You won’t amaze yourself from within your comfort zone

I love stories about people who managed to overcome tough periods in their lives, and have achieved incredible things. Whose darkest moments have been an inspiration. I admire their determination to create something good out of something bad.

Often I wish everyone, including me, would have more of that determination. But I wonder, would those people have achieved the same if they wouldn’t have had to come from very far? Does one need to be desperate, in order to find the energy and dedication to take big, life-changing steps? Maybe because they have little to lose, they take risks, as it can hardly get worse than it already is.

Let’s face it, most people are more or less in a good place already. If we take risks which don’t work out well, we could lose the good things we already have. We prefer to cling to what’s good in our lives. We want to protect it. Our comfort zone seduces us, by painting us a desirable, peaceful picture. But well within that comfort zone, we lose sight of other possibilities, other ways of life, other roads to travel.

Teachers know this. For children to learn something new, there should be a manageable difference between the new knowledge and their existing capabilities and knowledge. Children, and adults just the same, need to step out of their comfort zone, in order to learn new things. For children, exploring the area out of their comfort zone often comes naturally. But somehow when we grow older, we like to cling to what we have and what we know.

Sometimes, our unconscious gives us a message. We get restless, but we don’t know why. We just don’t know what’s bothering us, because we are where we want to be. But somehow we feel the pull of different opportunities.

That restlessness is telling us we need to get out of that comfortable equilibrium. It’s time to learn something new, to get amazed and excited. Or even to get anxious, appalled, or shocked. It’s time to get out there, and develop ourselves.

So take that course you’ve been hesitating about, try out that new sport you’ve been interested in, or go for that odd hobby you’ve been thinking about for a while. In your job, never assume you know everything. Realize you can always learn from others. There’s always a way to do your job better. Or to move to another job. To add new skills.

Get out of your comfort zone, to live, learn, cry and be happy. Amaze yourself.

How observing others can train you more effectively than most leadership training can

Previously, I posted “Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)”. It was about the importance of reinforcing positive leadership behaviors you see around you.

This time I’d like to emphasize what we can learn every day from leadership examples around us. From positive examples, as described in the previous post, but also from (at first) seemingly random examples.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a group in the restaurant of a hotel. The person who paid, added a tip on the credit card slip in the appropriate slot. When the waitress returned the credit card, she said: “The tip you added won’t go to the hotel staff. So I didn’t charge you for it…” We left the restaurant stunned.

Apparently, she preferred us to keep the money instead of paying it to the hotel. She probably thought: if the hotel owner doesn’t allow the staff to earn a bit extra for work well done, what is the point of a customer paying extra? And indeed, we meant the tip to go to the personnel, and not end up in the hotel owner’s pocket. However, although we appreciated her honesty, it left us with a strange impression of the place. How does this hotel treat it’s employees? Why does this employee feel more sympathetic to the customer than to her boss, so much so, that she gives money back to the customer?

Of course we don’t know the whole story. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation why the staff is not paid their tips (maybe their base salary is much higher than restaurants in the neighborhood, or they get compensated another way). Whatever the situation is, the personnel clearly isn’t happy. This has an effect on being able to attract and retain good staff. It also has an effect on customers. A customer’s impression is quite important in an industry based on service. And this didn’t leave a great impression.

When you are a manager, you don’t want your employees to behave like that. Of course, you can’t always be their most favorite and popular person. But you certainly don’t want to turn your employees against the company.

Turn situations like this into questions about your own team. What are your people telling customers? What kind of impression does the company want to give customers? And if there’s a discrepancy, what is the cause? Are your people committed to the organization, and want to boost it forward? Or are they just earning their money, while frantically looking for other, more interesting, opportunities?

Understand what is happening in your team, and why it is happening. And address issues when they arise.

And keep your eyes peeled, as interesting leadership lessons like these come along every day.

The high-performing, high-risk, high-potential

Almost all organizations hope to spot their talents early, to develop their future leaders. Much is written about how to make high-potential development successful, as the return on investment of such programs is questionable.

But what about the risk of successfully developing high-potentials?

I’ve seen more failures than successes with high-potential development programs. Everyone is happy when they find that rare jewel: highly intelligent, extremely driven, excellent social skills, strong focus, highly adaptive to changes, charges into difficult situations head-on. The one that sees opportunities where others don’t, is not afraid to go out of her comfort zone where others safely stay within, excitedly takes on new challenges and acquires new skills along the way.

The one person that made me realize high-potentials can be high risk, was exactly like that. The organization happily provided him with challenging assignments and new opportunities, rotating him through jobs every one or two years. Very quick, but necessary when you’re grooming a CEO for a big multinational. You want them to move up ranks quickly enough to reach CEO level somewhere before they’re sixty.

This suited the high-potential as well. His desire to be challenged was met through assignments in different types of jobs, quick career moves through several management layers, working out of several locations.

After time, a tricky pattern emerged. Even if such a high-potential didn’t start out as adrenaline junkie, ten or fifteen years of quick career moves and constant new challenges effectively made him one. He needed challenges, bigger ones every time, with little time in between. He didn’t merely survive well under pressure, but needed stressful circumstances to be at his best. He actively was seeking exciting experiences.

For a long time, the organization could provide that through new career moves. But once the high-potential-turned-top-manager reached the highest ranks, the promotion speed inevitably slowed down. With only two or three steps to go to the top job, positions weren’t always available when he was ready for it. Besides, (boards of) organizations prefer people to stay for a few years in the more senior jobs to build substance.

