Early in my career, I was honored to become part of The Hershey Company’s Sales Development team. The 12-member team was comprised of top performers from across the country; a bunch of young guns. The purpose of the two-year assignment was to learn about all aspects of the candy business including brand management, marketing, and production. We also had a chance to engage senior leadership and participate in a mentorship program.
I remember my first few weeks with the team. It was almost like a fraternity, and I felt like a pledge. I was advised before I took the role to make every effort to fit in. They told me that I’d be surrounded by a lot of great leaders. At the same time, I was warned to not “shine too brightly,” or a few egomaniacs will “try to marginalize you.” I realized early on that I’d need to humbly work my way up and do my part to belong.
Early on, I met a team member named Doug. He was from the Midwest, a go-getter and had a reputation for being arrogant. For some reason, Doug didn’t like me from the start. When he introduced himself, he went on and on about his success and how he’d become president of the company someday. Before our conversation ended, he told me with an intimidating tone that he’d “be watching me.” He continued, “one screw up and I’ll be all over you!”
The next day, the Sales Development team attended a town hall meeting in the magnificent Hershey Theater. We all sat in the same row toward the front to listen to Hershey’s president. As we were filing into our seats, guess who jumped ahead in line and sat next to me?
Doug. Of all people, Doug.
After a few minutes, he leaned over to me and sternly said, “you really should think more about how you dress. You’re wearing a blue dress shirt, and the rest of our team is wearing white. Look down the row for yourself. Not a good move!”
I looked down the row, and he was right, everyone was wearing white. I stuck out like a sore thumb. He smirked and said, “maybe next time, you’ll have a white shirt hanging in your closet for times like this.”
I felt embarrassed and very out of place. It seemed like a small thing. I didn’t give any thought to wearing a blue shirt to work when I dressed in the morning. Doug made it sound like it was a career limiting move. His comment caused me to worry for the rest of the town hall. I don’t think I heard anything that the president said; I was so distracted.
Later that afternoon, I approached Mike, my team lead. I told him what happened and he laughed out loud. He said, “are you kidding me? Doug’s a workplace bully, and he’s just trying to intimidate you. Don’ t worry about it.”
He patted me on the back and sent me on my way.
The next day, I went to work and walked into my first meeting. Doug was there along with the rest of my peers. As I looked around the room, guess what color shirt they were ALL wearing?
Doug was the only one wearing a white shirt. I got the biggest smile on my face. When the team saw me light up, they smiled as well.
After the meeting, I asked Mike why everyone was wearing blue. He said, “We wanted to send a message. We’re a team, and we stick together . We also want you to know that you belong here and you’re one of us.”
I’ll never forget that day. I felt like I belonged, was appreciated and I was one of the team. My confidence grew, and over time, I became a key contributor to the group. I also appreciated the team sending a message to Doug that his behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. Doug left me alone and never tried to intimidate me or anyone else again.
I learned that strong leaders instill a sense of belonging
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Have you ever had one of those moments and thought, “There’s no way am going to do that?” I did a couple of years ago in New York City. I was on a business trip and meeting with a new team. Part our agenda was to build comradery through a fun, shared experience. The night before the event, the team seemed very excited about what we were going to do, but they kept it a secret from me. I’m a planner and always like to be ready for what’s next. I softly pressed the team about the what we were going to do, but they didn’t budge. All they asked of me is to have an open mind and wear some workout clothes.
Early the next morning, we met in the hotel lobby. Everyone else was in their workout clothes, and I thought we’d do something like jogging in Central Park. We left the hotel and began walking toward Radio City Music Hall. I thought, “This is interesting, I wonder what’s up.”
The team leader knocked on a side door, and we were escorted into a dance studio.
I asked the team leader, “This is cool being in Radio City Music Hall, but what are we going to do?”
She replied, “It’s always been a bucket list item of mine to dance with the Rockettes. We are going to learn a dance together.”
I said, “Awesome. It will be fun to watch you all today. It sounds like a unique experience.”
She smiled and said, “Watch you all? You’re going to dance with us, aren’t you?”
I got a lump in my throat and suddenly became anxious. I’d rather get a root canal. I love to freestyle dance, but I’ve never been any good at choreographed dances. I’m quite possibly one of the clumsiest people around. Honestly, I was afraid I was going to embarrass myself.
I sheepishly said, “Mind if I sit this one out?”
“Oh, come on Preston, you can do this, and the team will love you for it.”
I was at a decision point – do I excuse myself, not participate and watch from the sidelines? Or, do I risk the embarrassment, leap in and connect with the team? Do I stay in my comfort zone or move outside of it?
After a brief moment with all of this going through my head, I mustered up the courage to dance with the team and said, “Ok, I’ll do it. What have I got to lose?”
You know what? I had an absolute blast. Two Rockettes came into the studio and taught our nine-member team how to dance the March of the Toy Soldier. The dance is from the Nutcracker ballet and is one of the most famous routines in Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular. We learned all of the dance steps and kicks. It was a great team building exercise; we all laughed a bunch and had a great time. Also, I stepped outside my comfort zone, grew and connected with the team. None of this would have happened if I sat on the sidelines.
As a leader, why is it important to step into the Discomfort Zone – the place where you are tested or do something new?
- You’ll Grow – Moving out of the safe and secure will stretch your limits. Growth occurs in the yet to be experienced moments of life that are outside your normal boundaries.
- Your Perspective Will Change – When you muster the courage to intentionally engage in a new, different or possibly embarrassing experience, your mindset will move from I can’t to I can, I won’t to I will and I shouldn’t to I should.
- You’ll Realize Your Potential – Think about it. Have you ever accomplished anything significant inside your comfort zone? Greatness, excellence, and success can be yours if you’re willing to step into the unknown and do something new. As you succeed or learn from failures, your confidence will grow, and you’ll begin to realize your potential.
When faced with something that is new or different from the norm, I challenge you to try it. If you do, you’ll learn and grow as you dance into the Discomfort Zone.
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I’m a disciple of Christ and an executive at a Fortune 500 Company. In my blog, The Discipled Leader, I draw on my diverse business experience to help Christians connect their secular and spiritual lives at work.
As a certified coach, speaker, and trainer with the John Maxwell Team, I help others grow their relationship with Christ, develop their leadership skills, and understand how they can make a positive difference in today’s chaotic world.
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