When Tracy Volz, director of the Activate Engineering Communication Program, invited Kendra Toner ‘12 to become a peer communication coach, the Rice University bioengineering student’s first reaction was surprise.
“I didn’t know I had a knack for presenting or communicating about technical topics,” said Toner. “I was flattered by Dr. Volz’s invitation and excited that she felt I showed promise. Working as a peer communication coach allowed me to improve my own skills while helping develop those same skills in other Rice engineers.”
Communication coaches work with peers spanning all the departments and programs in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice. Toner said the exposure to such a variety of topics and communication styles revealed the importance of distilling details into a simple take-away, regardless of the industry.
“From day one as a presentation coach, I helped engineers translate technical topics into something easy to communicate to an audience in an engaging way. By repeating that exercise with different Rice engineering teams, I was building the technical communication muscle in myself,” said Toner.
Leaving Rice, Toner felt well-prepared for a career in the healthcare industry. The intensive group work that is part of the bioengineering design courses – as well as the presentation and communication skills she had developed – set Toner up for success.
She said, “I really enjoyed working on small group projects and consulting for healthcare companies, which led to a product manager role at CVS Health. Working with a variety of stakeholders across the business and synthesizing user input to launch products in pharmacies serving hundreds of thousands of customers – that was truly impactful!
“Over time, I found myself wanting to balance what I was learning on the job with the kind of fundamentals taught in business school, such as marketing, accounting, and finance.”
While pursuing her MBA at Harvard Business School, Toner learned more about structuring a message to be effective and communicating a point more succinctly. She also experienced a grueling job interview process again.
“The importance of communication in the interview process cannot be overstated – it enabled me to interview for roles in industries unrelated to my prior career background. Using clear communication to link these industries with seemingly unrelated roles in my background helped move me forward in that process,” said Toner.
“During business school, I found myself captivated by the user experience and ended up transitioning into tech at Google. Through that journey, I leveraged my Harvard MBA training, leaned on a technical background coming out of Rice, and used the communication and presentation skills I’d developed along the way. I could demonstrate my ability to take very technical or specialized knowledge and communicate that to a broader audience to achieve buy-in. Now, I get to help improve the vastness of what Google does while focusing on the user.”
Toner has been inspired by the demands of communicating with users and stakeholders in a global organization. It is not unusual to begin her morning speaking with colleagues in Dublin and wrap up the evening in conversation with stakeholders in Singapore or Tokyo.
“What has impressed me about working in a role that is so global in nature is learning from my international colleagues and stakeholders. I need to balance a U.S.-based point of view as I communicate with Googlers in other cultures. Seeing them adapt their communication style to work well in Google has been fascinating, and has prompted me to adapt my message as well,” she said.
To further develop her communication and other leadership skills, she chooses mentors who are the types of leaders she admires, regardless of their area of expertise.
“I look for mentors who got to where they are in a way that I want to emulate, even if I’m not interested in that specific role at this point. I keep an eye out for leaders who can both explain their journey and are also willing to coach me – whether it is about my communication style or how to build a personal brand at work. Those are the types of active mentors who have been most helpful to me. Not only are they willing to mentor me, but they also coach me to achieve my end point in my own way.
“Coincidentally, last year was my 10th Rice reunion year, and I’ve been going through a sort of check-in moment, thinking about my progress. I am grateful for the Rice experience: interning in a lab with a well-known researcher as an undergraduate, presentation coaching, and working in small groups set me up for success in my career.
“The Rice experience will benefit me in years to come, and I will always look back at Rice as a formative place for me. Some of my best friends to this day are the ones I met at Rice.”
This story is part of a series for our Activate Engineering Communication program.