I was bought up to be a rule-follower – a good girl who did as she was told.
In many ways, this has served me well. I am personable, easy company, well-liked, a safe pair of hands…someone who can be relied upon to do a generally excellent job.
A woman who has been described as a ‘stalwart’ , the woman people came to when they wanted things doing properly.
I am not knocking this. There’s an awful lot to be said for having those traits, and working with colleagues who embody them makes life easier and more pleasant.
However – slavishly following the rules is career-limiting. I’ve come to understand this through my own experiences, and those of my clients.
Have you ever watched as a colleague, or business acquaintance walks away with something that you had set your heart on? Maybe they’ve been offered an opportunity that you would have loved to say yes to, or they’ve spoken up, taken a chance and landed on their feet? Maybe you’ve felt that they always get what they want?
Perhaps you’ve even uttered the words ‘Aren’t they lucky’, or in your head secretly resented their ‘luck’, berating yourself for not having those opportunities yourself.
I’ve come to the conclusion over the years, that when we feel those pinpricks of resentment towards others, when we hear that internal dialogue mutter ‘who do they think they are?’ or even worse, we say those words out loud to a colleague – what we’re really saying to ourselves is ‘why didn’t I speak up/ do something differently/take a risk be bolder/not follow the rules so much…?’ I wrote about about this a while ago, ‘Women, the ONLY thing you need to do to support other women’
I remember as a teacher in the early 1990s, following the newly created Literacy and Numeracy Hours to the letter and feeling cheated some years later when those teachers who threw the rule book out of the window, convinced that they could teach those subjects better, did so – and got great results, changing the way we taught.
It taught me a lesson in how change comes about – and it wasn’t from the rule-followers like me. Change happens because there are people out there who intentionally say no, and decide that not all of the rules need to be followed. They don’t ask permission, but use their judgement to shake up the status quo.
My work as an executive coach in more recent years highlights this too.
Clients sometimes need a little encouragement to understand what they’re truly capable of – and then some strategies to help them break free of the fear of change. Great Leadership is about many things, and challenge is an important part of it. To be noticed, to effect change, to get things moving, to make progress, to achieve your goals – you need to understand that it’s OK to break some of the rules.
Great leaders, those who get noticed and stop you in your tracks, who make an impact, are those who are bold enough to not let barriers get in their way in their quest for progress. It’s not an approach for everyone, but you can learn to act with less hesitancy, and make your mark a little more.
Are you someone who waits for permission to act? Do you wish that you could cultivate the ability to be bolder?
Here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Say no more often. Work to your own priorities instead of other peoples – the world won’t grind to a halt if you do. You’ll need to know what they are though. What could you say ‘no’ to that would allow make an impact but not cause chaos.
2. Do things differently. What procedures are you currently working with, that would benefit from being done differently? What can you begin to change for the better?
3. Ask for something you shouldn’t. Take a risk and put yourself out there. The likelihood is that the worst you’ll hear is ‘no’ – but often you may end up with something from your request, or at least some pointers as to how to get what you want at a later date.
4. Volunteer for something that makes you nervous. Take a deep breath, say yes and work the details out later.
5. Ask to meet someone currently outside your accepted circle of influence – as long as you have something of value to add or say. I had a client a few years ago whose colleague regularly met with the Head of Department, a few grades more senior to them both. She watched wistfully from the sidelines as her colleague formed a strong relationship with this senior member of staff, until she understood that she had the potential to do just the same.
6. Start before you feel ready. You can wait a long time until you feel experienced enough/qualified enough/ready for it – by which time, someone else will have taken the chance you’ve sat watching.
Breaking the rules in this way requires guts, conviction and determination – it’s often not an easy path. You’ll also need the people skills to take others with you if the circumstances require it.
Are you up to the challenge?
You can begin to make your presence felt more strongly by joining me on a Leadership Day Retreat
I’m Susan Ritchie, and I help the self-doubting senior exec to get out of their way so their full capabilities shine through. The result? A self-assured, confident professional.