Be A Protagonist

Recently I have been reflecting on my upbringing and one memorable lesson I learned from my mother.

I grew up in Yorkshire, in the gritty North of England in the 70s and 80s. I was a cheerful, cheeky little boy. As a teenager, I wavered between happiness and confidence and exasperation and self-doubt. I was likeable yet defiant, especially towards my poor, devoted parents.

Much of my time was consumed with friends. We’d spend hours talking about relationships and the hardships of teenagehood. Little did I know. Not one for sports, I was drawn to artistic endeavor. I drew on anything and everything. My bedroom walls, the back of my bedroom door, the inside of my closets. At school, you could find me in the theater designing the sets for school plays. I daydreamed. A lot.

I was a crier. I cried about injustice. I cried about the kid across the road from us who had cerebral palsy. I cried when my history teacher wouldn’t sign a petition to stop a known, far-right Nazi sympathizer entering the UK. Fairness and justice meant a lot to me. They still do.

My father, the owner of a small clothing factory and the most benevolent man I know, was the biggest advocate of my abilities. My mother, a market researcher and childrearer, was the warrior for our education and all-round driving force in our upbringing. I was fortunate to grow up with parents that enabled my choices, rather than dictating them.

At age 17, I had to decide on degree courses. Narrowing down on answers has always felt constraining to me. I like to live in the world of possibilities. Growing up I’d first wanted to be a vet, then in advertising and next a lawyer. I found myself in my penultimate year of high school studying German, Chemistry and Philosophy of Religion. What on earth would I do with those?

Hunched over my bedroom desk, built by my dad, late into the night filling out application forms, I was clueless. I started flicking through university prospectuses and three words jumped off the page. Media. Culture. Society. A new course at Birmingham University. Bingo. I didn’t read past the first paragraph. This course was designed for me. I thought I just had to buy a camera, turn up in Birmingham, discuss newspaper articles and talk about keeping Nazis out of Britain. My 17-year-old self was jumping for joy. He’d found his future. Physically, I was sitting at my desk. In my head, I was in an enormous lecture hall engaged in a heated debate about the identity of 20thCentury Britain. I was walking around Birmingham’s Bull Ring taking edgy photographs for my third year dissertation.

I sucked out every ounce of my limited life experience and dumped it into that application essay. Examples of leadership, creativity, critical thinking; they were all hyped up in there. The time I ran for President of the local youth group, the music concert I arranged at the home for the elderly.

The most meaningful part of preparing for life in Birmingham was a trip with my dad to a photography shop in Leeds to pick out a SLR camera, a course requirement and a birthday gift from my parents. I was so proud of that camera and all that it signified – the next chapter in my life. It was going to be so liberating, so expansive and so perfect.

I posted the application and waited for the offer letter.

A month later, I was rejected. Having been so sure I was the ideal candidate, I was floored. I locked myself in my room and listened to The Smiths for days. I was intolerable and life was a catastrophe. “Screw University. I’m going to Art College.”

A few weeks later, sat around the table for Shabbat dinner, I made my big announcement. I was over Birmingham. I was going to Newcastle to study Social Policy. There was a moment of quiet that lasted an age. My mum readied herself to speak. I knew what she was going to say, “Ok, whatever you want to do.” Except those weren’t her words.

“Well, you’re not going to leave it there are you? You should write a letter to Birmingham telling them why you want that course and why they should pick you.”

What was she saying? Had she gone mad? The matter was closed. I’d been rejected. I’d failed.

What I know about my mother but didn’t acknowledge in that moment, is that she is a tour de force. Every year of my life, she’d pushed me to get on the phone and thank relatives and friends for birthday gifts. She pushed us to do our homework before playing outside. She pushed for my brother and me to get scholarships so we could attend the best private school in Leeds.

This was an emotionally complex moment for me. I’d done my grieving. The last thing an 18-year-old boy wants to do is take his mother’s advice. On the other hand, I’d seen my mum’s determination pay off. “Ugh, this is strange. Maybe mum is right. Maybe it’s worth writing that letter.” After a few days of brooding, that’s what I did. I went back to my bedroom, back to my desk and penned a passionate response.

To my surprise, I got a reply from Birmingham. The answer was still “No.”

