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Kristen Sonday on Being Assertive Versus Arrogant

kristen sonday
Kristen Sonday on Being Assertive Vs. ArrogantHearst Owned

There are the official rules (don't steal, lie, or cheat, etc.), and then there are the often unspoken "unofficial rules"—the latter being way harder to follow, or even identify. Those pesky unofficial rules really seem to pile up in the workplace in particular, which is why we've recruited the powerhouse 2023 New C-Suite honorees to do a bit of career shepherding for us.

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Kristen Sonday is the CEO and trailblazing co-founder of Paladin, a platform dedicated to providing legal representation and mentorship for low-income communities. Kristen's journey hasn't been linear, and in today's The New C-Suite Gives Good Advice column, she explains exactly how she's maneuvered career path pivots, toed the line between arrogance and assertiveness, and divulged the common missteps she's observed from young professionals. Get into it all down below!

Let's start with your methods. How do you mentally prepare when you’re getting ready for a big meeting or presentation?

I always start by grounding myself in the purpose of the meeting. What is the goal? What do I want to communicate? Then, I focus on calming techniques—deep breathing, and ensuring a clean desk space—to center myself. It’s about balance: being prepared but also thoughtful.

How do you juggle making time for “deep work” versus staying on top of every email, Slack, or notification?

It’s about setting boundaries. Allocate specific times for deep work, free from distractions. At Paladin, we have meeting-free Tuesdays to allow the team to focus. For emails and notifications, designate specific times to check them. It’s not about being always on, but being efficient when you are.

What’s a must-have in your WFH space to ensure focus and productivity?

A personalized workspace is essential. It should be comfortable, yet conducive to focus—good lighting, a sturdy chair, minimal distractions. A high-quality headset for calls and a reliable internet connection are non-negotiables. I personalize my space with lots of plants and notebooks to inspire happiness and creativity.

When you approach moments of burnout, what’s the best way to overcome them?

Recognize the signs early. When I feel burnout creeping in, I take a step back to reassess my workload and priorities. I cancel unnecessary meetings, head to the gym, or pop in my favorite podcast and take a walk and clear my head. Give yourself permission to rest and recharge before jumping back in.

What about self-doubt… When you’re not feeling sure of yourself, how do you snap out of it?

We all face it! I remind myself of past wins and the obstacles I’ve overcome. Talking to a mentor or peer can also provide perspective. Sometimes, it's about accepting that it’s okay not to have all the answers and to learn as you go.

What’s the most common mistake you’ve observed young professionals making lately?

Overcommitting. Many try to take on too much too soon, aiming to impress. It’s important to understand your capacity and set realistic expectations. Quality over quantity always makes a stronger impression.

What questions are important to ask yourself before making a scary career jump?

Ask yourself: Why am I making this jump? What are my core motivations? How does this move align with my long-term goals? Am I financially prepared for this transition? What’s the worst-case scenario and how would I handle it? These questions help gauge not just readiness, but also resilience.

Let’s talk cash. Do you have any tips for negotiating a base salary or a raise?

Research is critical. Know the market rate for your position and bring data to back your request. Articulate your value clearly: How have you contributed to the organization's success? What improvements have you made to your team? Always aim higher, leaving room for negotiation. And don’t forget to discuss non-salary benefits; they’re part of the total package.

What advice would you give to young women of color who want to found their own business?

Figure out your competitive advantage—your experience and identity are strengths, not barriers. Network with other women of color entrepreneurs; their insights and support are invaluable. And always remember, your voice matters—use it to shape your business and the community it serves.

Where do you sit on the great debate about in-office vs. remote work?

I believe in flexibility, but prefer working in-person. There’s just no substitute for in-person energy, collaboration, and relationship-building, but I also appreciate the independence of remote work. The key is to find a balance that maximizes productivity and employee well-being for your team.

What’s a strategy you typically see men employ in the workplace that you think women should steal?

Assertiveness in self-promotion. Often, men are more vocal about their achievements and aspirations. Women should feel equally empowered to speak up about their successes and career goals. It’s not about arrogance, but about confidently owning your accomplishments and being clear about where you want to go in your career.

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