Breaking Through Professional Plateaus
An amazing thing happened to me recently at work: I realized I was failing at an important project. Even though our momentum is good and trending more-or-less in the right direction, I received a lot of feedback from other leaders and project members that the system we (my team and I) put in place is not working, and ultimately will not work in its current incarnation. In short, we are doomed to fail if we don’t change course.
As a leader, it was a sobering realization.
Why am I telling you this? Softuary is supposed to be a blog about techniques and strategies for not failing. That’s true, it is. But if you have even a few years of experience as a professional leader, I’m confident you’ve experienced a similar situation. And if you’re just beginning your career it is possible you haven’t experienced impending failure yet, but I encourage you to keep reading because trust me, you will experience it at some point.
Another interesting aspect of this situation is that my failing project is similar to others that are working well in my organization. Should I be surprised? No, after all we live in a VUCA world and the technology industry can be extremely dynamic and fast moving. Additionally, people are not homogeneous robots. Human interaction is often messy because the different project members bring their own strengths and weakness to their work.
Is everything hopeless? Of course not. In fact, I'm pretty excited about the entire situation, because the wonderful thing about being a leader is that how you view failure is a personal choice.
To anyone experiencing failure of any kind, an experience like this represents an amazing opportunity to do one of two things:
- Focus on the negative. This lense of thinking leads you down a path of believing “nothing” is working and inevitably leads to frustration and self-doubt. Focusing on the negative is especially common if you are accustomed to leading a high performing organization where things normally just work.
- Focus on the positive. It is true you’ve hit a wall and the strategies and techniques that worked for you in the past are no longer producing good results. Instead of focusing on the negative performance, you view this “problem” as a wonderful opportunity to break through a professional plateau and accomplish something amazing. You now have been gifted with a situation that will force you to develop the skillset and capacity you didn’t previously have.
Both mindsets are valid and both contain a kernel of truth. As a leader, it’s normal human nature to indulge yourself with negative thinking . However, the best leaders don’t dwell in that space too long and quickly begin shifting their negative thoughts to focusing on how to break through their current plateau. Remember, there is no room for repeated negative thinking if you want to step-change to your next level of performance.
As Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote, “Heroes need monsters to establish their heroic credentials. You need something scary to overcome.”
By either luck or planning, you’ve just stumbled into an opportunity to expose your inner hero. I don’t mean the kind of hero who fights alone without a team nor do I refer to a hero as martyr. What I’m trying to describe with the hero analogy is someone that overcomes a great obstacle and is courageous enough not to give up when the situation seems impossible.
That my friend, is you.
During difficult times is when your team needs your leadership most. Now is when you really earn your salary.
If you’re both lucky and skilled, your professional career will become a mosaic of stories about how you’ve accomplished amazing things in your industry. About how you’ve taken on difficult situations and challenges that lesser employees would shy away from.
So congratulations! Count yourself as lucky because this failure you’re suffering now is simply an opportunity to better yourself and your team. This impending disaster is a future success story in disguise. Stay calm, stay positive, be thankful for the chance, and get to work.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.
- 1: A note about indulging yourself in negativity if you are leading a team: When you indulge in negativity and self-doubt, make sure you do it out of sight of the people you lead. Do it alone or with people from a different sphere of your life. Negativity is contagious and can spread like a virus throughout your organization!