We all tend to gravitate towards our comfort zones. And why not? They’re places where everything is orderly and predictable – we know exactly what we’re doing, who we’re dealing with, and why certain decisions may or may not work. When you’re in your comfort zone, life or work is just easier.
You’re master of your environment. What’s not to like?
Those in leadership positions may also seek out professional comfort zones because it’s a reassuring way to continue achieving success while minimizing conflict and anxiety. Yet, for senior managers, this dynamic can sometimes be a trap especially in rapidly changing industries. That comfortable feeling may subtly encourage them to ease up and not push themselves and their teams to evolve and stay competitive.
So, we absolutely need to move beyond our comfort zones. (Something easier said than done!) That means finding ways to overcome psychological obstacles and the reluctance to thrust ourselves into unfamiliar roles or situations where we don’t have easy answers.
This is something I encountered very early in my career. Here’s my experience:
While pursuing my engineering degree, an early mentor encouraged me to think beyond the typical engineering career paths. Somehow, he saw something in me I didn’t, and suggested I explore a broader set of business opportunities. I followed his advice and eventually found myself at a top consulting firm building my experience in financial services. You might not think this would be the typical path for an engineer, but it turned out to be perfectly aligned with my analytical skill set and interests.
That was the “something” my mentor saw. And what did this teach me?
Be willing to take a different path in your career. When someone believes in you and presents you with a great opportunity… just say “yes”.
Some years later, when I joined BMO Harris, I found myself working on bank acquisitions, leveraging the skills I developed in management consulting. A year into this role, I was asked to take a very different role and lead an important market. It was a tremendous opportunity, but it was vastly different from what I’d done in the past and how I saw my career in the future.
At first, I expressed my hesitation to the mentor who suggested the role, until he gave me his perspective on what he felt I would get out of the role and what he believed I would bring to the table.
Ultimately, I took the job – stepping out of my comfort zone once again. (What did I say earlier about saying “yes”?)
While I had some perspective on what the business needed from me as a leader, I quickly realized the importance of showing my colleagues and associates that I was willing to listen and learn new things, rather than relying solely on my past experiences, or points of view.
In other words, you need openness and humility.
When leaders move into unfamiliar assignments, they need to make it clear to their co-workers that they’re prepared to put in the effort to understand a new space. Leading in these situations demands sincere listening and learning. Take it in, and introduce your own unique perspective to ensure a strong diversity of thought.
One more thing – You don’t need to leave your zone on your own.
I’ve always felt that the mark of a strong leader is someone who can not only identify and develop talent, but also creates an environment of constant learning for all (and that includes the leader).
To gain the necessary knowledge about my new mandate, I sought the counsel of others (both seasoned leaders and high potential associates on the rise) – those who were inspired by the opportunity to drive positive change centered around the client experience and who were equipped to navigate and embrace it.
By showing that I was willing to listen, learn and adjust – by stepping out of my comfort zone – it gave others permission to step out of theirs.
These are just two small examples of me stepping out of my comfort zone – but they’ve made a huge impact on my career and define a recurring theme throughout my professional life.
Going from engineering to management consulting to banking and wealth management is not a typical path, but for me it’s been a deeply fulfilling one. As I opened my mind to new information and challenges, I found new ways to grow. And I continue to do so, every day.
So today I’m paying that advice forward: Always be willing to learn and try new things, whether in your career or personally. And always say “yes” to those who believe in you. Setting off in a new direction doesn’t demand taking huge leaps – a baby step will do – but once taken, you could find yourself in some fairly interesting, very gratifying, new territories.