They explained that the course, being new, was oversubscribed and I was welcome to apply the following year. A new wave of disappointment was offset by some satisfaction that I’d advocated for myself.

I went on to study Psychology, not Social Policy, at Newcastle University and the rest is history. The lesson my mum taught me that Friday night has profoundly shaped the way I impact the world. I have built the muscle for being my own protagonist.

Recently I coached an executive as she transitioned into a new company. She was facing a lot of uncertainty and risk, which required her to advocate for herself. It made me reflect on the behaviors my mum was encouraging in me and how I’ve come full circle in the coaching I do with leaders.

So what is it that leaders do to be their own protagonists? To shift from powerless to powerful? From feeling done to to steering their own path? Based on my experiences working with leaders, the following behaviors will turn you into a protagonist.  

Believe in yourself, not luck. Take control of your situation and own your decisions. Don’t let the situation control you. Seek out new opportunities when you are feeling undervalued or dissatisfied. Be a navigator of your journey, not a victim. Operate from your internal locus of control: the belief you are responsible for your successes and failures and in charge of your destiny.

Know what you want and go after it. Have a clear, explicit goal in mind of what you want to achieve and write it down. Ensure it’s your goal, set by you and for you, not someone else’s goal for you. The goal can be big – switching careers , or narrowly defined – acquiring a new skill.  Regardless of the size of the goal, make sure the goal is definitive. Setting, pursuing and achieving a goal will provide you with a sense of direction and focus, which contributes to your sense of empowerment.

Keep going. When confronted with self-doubt, knockbacks or derision, stay the course. When you are told, “you can’t,” prove your cynics wrong. When you are told you ought to follow a different path, hold your nerve and pursue your ambitions, even if that means making short-term sacrifices to achieve long-term goals.

Assemble your squad. It does, indeed, take a village. Build and maintain a tight, diverse network of 12-18 people spanning functions, hierarchies and geographies. This will help you grow professionally and ensure your decision-making is more rounded.[1]Seek out people who will expand your toolkit and give you new insights. Have people in your network that can help you navigate organizational politics and will give you candid, developmental feedback.

Cross the knowing-doing gap. Picture this all too familiar scenario.You have a great, innovative idea but hesitate suggesting it to your boss for fear of rejection or ridicule. The next day, your peer shares a similar idea in a meeting and gets the praise. All too often, people get stuck because they can’t bridge the gap between knowing and doing. Actualize your thoughts and ideas. Set up the appointment with your boss to discuss the project you want to get involved in.

Respect yourself. How many times have you used these phrases in a meeting or email? “I’m sorry…” “I’m not very good at this but…” “I was just wondering…” These expressions can be markers of common decency but overused they reduce personal impact. Just Not Sorry is a Google Chrome extension that highlights such self-limiting words and phrases in your emails. Check to see how often you are selling yourself short.

Be clear in your ask. Give explicit and direct messages to clarify your expectations and reduce ambiguity. It’s amazing how often I hear watered-down requests from leaders. Imagine you are asking for financial projections by the end of the week. The most direct way you can say this is, “I need your financial projections by 12.00pm on Friday.” Don’t be the leader who says, “The budget is being finalized this week,” and think you have given a clear instruction.  

Be vulnerable. The omnicompetent leader doesn’t exist. No one is good at everything. Play to your strengths while being honest about your stretches. Ask for help from bosses, colleagues or mentors, learn by observing others and acknowledge others’ successes. Vulnerability willenable you to recognize your self-limiting beliefs and turn fear into power.

Put your hand up. Be first in line to volunteer for a new opportunity at work or to take on a project. Do so even if it scares you or if it’s outside your skill comfort zone. From these experiences, your self-belief will grow and you’ll acquire new capabilities.

Be a Nower not a Whener. Don’t let apprehension turn you into a Whener. “When I take that training course I’ll apply for that job.” “When my kids have finished high school I’ll go for promotion.” Seize the opportunity now, even if that means taking a risk. Trust your capabilities, speak up, swap your comfortable role in a corporate function to lead in a failing market.

[1]Cross, R. and Thomas, R. (2011). A smarter way to network. Successful executives connect with select people and get more out of them. Harvard Business Review. July-August.