Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When Was a Time Someone Took A Chance On You?

I think this is a great question for leaders.  The reason I think it is such a great question is two-fold.  One is it helps leaders reflect on all the different circumstances that led to them being in their current position.  I don't know any leader who could honestly answer that question with "no one ever took a chance on me."  All successful leaders have arrived at some key inflection point in their working lives where someone took a chance on them....where they weren't perfectly qualified for a role or hadn't had the requisite number of prior experiences, or did not have exactly the right formal education and training.  Yet, someone took a chance on them, they were successful and future opportunities presented themselves as a result.

Asked to describe such an instance, an astonishing number of leaders will describe an instance where they were figuratively "thrown into the deep end of the pool".  For my non-US readers the "being thrown into the deep end of the pool" is a metaphor that refers to how one can learn to swim.  Either one can take lessons from an instructor and learn how to properly breathe, kick their feet, move their arms and stay afloat.  Alternatively, one can just be thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool.   The assumption is that person will learn how to swim for pure survival.  Similarly, when you ask a successful leader their most meaningful leadership experience they will often describe just such a situation.  They encountered some combination of a new environment, unfamiliar business, or a foreign culture...in short they were put in a situation where they didn't quite know what they were doing and had to learn very fast in order to survive.  I can recall several times both in my US Army career and my career in the private sector where someone "took a chance on me" and I had to learn quickly to succeed.

The second part of the question for leaders is usually a little more difficult..."When was the last time YOU took a chance on someone?"  Paradoxically, many leaders, almost all of whom benefited from someone taking a chance on them, are hard pressed to come up with an instance where they took the same kind of chance on someone else as was done for them.

All too often, especially in large organizations, the talent management processes make it difficult to take a chance on someone.  Often "the system" only generates candidates who have had just the right combination of education, training and prior experiences to be considered "ready now".  Taking a chance on someone doesn't mean you should take wild chances on completely unqualified people.  Good leaders know when they are taking risk on a selection, provide a supportive environment, allow mistakes to be made and provide mentoring and coaching to support the steep learning curve.

Sometimes in the crush of everyday business it is easy to forget the combination of circumstances and serendipitous events that have led us all to a certain point in our working life.  The extent that  decisions made by others has affected our success is easily forgotten.  Asking the question "When was a time someone took a chance on you?" helps leaders remember...and perhaps do the same for someone else. 

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