3 Keys to Getting Out of Your Own Way by Natalie Born
The New Year always affords us an opportunity to make the choice to live life differently. It’s a time of reflection and assessment; a time to alter the status quo by choosing a different path for our lives. For me, the New Year is always a special time to reflect on my leadership journey. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned three important leadership lessons: leaders don’t fake it until they make it, leaders make hard calls and leaders take risks. If you’re like me, you may have learned some of these lessons the hard way.
LEADERS DON’T FAKE IT
The first time I ever spoke in front of an audience was in a hotel ballroom in Chicago, Illinois. I was 24 at the time and I didn’t prepare any sort of speech or outline. I thought the task was pretty simple: get up there for about five minutes and talk about a book I had read. My peers, my boss and my boss’s peers were all in the room. As soon as I went up to speak, I realized “winging it” was much easier said than done. Not even two seconds in, my palms started sweating, my mouth became dry and my mind began to race. My cheeks became flushed as I spoke gibberish for a few minutes. Finally, my voice trailed off, and I went and sat down.
My boss was the next person to speak. I slumped down into my chair, hoping I could disappear into the floor. He said, “Well, I hope this will show our leaders that this week will require them to lean in and take the lead on their own development. That includes speaking.” Ouch! How embarrassing. I felt absolutely humiliated. To this day, I don’t remember what was discussed for the remainder of that meeting. I was too preoccupied thinking of various ways I could make myself completely invisible.
Later that week, we were paired as partners for another book review. In other words, this time, I would get to share the fear of public speaking with another person. Whew! Having a partner provided me with a little bit of a relief, but I was determined to avoid experiencing a repeat of two days before. My partner and I stayed up all night practicing our speeches, transitions, a few light-hearted jokes and how we would passionately land the speech with an amazing call to action. This time, I put in the work.
The next morning, I woke up early and practiced my part three more times. I walked into the conference room ready to redeem myself. Everyone looked nervous that history was going to repeat itself. It felt like I was standing in front of 25 people that felt utterly sorry for me. But this time, I was not going to fail. I practiced for hours to deliver a 15-minute talk.
When we finished, a sigh of relief and shock spread over my boss’s face. I no longer felt like he was feeling sorry or embarrassed for me. I also learned that I could be successful at public speaking if I put in the effort. So often we allow our failure to become the end instead of the beginning.
I learned a few key things that day:
- “Fake it until you make it” is a lie. Why? Because everyone can tell that you are faking it. The best leaders get out of their own way and put in the work that it takes to truly lead.
- Whatever is important to you, you’ll work at. You can succeed almost anywhere if you are willing to do the work.
- It’s disrespectful to others when we don’t put in effort and work. If someone is taking the time to listen, take the time to prepare something worth saying.
- The sting of failure will either knock you down or teach you to come back swinging.
Let’s Reflect: What about you?
Have you had an embarrassing moment like that?
How did you handle it?
Did you come back swinging or retreat?
LEADERS MAKE HARD CALLS
One of the hardest things to come across is someone with real and raw talent, but no work ethic. I had one employee in particular who was merged into my team when I entered into a new role; we will call him Sam. He was incredibly talented and it was always impressive to see the final product of his work. However, it almost always came late. Sam would frequently miss meetings that he was supposed to lead and I would be left there, looking at the rest of the team, with no answers. Over time, not showing any discipline towards Sam became an issue. Other leaders on my team were looking at me thinking, “We show up on time. We turn our work in on time. Why does Sam get a pass?” They were right. Why was everyone else doing the right thing and Sam was getting the same reward (his job) for doing the wrong thing?
I sat down with Sam to explain what I was looking for in my employees and gave him a warning. Afterwards, I followed up with an email outlining our conversation and the changed behavior I was hoping to see. A couple of weeks went by and things started looking up, as his work ethic slowly but surely improved. But unfortunately, after a few more weeks passed, things went right back to the way they were. I wrote Sam up for missing key meetings and turning work in late, once again. He was such a talented individual, but I could not figure out how to motivate him. After several more write-ups, we reached our final straw.
One morning, I asked Sam to swing by my office. “Sam, tomorrow is a big day for our team,” I told him. “We have our team offsite. It starts at 9am and I know that historically, I don’t really see you around the office until 10:30am. I need you to be there on time. If you are not there on time, I will be asking you to get a box, pack your things and leave the office. I am giving you this heads-up because this is your last warning.”
I cannot make up what Sam asked me next: “Can you call and wake me up?” Taken aback, I replied “No. I am not your mom. But I do hope you can make it on time.” You will not be surprised to find out that Sam was an hour and a half late to our offsite meeting.
By Monday, I was letting go of one of the most talented team members I had. Why? Because it was not fair to the team.
In fact, when I am hiring someone, I look for five things:
- Great attitude
- Solid work ethic
- Team player
- Ability to deliver outcomes
He was talented, but he wasn’t considerate of the team and he was not exercising a solid work ethic. I hated to walk him to the door that day, but the team and I had suffered long enough.
Let’s Reflect: What about you?
What are your non-negotiables when working with a team?
What is a hard call you need to make that you are avoiding?
What is one thing you need to change that could impact morale in a positive way?
LEADERS TAKE RISKS
One thing I learned early in my career is how to take risks. I had over a 10-year career where I was promoted over eight times. Those promotions were all about taking risks, learning fast and not being afraid to fail. I had little knowledge in most of the areas I was asked to lead in. But regardless of my experience, I have always immersed myself in books, courses or meeting with experts to try and master whatever new skill I was learning. It’s exciting to go from novice to knowledgeable in any topic you’re curious to learn more about. Risks don’t feel so risky when we understand learning is a part of every journey we are on.
Too often, we don’t leap because we don’t know how. Sometimes we need to leap and learn how to build the parachute on the way down. One of my favorite early career risks was to learn outsourcing in Nevis, West Indies and India. Our company had never done this before and I didn’t know where to begin. I got my hands on as many books as I could read on the topic and built spreadsheets to quantify the true cost savings of the company moving in this direction. I loved every minute of it. When it was time to go to Nevis, I wasn’t even old enough to rent the car! I had to bring a colleague with me to help me get from place to place.
I met and learned about the locals, and felt that I had just begun an incredible adventure. Later on, I took a risk to leave a department, and a leader that I loved working for, to try international product development. A few months later, I was working on another problem we had never solved before: acquiring international companies. It’s so easy to stay in our comfort zone and never try something new. Taking risks is a part of the journey.
I learned a few key things:
- Leaving your comfort zone is scary. Do it anyway. You have experiences and learnings that are waiting for you.
- Failures along that path are normal and it’s only a true failure if we don’t learn from it.
- Risks aren’t really risks when you can rapidly learn what you need to grow.
Let’s Reflect: What about you?
What’s one area in which you’re standing in your own way?
What’s a risk you would take if fear didn’t exist?
What’s holding you back from creating the world you want?
The New Year is an opportunity to try new things and lead differently. What would happen if we could just get out of our own way? What happens if this new year finally brings a new you? Someone who is uninhabited, unafraid and ready to take risks embracing all that the year holds. Take some time and reflect. Pray, plan and execute. Seize the year!
This article was extracted from issue 8 of Thrive Today! Journal (Winter 2023).