What are you waiting for -- an invitation? This is how my dad would point out how incredibly lazy my brothers and I were when facing down incomplete chores.
Dishes piled up, trash bins were full, and as teenagers, we weren’t exactly eager to break away from a TV show or a phone call to go take care of the thing that was in our court without much prodding. In this statement he acknowledged that we were able-bodied, able-minded people, but we needed to understand that we had a part in moving the household forward, and we weren’t allowed to shirk those responsibilities. My parents expected us to identify the obvious next steps and then to take them automatically – because those were our jobs, and we were not doing them any favors by getting the jobs done.
When I moved out on my own, after college, it became pretty clear that no one was going to invite me to move my life forward. I had to learn to manage my household, if I was going to grow into responsible adulthood – the kind that eventually led to property ownership and a spouse with human and fur babies. I came to understand that self-discipline was the first step to being a good manager.
After all, how can you manage people well if you cannot manage yourself?
This is not speculation: there are tons of guides out there on the positive correlations between self-discipline and good leadership, from the Army Field Manual on Leader Development to Stephen Covey to social science studies about children refraining from eating marshmallows. In short, the brain is like a muscle that needs exercise too. The more you successfully practice self-control (including delayed satisfaction), the more you can endure more difficult tasks to achieve a greater reward.
My dad’s mantra also became my guidepost when I learned that business problems don’t solve themselves, so and if you’re waiting for a personal invitation to be part of the solution committee (aka a manager), then you might be waiting a long time. To be a good manager requires the ability to identify the root cause of a problem and then to rally people to agree on how to resolve it and then to actually resolve it together. I learned early on that there is no shortage of people in an organization that can point to a problem, but very few willing to put in the energy it takes to put a meaningful solution in place.
For me personally, the best way to solve a problem is to dive right in to understanding all of its facets. What did online publishers do, exactly? I started on the ad sales side, so I could learn how clients used our platforms to help them achieve their goals. How did we produce our news sites? I moved into the editorial side of the house to run the HTML production team and also wrote articles and newsletters. Why did some products work for certain audiences and not others? Again, I jumped into the central custom marketing department, so I could spend time with each of our publishing divisions to understand the different problems they wanted to solve and why those problems were different than a sister publishing group.
Along the way I learned a lot from the internal support teams while working with them to come up with really cool solutions that made money. I wasn’t instantly good at any of this just like I wasn’t instantly able to manage my own household. It took patience and practice and a ton of “why” and “how” and “what if” questions. I have also endured the occasional repercussions that come with over-promising and under-delivering. Some of these solutions took a month to a year to get right. The point is though that I did not wait for invitations to identify a problem nor invitations to solve them, though I did ask for consensus before I put in the sweat equity alongside the team members needed to create the solution. And I was happily rewarded with more responsibilities and promotions for that effort.
I have to pause here and say I have been blessed with some great managers who invested the time and energy it took to develop me. They have challenged, guided and supported me throughout my career, which included the harsh truths that are sometimes necessary to keep me in check. They never held back on giving me wisdom, even when I was not ready to receive it. I continue to value every lesson they’ve imparted. As I looked to move into the upper management ranks, I realized that I was having a hard time figuring out what my barrier to entry was even though I was certain of two things: first that I was capable of taking on a more strategic role in the organization, and second that my barrier was not a glass ceiling nor an unconscious bias related to my gender or race. For me it was simpler than that: my boss and I were so in sync with each other that he knew me and my business challenges well enough to confidently represent both in the strategy meetings the executives did every year. And he did. But that left me feeling as though I had no strategic ownership over my part of the business.
Decisions were being made at off-sites about the future of my business without my ability to drive the discussions on it. I did not want to go another year without contributing to that level of the conversation. So, I mustered up the courage to call him and politely but firmly demand the opportunity to participate. Thankfully he was gracious. When the following year’s meeting happened, I respectfully pulled up my own chair instead of waiting for an invitation to sit at the table.
So, if you feel as though you are stagnating – personally or professionally – ask yourself whether or not it’s because you are waiting for an invitation to move your life forward.
If you find that you are, perhaps it’s time to get your self-development playbook together and then start moving that ball down the field. Remember to be patient with yourself -- progress is progress, even if you are inching your way forward. I’ll be rooting for you every step of the way.