What’s the First that Can Happen?

Posted November 27, 2013 by Denise DeGennaro in On the Ladder
Recently, two completely unrelated experiences got me thinking about the same concept: taking risks at work.

The first experience that sparked my thoughts on this topic was finishing Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s much buzzed-about book on women, leadership, and work. The question threaded throughout the narrative resonated with me: what would you do if you weren’t afraid? Ms. Sandberg first posed this question to class of 2011 at Barnard College in her commencement speech. It continues to be asked through her nonprofit of the same name as her book, Lean In, on a Tumblr page that allows women to submit a photo of themselves holding up a sign with their answer.

The second experience was attending a concert. More specifically: Kanye West’s YEEZUS tour in Boston on November 17.  Love him or hate him, Kanye West is one creative, hardworking individual. In the midst of his set list, he went on a rant in which he reflected on his own career and the way he is perceived by the public. In the midst of the rant, he stated his own philosophy: “I don’t think about what’s the worst that could happen; I think about what’s the first that could happen.”

Although Ms. Sandberg and Mr. West may seem like vastly different public figures, I found myself connecting them. The sentiment of both of their statements centers around the idea of taking risks and expressing your individuality without question or hesitation. This is easier said than done. Not all jobs allow for the chance to think freely and be creative without fear of repercussions. For many of us, a “worst” that can happen is that we lose our job. Mr. West doesn’t exactly have this same concern since he is his own boss.  How can we be realistically risky and creative at work when we have specific tasks to be done and a supervisor to whom we must report? For me, this has been a challenge in transitioning from being a graduate student to a young professional. Experience has taught there are a few ways to help ensure that speaking up and making a suggestion is a calculated risk that will benefit you and your workplace.

  • Learn your history. Unless you’re founding a start-up, each organization you enter regardless of industry will have some sort of history. Take the time to learn about your organization and department. From where did its mission statement come? How does  your department fit with the larger organizational goals, why was it developed? Tap into coworkers who have been at the company for a number of years as a resource. Ask questions and be genuinely interested about seeing how your role fits in with the grand scheme of things. It is easy for coworkers to say “this is the way we’ve always done it,” but challenge them (in a friendly way, of course) to explain why.
  • Observe the office culture. Each workplace undoubtedly has its own unique culture. When you are entering and organization, take time to observe before you begin suggesting. Is it the office norm to speak up and give opinions at staff meeting? Is the environment collaborative and open to suggestions, or is it more rigid in structure? Be observant and allow time to pass so you can see how the office works before you jump in. This will help ensure your suggestions are being heard and appreciated and allow you to craft your delivery so you are taken seriously.
  • Be confident! Remember that when you are hired for a position, it is partly because you have a set of experiences that fit the needs of the organization, but also because of your potential! Doing your due diligence by learning and observing will help you position yourself well to make positive change in your organization. Be confident in your skills, abilities, and unique perspective.

Career Girls, you never know where your ideas can lead – when you act without fear, a first may happen! I am the type of person who is usually bubbling over with ideas. Since I am very extroverted, I am always willing to share them – so I’ve had to train myself to think before I speak up. I’ve learned the importance of organizational history, office culture, and patience, but am always confident in myself. With a little prep work first, sharing your ideas at work can absolutely help you stand out in a positive way and allow you to grow as a person and professional, positioning you reach your goals.

About the Author

Denise DeGennaro

Denise DeGennaro is a student affairs professional who helps undergrad and graduate students (and sometimes friends and family) at all stages in their transitions from school to career. She is an expert resume and cover letter writer and reviewer. Denise received her Master's in Higher Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Outside of work, Denise enjoys all things girly and loves testing out the latest beauty and nail art trends.