February 4, 2022
“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.” - Virginia Rometty
Ginny Rometty leaped outside of her comfort zone when she took the helm of IBM and saved it by implementing an innovative strategy. You want to be like Ginny.
To develop as a professional, you need to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone and learn new things. The most effective way to do this is by taking on a stretch assignment. We have all taken training classes and returned to our offices and back to working the way we were. While you may have some additional knowledge at the training, you haven’t grown. That development only comes if you leverage new knowledge by applying it.
Think about it: Have you ever gone to a technology course and then left? Three weeks later, when you have to use the skill, you are on YouTube learning how to do it, and you learn it at that point because you are applying it.
Actual development comes from using what you know in a real-life situation and being accountable for it. And this can be scary, and that is why some people often avoid it.
Many of us who have clamored for more opportunities and responsibilities hesitate when our leadership offers us a challenge. We second-guess whether we can handle the new assignment or demonstrate the leadership to be in charge of a project rather than be a worker bee. In our comfort zones, we know we can succeed - outside of our comfort zones often lurks the possibility of failure. That possibility seems to outweigh the benefits that come from success.
For example, the first time your manager says that you no longer need to communicate with a client with them on the call can be scary because you no longer have a backstop, and your judgment is on the line. On the other hand, demonstrating judgment and handling a client relationship can lead to promotions or a client that wants you credited with its business.
I knew one attorney whose manager offered her the opportunity to work closely with a struggling business on compliance and legal issues. She hesitated because it was not a pure legal job, and she would be working in the gray. She decided to take the role, and it led to career growth and advancement. Later she told me even if it hadn’t directly, it would have been with the risk because she learned so much, including faith in herself, to operate where there are no definite answers.
A company offered one of its support-area employees an opportunity to step out of her support role to learn the business at a deeper level than others in her area and create connections with its leaders. The position was new, and it was up to the person to design how it was structured. The associate struggled with the lack of definition in the assignment and what failure would mean. After many discussions, she took on the opportunity. Her development skyrocketed, as did her profile within the organization, and she developed relationships that served her well going forward.
Often, I hear from people trying to get to the next level that they are not being offered these assignments outside of their comfort zones. These types of opportunities can come organically to people who have a good manager or sponsor.
Those who are not so fortunate need to ask for these opportunities. (And don’t fool yourself - others ask for these assignments all the time.) If you still aren’t getting the chance, you need to ask why. As a manager, I was thrilled when someone questioned whom I gave an assignment to - it showed me that this person was eager and cared about their career. It also gave me an opening to discuss that person’s developmental opportunities. So be prepared. You may not like all your manager says during the conversation, but you need to hear it because people who take on these assignments are most likely to succeed.
If you still are not given stretch assignments, look for growth opportunities outside of work. For example, if you fear public speaking or leading a massive project - like many people - join an industry or voluntary organization where you may have the opportunity to try out those skills. I had an enormous fear of public speaking, so I sought out speaking wherever I could because I knew it would be to my benefit. Remember, it is your career, so own it and focus forward.
If your management offers you an opportunity and your gut reaction is to say no, the first step to getting out of your head and taking on a stretch assignment is to recognize the benefits of doing so. Those of us who are parents push our children outside of their comfort zones to help them grow. We challenge them to learn to swim, ride a bike or try another new activity. We should love ourselves enough to look for those opportunities to stretch for ourselves.
If you are still hesitating, talk to your personal board of directors, those who know your strengths and opportunities and want you to succeed. They will help you become more comfortable with developmental opportunities. Also, imagine what success will look like and mean - and what doing nothing will mean.
First, commit to doing 110%. It is best if you recognized that being successful in this opportunity will require time and effort. Do whatever research you need to do - become an expert. Prepare, prepare, prepare. You cannot over-prepare when taking on something new.
Second, find a peer or a member of your board of directors to act as a sounding board as you are navigating this new world. You may be able to use your manager for this purpose, but if she is looking to see how you do on your own, you could be undermining that effort. Third, ask for feedback, and if appropriate, incorporate it.
Finally, remember you may not succeed or hit a home run the first time. Growth takes time, and often, we learn more from failure than success. Development does not come overnight, but the more you stretch yourself, the faster it happens and the more agile you become.
Want more tips on how you can advance in your career? Download Sheila's 10 Tips for In-House Counsel Struggling to Advance where she shares her time-tested tips for in-house counsel to release fear, jump-start your career, and propel towards promotion.