To Advance Your Career, Make Yourself Uncomfortable

Posted: 7/1/2011

Now think about your top skills and talents, and about the way you work. Are there activities and thought processes that come naturally to you, that feel comfortable and familiar-just like your favorite shoes? In my company's coaching practice, we refer to these psychological "old shoes" as "comfort zones." Comfort zones are the areas in our professional lives where we feel the most confident, knowledgeable, competent, and motivated. They are the areas where we have experienced the most success. As a supply chain management professional, your comfort zones might include analytical activities, negotiating with suppliers, and executing cost-reduction plans.

It's natural to tend to migrate toward your comfort zones. After all, that is where you have real influence and a demonstrated track record. However, focusing on comfort zones to the exclusion of less familiar areas carries a risk: You may stop learning and unintentionally limit your career options. It is also likely that you eventually will become bored and that your professional life will become less satisfying.

That is why it's important to devote more attention to areas where you may be less comfortable and confident. Uncomfortable areas might include: sales and customer interaction, financial discussions, people development, team building, and business strategy. You may also be uncomfortable around certain personalities, especially those that are different from your own. For instance, you might strongly prefer to collaborate with analytical, somewhat introverted individuals and shy away from more conceptual and emotive people.

These "discomfort" zones can seem mysterious, awkward, or even scary. When we are conscious of them, we may feel uninterested or even resistant to exploring them. When we are not conscious of them, they become "blind spots," or weaknesses we are unaware of. Since we don't know blind spots exist, we must rely on people who know us well and are willing to be brutally honest to point them out.

Addressing discomfort zones
People tend to avoid discomfort zones because they create a feeling of vulnerability. Most people, in fact, engage in this or some other form of denial because they don't always like to admit that there are things they don't know or understand.

But if you want to advance your career, you will need to come to terms with your discomfort zones by first, admitting that you have them, and then, by taking action to better understand them. You may even need to force yourself into what feels like foreign territory.
This doesn't mean that you must aim for the same level of competency in uncomfortable areas as you have in your comfort zones. Rather, it means that you should work toward achieving greater understanding and mastery than you have today. It also implies the need to build relationships with people who are willing to teach you what they know.

The following true story offers an example of how moving beyond your comfort zones can strengthen your qualifications and capabilities. We worked with a vice president of supply chain who came to realize that strategy development was a blind spot for him. He wasn't aware of it until it came up for discussion during a coaching session. "You don't seem to be at all visible when corporate-level strategies are being developed and debated," his coach said. "How do you manage to avoid them?"

After some reflection, our client recognized that he had avoided participating in strategic initiatives for most of his career. He had chosen instead to make his subordinates available to provide subject-matter expertise when needed. That way he could stay in the shadows. Moreover, his uncanny ability to develop and execute tactical plans actually insulated him from exposure to strategy initiatives. He was seen as a solid "battlefield officer" who wasn't interested in the more conceptual activity of strategic planning.

Our client decided that he needed to eliminate this blind spot if he was to achieve his career goals. The first thing he did was to pick up the telephone, call his company's chief marketing officer (CMO), and ask for a meeting. Over lunch, they discussed the coming year's strategic planning cycle, and he asked many questions about the process and how he might participate. The meeting went so well that the CMO offered to be his "strategy mentor." Ultimately, the supply chain executive's participation in the strategic planning process led to a significant insight regarding the configuration of his company's value chain, which earned him the right to present a portion of the strategic plan to the board of directors. All of these experiences helped him to become a multidimensional executive who achieved greater visibility within his company.

Solicit feedback, then act
Here's a simple exercise that will help you to identify your comfort zones and discomfort zones. Take out a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. Title the left side "Comfort Zones" and the right side "Discomfort Zones." Now begin brainstorming what should be in each column. If you are like most people, you will identify your comfort zones fairly quickly; uncomfortable areas are more challenging to define.

When you believe your list is complete, think of three people you could talk to (confidentially) about your thoughts. In the next 30 days, sit down with each of those individuals and solicit their "unvarnished" feedback on the items you placed in both columns. Ask: "Does this look right based on what you know about me? Is anything missing?"

Once you have identified some blind spots, choose one you believe is important and find an ally who has the expertise, experience, and interest in helping you to overcome that weakness. You will be surprised how generous most executives will be with their time and support. Leaders like to coach others.

Make a commitment today to "break in a new pair of shoes" by spending more time outside of your comfort zones. While it may be difficult for you in the beginning, the payoff will be well worth the effort.

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