A few years ago, an article by Victor Chen floated around my team at work. This article led to passionate dialogue amongst a small group in Rochester Hills, MI one week in late December, followed by more conversations during our weekly team call that Friday morning and in our leadership meeting. The topic that had us so fired up; so excited, was an article about the importance of having the right amount of tension, challenge and stress to accelerate our professional development.
Chen explains how the right amount and type of these attributes: tension, challenge, and stress, transforms us into more experienced and more valuable professionals faster. He calls it “succeeding at the edge of discomfort”. When I read the article the first time, I realized that the examples he shared were similar to how my career had taken shape. When I started my first job in consulting, I remember being thrown in to a surprise trip during my first week. From there, new projects, challenges, and changes would keep me pivoting and out of my comfort zone every day. After moving to the healthcare industry with a group that was in startup mode, I faced new challenges that were outside my experience level and stretched my competencies all the time. Every time I would start to feel competent at work (both in consulting and in the healthcare industry), I would let out a sigh of relief. A couple days later, I would also start to feel a little bored. Inevitably, I would receive a call or email during one of these times of boredom (and sometimes during moments of high stress and tension as well) and have something else to figure out - another problem to solve. Integrate 34 new hospitals into our health system in five months. Fix the procure to pay process before our next ERP go-live. Manage a company-wide reorganization. Create and launch a brand. Develop a university recruiting strategy. You get the picture. I had the opportunity to tackle all of these things - and more - before I turned 30.
At first, it was exhausting and frustrating to be in learning mode almost all the time. I spent the majority of my twenties and early thirties taking ownership for work that I was not 100% prepared to lead. During this time, I also decided to go back to school part-time for my MBA at Washington University in St. Louis, and my life felt chaotic all the time. My days were packed with work and school from 7 am until 10 pm every day, and weekends were filled with catching up on work and schoolwork. Beyond the pace and volume of work, however, was the challenge of figuring out my new or evolving jobs. In the first ten years of my career, I had eight different jobs with two companies. I experienced a lot of professional growing pains during my twenties due to the need to ramp up and deliver value quickly in each new role. The guidance and trust from my colleagues, managers, mentors, and teammates was the only way I made it through this era of my career.
After a while the chaos became normal. I grew comfortable living in a state of ambiguity and learned how to navigate new challenges in a more productive and efficient manner. I also had the opportunity to work with amazing people who had the same positive attitude toward challenges and were invigorated by the idea of solving big problems.
The constant cycle of learn, solve, master, repeat was my career game changer. I was fortunate to have leaders who invested in me and intentionally put me in these situations, teaching me, at an exponential rate, about leadership, relationships, business, communication, and solving problems.
As I had the opportunity to lead more people, I wanted to infuse this approach amongst everyone on my team. My experience was a one-off, not part of a program or set of HR procedures, but rather the consequence of a intentional manager and excellent timing. Part of creating a high performing team of people who are loyal is creating a culture of intentional investment and professional development. The team took this “succeeding at the edge of discomfort” concept and added some structure to it; enough that people had a roadmap but not so much that it became a checklist or transactional. We also focused on quality over quantity because high quality experiences that stretch you just beyond where you are comfortable are more valuable than a lot of experiences that are too easy or an experience that is too difficult and therefore impossible to learn from and complete.
While the structure created longevity to the program, the most important part was that the team embraced a desire to succeed at the edge of discomfort. It started with hiring the right people and continued through every experience they had, reinforcing that learning, ambiguity, and discomfort are good attributes and was our way of investing in them. We emphasized that it was normal to feel unprepared and a little stressed, in fact, if you weren’t stressed out you were probably missing something.
The work of the team to create a culture and a structure around this concept is one of the things I am most energized by and proud of. I had the opportunity to spend time with this team last week in Dallas and was inspired to see the passion they have for people and their desire to help them grow by facilitating challenging opportunities and helping them succeed in uncomfortable situations.
So, as you kick off 2019, take some time to reflect and consider if you are succeeding at the edge of discomfort. If not, how can you change that?