By now, this person was wired to get a quick succession of adrenaline rushes through new challenges. After two years in a new role, he got bored and created challenges himself. For example by shaking up the organization by designing a reorganization for which there was no clear need. By seeking changes in his private life. By exploring several risky behaviors, in his quest for new challenges.

At this point, the revered high-potential became a liability. Top management is now faced with a dilemma: he can undoubtedly do the top job, but will he bring himself, and the company, down? Or will he be able to curb his adrenaline seeking behavior and bring the company to new heights?

It will be interesting to see what happens. I sincerely hope he makes it to the top job, as he’s probably the best, most intelligent and likeable leader I’ve witnessed up close. But I also fiercely hope he has at least one or two people around him who are aware of the risk, and will actively work with him to ensure he doesn’t venture onto unnecessary risky paths.

What do we need from female role models?

Women still face a seemingly unsurmountable backlog in business. One important cause is scarcity in female role models. Having only people you don’t identify with as example, can have a lasting impact.

Like in my first job. A female in my business unit had just gotten into a management position no woman had held before. I looked up to her: I wanted to reach that too!

However, I soon learned everyone avoided her whenever possible. If we had to communicate with her, we would first check in with each other. Did her mood allow for a “hold your breath and give it an adventurous try”? With colleagues anxiously on stand-by for life-support if needed? Or was the air around her so charged you’d get electrocuted even walking up to her? In that case, we’d postpone discussing even urgent matters with her to a moment with lower volcanic activity.

She yelled at everyone. I was no exception. However, unlike my male colleagues, she also occasionally seemed to consider me a friend. She gave me well-meant advice and told me personal stuff. Such as, she liked to have children, but her boyfriend not so much. To be precise: he would not mind children, but she would need to take care of them. He didn’t want to be bothered. So she had to choose: a career, or children (apparently she didn’t consider a third obvious option: getting rid of the boyfriend).

Looking back, I realize she must have been under enormous pressure, as the first woman in such a demanding job. She was probably torn between ambitions, private life and society’s expectations. She must have felt so lonely, without peers in a similar position and a non-supporting partner. From her behavior it is now clear to me that she was insecure on several levels, and probably frightened of the consequences of her choices down the line.

But back then, I wasn’t able to see beyond the surface. She scared me. The only woman in the company that had achieved what I wanted to achieve, was someone I passionately NEVER wanted to become. Which raised the question: should I maybe stop wanting that job?

After some internal turmoil, I decided one scary female role model would not change my plans. Instead, I turned to men as role models. All my life I had competed with men anyway, so maybe they could provide inspiration? I observed them, talked to them, tried to find out what worked for them. I did learn many things. Above all, I learned that every single one of them had a wife that had taken a step back and took care of most things at home. And most men looked at me through those glasses: a nice and capable colleague, but above all, a future supporter of another man. A woman who would eventually get other priorities. So although I was doing a good job, my bosses felt no need to bother about my career planning.

I started to believe that to succeed in business, you have to put full focus on your career and have support at home. I had many internal debates on toning down my ambitions. But I was lucky. I then got a boss who advanced my career. He restored my energy to give ambition a try.

Once I achieved a management role, I was acutely aware of having become a role model. At first, I didn’t want to show my insecurities. I worked hard, also out of office hours. After conversations with younger colleagues, I realized it was now me who was scaring younger women into thinking this is only achievable for the very tough. I started to show my insecurities a bit more, as well as the struggles I felt doing the job and juggling priorities. However, that sometimes worried the younger women as well. It then dawned on me I didn’t have to be the perfect role model for all women out there. As long as I gave people an authentic picture, next to all other examples they saw. Letting them see you can achieve what you want walking different paths.

That’s why we need many more female role models. People are different. Young people (both women and men) need lots of examples. They shouldn’t have to draw implicit conclusions from seeing just one or two females in the job they want. Or only have men as role models. They should see different behaviors, and find out what works for them.

Think about it. For whom are you a role model? And what part do you want to play in the development journey of younger people?

Today the world lost a great manager

It has happened too often in my HR career. Someone enters the organization: a great guy, a smart girl. After the first few years of dedicated hard work they climb to the next level. Sooner than others, but as everyone understands why, they don’t encounter much resistance. They deliver good results, are quick learners and are great with their peers. Senior managers eagerly take them on as mentees, accelerating their career even further.

Of course these great potentials make the occasional mistake. But they learn from it – keen as they are to keep improving – and move on to become an even better manager. As HR, I love to watch them, and if necessary be with them, every step of the way. To coach them on their first people issues. To counsel them on dealing with their first big disappointment. To share their joy over a well-deserved promotion. To protect them from being crushed by politics, when they first join the big league of top-management.

As HR manager I go the extra mile for them. Because I know that person is worth it. Because I see they are able to do what is needed for the organization. Because they will make this a better place for their colleagues. I want to help them unleashing that valuable potential.

But sometimes, that dreadful day comes. The day that I find that person is gone.

That keen, eager high potential is no more…

Instead, I suddenly find myself talking to an over-confident, pompous, self-righteous, run-of-the-mill manager embracing no other ideas than his own. Someone who pulled up a powerful reflective shield resisting all criticism, regardless of how well-meant or to the point it is.

Gone are the days of growth. Of continuously developing into a greater leader. Of hope she can become the next CEO who I’d be so proud to work for.

When a high-potential choses to give up on the powerful gift of self-reflection, he loses the potential to become a great leader. A leader who has the power to fuel a great team, or lead an organization through a necessary transformation, or sustain the organizations’ incredible growth.

When giving up on self-reflection, inevitably, potential turns into mediocracy.

On such a day, a little piece inside of me dies…