I was talking to my client Frederick the other day. Like many professionals over 50, he’s been through a lot; he’s been a consultant, a CEO, a board director and an investor. Although he’s a successful person by any accounts, a recurring theme came up.
‘Sean, I’ve talked to a few people about ideas [for his next role] but I’ve got to the point with a couple of them where it’s kind of gone off the rails. Well, I suppose I pushed them off the rails. I decided I didn’t want the job but could make a bigger difference as an advisor, or a board member…. or something.’
‘Or something?’ What did that mean?
‘I used to be able to just say, ‘I’m CEO of the company’, and that defined things. I suppose I was comfortable that it defined me. That’s not working now. Of course that might be because I’m no longer a CEO!’ He laughed with a hint of irony. And self-doubt.
This theme keeps coming up. There are points in our careers – and in our lives – where the titles stop being a refuge for identity. They don’t work any more, but we cling to them because it’s hard to describe yourself when you’re something that doesn’t have a title. As a crutch for identity, titles seem to matter a lot more to men than women, but the pressure to explain yourself in simple terms – like titles – is pervasive.
There’s a notion in developmental psychology that we transition from ‘Doing’ to ‘Being’. It sounds a bit abstract when you live in the pragmatic world of business.
But it’s a real phenomenon. It’a a feeling, a kind of staleness, when you talk about yourself solely in terms of what you do. You start to feel insulted when people dismiss you because you’re not a person ‘doing’ something they value. Yet you feel that you are still of value, even if you’re doing ‘nothing’.
This hurts most when you have a long transition between roles. In that transition you become acutely aware that you’re doing neither what you used to do, nor what you will do next. It feels very much like you’re doing nothing, so you’re ‘useless’, ‘lazy’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘lost’, ‘hard to read’, or, as in the case of many of my clients, ‘looking for another job like the last one…. not’.
How do you resist the pressure from society, in the form of well-meaning friends, family & colleagues, to explain yourself only through what you do?
Being, is different from doing. But there are useful ways to think about it so that you can carry yourself across the transition into your next phase of growth.
In the simplest sense, what you are – being – has consequences. It helps to know them.
Other people gain a sense of what you are through what happens when you turn up in the room. Without trying to do something, but simply being present, responding genuinely to the situation, reflecting, listening and contributing, you are yourself.
You can be yourself without a title.
The irony is that we don’t know how different the room becomes when we turn up, because we think we’re coming into the room and just joining it. However, by turning up we change the room even if we’re silent. Especially if you’re dressed in bright orange!
The only way you’re going to get an insight into this is to ask the question, ‘What happens when I turn up in the room?’, from someone who was there.
Be ready for all sorts of surprising answers!
‘Oh, all the juniors shut up, because they are scared of you.’
‘You always light the place up and you seem to lift the mood.’
‘You have this habit of sizing things up really quickly and saying what none of us had the courage to say.’
‘Frankly, I think you often make it about yourself, so you miss what is really going on.’
‘I like it when you turn up and participate, since I know you’re such a kind person, but some people are intimidated by you.’
This stuff, this feedback, the combination, doesn’t succumb neatly to a title. It’s the messy combination that makes you you. Trust it.
Pull it together and apply it
The next level, the hard work, is to summarise all this feedback. That list of things that happen when you turn up includes some interesting descriptors.
These are great. But they are just a list of lists. Courage is one person’s summary of a list of experiences they’ve had of you. The word summarises how they see you.
The work you need to do with this list is tough but immensely fruitful. You need to find the word that encompasses all these things. The ‘intimidating-kind-aloof-brave-bright’ word.
For example, I could see how Frederick’s feedback arose because he is passionate. He can’t help it. He is passionate about the health of the organisation. This leads to an intensity that can be off-putting. It’s well meaning but in pursuit of the larger idea, some people will feel at risk of being collateral damage. Many people can’t even see or assess what he sees. ‘The health of the organisation’ is a complicated object.
Knowing it’s being passionate that drives the other outcomes, helps Frederick bring other people along to share that passion.
It’s messy, but robustly clarifying to tap into this.
Your laser beam.
Experience brings range. You can cover a wide range of issues and apply a wide range of distinct skills. This can produce another list that others find confusing, the list of all the different things you do. Some professionals fall into this problem, because they are pulled into helping with a diverse range of situations that look very different. Helping a board, managing a project, designing a system, facilitating a meeting, writing a bid.
If you fall into the trap of defining yourself by what you do, you’ll end up sowing confusion, because the list looks self-contradictory. People want to know the one thing you are good at. But it’s not a simple skill, it’s a complex talent.
Again, dig into your list and identify what is really going on. What is the top level talent you possess, which means all of those activities are natural consequences?
For example, Amy is wresting with three streams in her successful consulting business. She’s a gifted engineer, designing big structures for her large corporate clients. But she also sits on a few boards, and has a team in her firm that is the top team in the country for fixing complex issues when structures fail.
These three activities look very different. Her role sort of looks like engineering, but lots of what she does has nothing to do with technical knowledge. People like having her in the room when the issues are technical, certainly, but the issues are also politically, emotionally and systemically messy, involving experts from many professions.
The only way to understand this is to get above the idea of ‘engineer’ and look at the three different activities as ways she applies her overriding talent. That is, they are just applications of her set of capabilities, one of which is technical engineering. What she also possesses are empathy with people who are affected by her work and deep insight into how her engineering work connects to everything else that is going on.
In other words, her diverse activities are the result of applying her unique laser beam talent in different situations. That laser beam is a high-level capability. In Amy’s case we call it the ability to see the pattern. To embrace a complex, multifaceted situation, identify the consistencies under the chaos and explain the pattern so that people can work on it with clarity. Literally a ‘see-er’, she is wise with her insight.
What’s the title for that? Who cares? It’s most likely ‘Amy’. Things happen because she’s involved. Other titles – consultant, board member, engineer – don’t capture that.
When you get in touch with this idea – that what you are is more important than your titles – you are able to hit the nub of your personal brand.
Frederick’s personal brand centres on passion. Amy’s centres on insight. From these core ideas, they can craft a rich way of explaining themselves, based on understanding how a lifetime of experience generates an impact.
It’s also life
We have an issue today with the dramatic shift in work from large stable bureaucratic structures (with lots of Titles), to a volatile mix where roles are often fuzzy. Even in everyday life, family structures cover the spectrum from solo to the complexity of multiple marriages and dispersed relatives. (At one point this year my own immediate family was on four continents.)
Who are you when you have no title? This question impacts us all.
As you get older a key task is to answer this question so that you can move forwards without leaning back on your past. The secret to relishing your future is through understanding who you are, how you turn up and how apply your capabilities, not through rehashing your last three job titles.
I’m not pretending it’s easy. At each developmental stage in life we have to let go of something of something precious, in order to move forwards. At some point, lets face it, you have to let everything go! Between now and that fateful day, however, the greatest delight will be to be yourself, free of titles yet effective and fulfilled in how you live life.