Knowing Your Place
Long ago, in what seems like another life, a colleague much senior to me (in age, experience and level) summoned me to his office on a Friday afternoon for a “chat.” Sounded ominous, and it was.
I’d been working for the (unnamed) company for some time, and had achieved some early success. Enough success that I wasn’t just feeling confident, I was feeling unstoppable. You might say that my ambition was showing.
Like Reese Witherspoon’s character in Election.
The executive, a tall man with decades of service under his Gucci belt, started by acknowledging the progress I’d made at the company:
“You’ve got this little rocket ship, or whatever you want to call it. You’re moving fast, and us corporate guys upstairs are moving so slow. You wear your sneakers and your ripped jeans and you think you’re soooo cool.”
He was right, I did think I was kinda cool, back then. I was also — I didn’t realize it — beginning to venture into areas of that company in which I wasn’t, shall we say, welcome. Areas that weren’t, as they say, part of my job.
“Well,” he continued, “You should realize you’re one of us now. And you need to, you need to…”
Oh, Lord. I’ve pissed off this man, big time. I’ve somehow disturbed his universe. Here it comes. I waited and waited for his next few words, but he seemed stuck. I stared at his shoes, which cost more than my monthly rent.
“You need to know…”
What did I need to know?
“You need to know your, your…”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I finished the sentence for him:
“My place?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s all, you can go now.”
As I walked out of his office and down to the elevator, I remembered a line from The Cluetrain Manifesto, co-authored by my friend, Doc Searls:
“Just about all the concessions we make to work in a well-run, non-disturbing, secure, predictably successful, managed environment have to do with giving up our voice.”
Today I work in a place that, unlike most others, I’m never expected to give up my voice. In fact, having a voice, not giving it up — and having enough confidence to use it to inspire others — is probably half the reason I have my job.
Last week, we had a huge idea for a client. And by “we” I don’t mean me. I’m the one who heard it, developed it with my team, and ultimately pitched it. The client loved and bought it. It was huge.
But the idea itself came from a colleague in an area of our company whose job description couldn’t read less like a creative mandate. Someone who in most companies wouldn’t even have the courage or the opportunity to express a creative idea outside her narrow lane.
I used to say all the time that one of my biggest goals was to bring creativity and innovation to every area of an organization. Problem is, that kind of hubris presumes creativity and innovation aren’t already present in those areas, and that I’m somehow the one who can bring it.
Look closer: creativity and innovation are bubbling under every surface, thriving in every nook. It’s up to each of us to find ways to unlock and unleash it. To champion ideas, no matter where they come from. And to celebrate anyone with the courage to express themselves beyond the parameters of their job description.
Great people work hard. Great ideas shouldn’t have to.
Know your place, indeed. If where you work doesn’t sound like a place that believes in the brilliance of human creative potential, maybe you’re in the wrong place.