I’ve always considered myself a bit of a constructive heretic. I think I break stuff and upset apple carts, but for the purpose of moving things forward. I speak up, most of the time, and sometimes I pay for it (sometimes you just gotta learn how to speak up). I talk about standing up for things, for people, for ideas, and demonstrating strength and conviction in what you do, especially when it requires change.
This became particularly relevant as I was sitting and having a somewhat-exit-interview with an executive about some important changes that I thought needed to be made in our organization.
They were changes I was pretty passionate about, and I was frustrated and sad that they hadn’t happened. I articulated my thoughts and ideas, and my lament that I didn’t feel empowered to make those changes and was disappointed that I thought the company was suffering and would continue to suffer as a result.
Then he said something that kind of stopped me in my tracks.
“Why didn’t you just change it on your own volition, or push harder? You don’t strike me as the kind of person to just lay the blame at someone else’s feet and give up.”
Hmm. Okay. Why didn’t I? I thought, and thought, and thought. I had a senior position in the company, and the trust of the people above me. My boss was the type that didn’t bruise easily. Which, unlike some folks, probably put me in an ideal position to actually press for the change that I really wanted to happen.
What was I afraid of? Getting fired? Not really, because I wasn’t about to go doing things that were damaging to the business, just potentially a bit controversial or temporarily uncomfortable. And getting fired never really scared me anyway.
Pissing someone off? Yeah, I guess so. I liked our leadership team, enjoyed their respect, and I didn’t want to be the “problem child” so I never really took things to the executive table.
Being wrong? Yes but no, because I’ve been wrong before and while it’s uncomfortable to be accountable for a bad decision, I’d done it before and knew I could handle it again if need be.
I didn’t really have a good answer.
At the core, I realized that I absolutely blamed other people for holding me back. I blamed the system and our leadership for not empowering me, which may have even been partially true. But what I never did was actually put my own neck on the line to stand tall and make a strong case for what I believed, over and over and fearlessly to the right people until someone listened or told me – point blank – to drop it. I sold myself short, and I sold short the responsibility I had in that company to rock a boat or two. I had been put in a position to change something, and I found every reason in the world why I couldn’t.
My boss’ response when I gave him all those reasons? “Don’t ever do that again in your career. Ever. You’re better than that.”
Would I have gotten the change I wanted? Don’t know. It’s entirely possible that I would have fought and lost, or been overruled. It’s possible that I would indeed have pissed someone off, or gotten put in my place and still faced the frustration of watching things stay the same around me. I would then have had some decisions to make, about whether the problem was the environment, or me, or a combination of both. I’d have had to evaluate all of that and decide what to do about it.
But I really never found out, because I backed off on my own convictions. Deep down, I know I didn’t do everything I could have. I’ll now always wonder if I could have done something more, and accomplished more of what I’d wanted to before I left.
Yes, you have to pick your battles. I’m no fool, I’ve been there before, chosen poorly, and learned from getting burned. Yes, there are genuinely situations when you’re lacking the tools or permission or combination of the two in order to accomplish what you need to. Sometimes circumstances are outside of your control. All of those things are possible.
But dammit. I disappointed myself. I doubted my own capacity to change something meaningful, and I didn’t exhaust my options before I gave up.
That executive was right. I’ll never do that again. I may not always get it right, and I may not always succeed, but trying to create intelligent, important change is something I believe in deeply. You can bet that I’ll be reminding myself of that often, and using that conversation to keep me focused.
Today, I hope by reading my little experience, you’l look around you and in the mirror, and ask yourself if you’re really giving it your all. What have you truly got to lose?