A Painful Leadership Truth
If I asked you what your reputation was in your organization, could you tell me? Have you taken the time to shape how people see you? Do you belong?
“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.” — Brene’ Brown
The perceptions of others, especially those with the power to influence your career or salary, are important. Perception is reality to those who harbor the assessment. Sometimes you can adjust the opinion to match reality and sometimes you cannot.
I was working as a production supervisor at a well-known aerospace company in California. On the day after police had beaten Rodney King, I was scheduled to give a presentation. I was pushing a cart down the hall; it was equipped with the audiovisual equipment I needed — a large glass tube television, VCR, microphone, slide presenter, and many pens and pencils.
All day, scenes of the previous night’s events had run on television. The Rodney King verdict caused confusion, rioting, looting and violence.
As I rounded a corner, one of my colleagues saw me pushing the cart. He looked at me, startled, and backed away. I did not understand what was wrong, but he left, and I continued. Within minutes, a security person came around the corner to ask me where I was going with the television. Then it hit me. They believed I was looting my company.
What in the world had I done to make them believe such a thing about me?
I stood there, shocked. I asked the officer to call my boss. When my boss arrived, he did not behave as I had expected. He asked me to step into a conference room, where he lectured me.
I was livid. Why would I jeopardize my entire career to steal a ten-year-old television? Why did he believe that I was stealing it? It occurred to him in the middle of the conversation that he might be wrong as both his tone and his tune changed. I never said a word to defend myself.
After he apologized, he made the security guard apologize, they both walked away, sweaty and red-faced. I was pleased that I had not lost my cool and escalated the situation. My childhood experiences growing up in the Chicago housing projects had taught me to control myself.
“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” — Mark Twain
Over time, I deduced why they reacted that way toward me. I did not take part in any of the sponsored company activities. I had not participated in any of the companies after-work activities.
I was not on the bowling team; I didn’t play baseball. I didn’t go to the beach parties. I seldom went to anyone’s house nor invited them to mine. I did not attend work celebrations. I had not bothered to fit in.
One reason was that I was younger than everyone else. But because I had not taken the time to introduce myself to the company, all they saw was a young, ambitious, Black woman working hard every day. They did not know if my values matched theirs. They did not know me.
I made it my business to change that situation. I sat in a row of offices with three other managers of my rank. I began to behave as if their success was important to me. I would stop by their desks to talk business, and I would attend their meetings. My team and I supported them in their goals. I talked to them about what they wanted to achieve and about what I wanted to achieve.
We formed alliances with each other. Between the four of us, we controlled 75% of the resources in the plant. We became a powerful coalition that decided as a team.
The lesson I learned — and one you should follow — is that it is always important for you to fit in. You must fit in to get it. People who know and trust you will support you. People who don’t know and trust you won’t. It is your responsibility to drive the perceptions people have of you. You must be in control of your career.
There are many people that will tell you that fitting in is being a sell-out, that outstanding people never fit in. Outstanding people stand out. And they are also right. Look at Steve Jobs; he never fit in. He was a genius. I was good at my job, but I was not Steve Jobs. I needed to fit in to climb the career ladder. If you are a prodigy, follow their advice, if you are a hard-working, ambitious leader, follow mine.
“I have been bent and broken but — I hope — into a better shape.” isees.org
Many people believe that the Human Resources department is responsible for making sure employees are happy and successful, but it is not their job. The Human Resources department exists to protect the human resources of the company. You must not depend on anyone other than yourself to shape your reputation at your company.
I know what people think of me: both supporters and detractors. Sometimes I don’t like what I find. When that happens, I can either work to change their perception or accept that their view of me was inaccurate and leave it alone.
I did not permit negative perceptions of me to stand if the person was in my leadership chain. I worked to change their view. My goals were not for them to like me. My goals were for influencers to know my values and my skills were up to the challenge of the next Leadership position. The effort put toward changing the wrong perception about your work is never wasted.
However, if your values do not match those of the company you are in, run away. Run away quickly. There is no way to succeed if your basic DNA does not match the company.
As a young woman, I once took a position as an intern to a manager at an exterminating company. I won’t go into details, but the company was regularly cheating the field technicians out of an hour’s pay. When I pointed the discrepancy out to my boss, he already knew about the problem but had elected to do nothing about it. They based his bonus on the overall profit at the Chicago office.
I was on track to learn the company and be hired. Further investigation revealed the fact that the management team all knew about the pay problem. None of them had revealed it to the employees and had no plans to fix the missed payments. It was a joke. Their perception of me, based on my growing up in the projects, was that I would fit right into their culture crookedness.
I did not stay there. I quit as soon as I found another position. My values did not match, and I would not have done well. I made no effort to change their perception. I ran as fast as I could away from them and their job. I did not fit in.
No matter where you work, you must fit in to get in. The perception that your leaders and employees have of you is as strong as the reality of your personality. If you are ambitious and want to be promoted, then you must be viewed as one of the team. Being part of a team invokes trust and acceptance, which is critical to working successfully with the same people day after day.
It is a reality of the workplace today that people promote those with whom they share values. Those values are stronger than any other attribute in predicting your overall success in any company. Find work where your values match the company.
If it don’t fit, don’t force it.
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