gets done in the social arena and many times people make decisions based on how much they like you." She warned up-and-comers to avoid trudging on others and realize that water cooler relationships can be more important than they might think.

Cultivating relationships with the right people was important for Rockeymoore, but so was her broad résumé. She advised, "Get a wide variety of experiences so that you can really live up to your potential. Varied experiences provide women with an opportunity to see what they're good at and to strengthen their talents and assets." This generalist approach, in favor of a narrower, technical approach, was echoed in every interview I conducted for my book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders. Rockeymoore and other interviewees reasoned that approaching a career as a lattice―rather than as a straight ladder―provides the leadership skills needed to one day lead an entity with many distinct departments and functions.

When I shifted the conversation to office politics, Rockeymoore advised that navigating through organizational dynamics isn't possible without first knowing your own hot buttons. Said Rockeymoore, "Learn about yourself, be a student of yourself. Understand your organization's context and people and figure out when it is or isn't about you. Understand what drives action." If influence-building involves depersonalizing business issues, our subject has mastered the skill.

Certainly work has been an imposing theme in Rockeymoore's life. Still she staunchly disagrees with taking an all-or-nothing approach. She cautioned, "Be cognizant of your choices. I've made the mistake of focusing only on my work and that left me burned out at the age of 29. Professional success is empty without personal rewards, like friendships and strong relationships." Rather than constantly saddling herself with big demands, Rockeymoore has learned through the years to guard against depletion by taking vacations, exercising regularly, enjoying social and family time, and actively seeking spiritual sustenance.

As I embarked on the interviews for my book, I was certain that women like Maya Rockeymoore were born with it all figured out. Little did I know that many of them muddled through their career experiences like the rest of us, but chose to learn from the times they stumbled, seeing them as inflection points, rather than conclusions.

Rockeymoore's path to working on her own terms couldn't have been abbreviated or condensed. In fact, the quest for authenticity continues. "At times in my career I've tried to make people take me more seriously at work by being more serious. I did this until one day a colleague surprised me by asking me why I never smiled. Now I don't try to assert habits or traits, I just try to be who I am."

By Selena Rezvani

 |  August 6, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Ms. Rezvani did a very good job of presenting Dr. Rockeymoore's entrepreneurial skills in this article........The strategies Maya recommended for younger, less experienced women in the workforce are pertinent and very helpful.........Selena's book, and this article, are must-reads for all women who are climbing the ladder of success in their careers.........

Posted by: zell1 | August 9, 2010 1:24 PM
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Dr. Rockeymore's article is food for the soul. This information can help so many people with directing their lives to be succesful and living life to the fullest by achieving a balance in all that we do. Maya's mother and I were college roommates. I am so proud of Maya. Keep up the good work and continue to spread your wisdom.

Posted by: alswes | August 9, 2010 11:31 AM
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In the business and academic arena,one is presented with many choices to be successful and overcome the difficulties that are ever present in attaining our goal. To be cognizant of your abilities is most important in the quest for success.

Posted by: chuckelder | August 8, 2010 7:08 PM
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I relate to Rockeymore's comment that sometimes your strengths are overlooked within your immediate organization. I've gotten a lot out of the associations I'm part of. Some of these outside folks have done more for me than my boss or my company management.

Posted by: garbo6 | August 7, 2010 8:18 AM
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