Stretch ‘Em, Don’t Break ‘Em

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24-02-2014

6 min read

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“Boil them alive! And while you are at it, put them in the water upside down, head first. That way, they will be disoriented and die without thrashing about. And increase the heat gradually.”

That was poh poh’s advice to Alyssa when she asked her grandmother the best way to cook lobsters. It seems a tad cruel but it is a foolproof method poh poh swears by.

Interestingly, a domestic home cook’s tip reminded me of an interview where a candidate told the hiring manager he needed the job to get out of the career rut. He went on to share a story of a frog boiled alive as an analogy of him in his comfort zone.

While the self-disclosure belies an honest man, it did not impress the boss. Without mincing his words, the boss gave me a marching order to find someone who is a game changer, masterful at leading change and stretching the boundaries. A tall order, indeed!

At one time or another, wanting to step out of our comfort zone and improve ourselves is a great thing. Imagine how many people start the year with such resolutions? Probably many of us!

And more often than not, our good intentions go awry and we end up not implementing any of our resolutions.

Here, I outline some tips to get out of the comfort zone, stretch ourselves and avoid falling into the panic zone. And to top it all off, achieve our resolutions along the way! (This article references Karl Rhonke’s CSP Comfort Stretch Panic zone model.)

Comfort Zone

Comfort zone, as the name suggests, is a place where you are comfortable with the way things are. You may be in the same job for the past year; doing something you are already very familiar or good at but not learning much.

It may sound boring but your comfort zone is important, as it is a safe haven. It is a place where you don’t have to take any risk and there is no pressure. If there is no pain, why change?

I am not going to offer the clichéd “no pain, no gain” slant; instead I will share a more compelling quote by David Viscott, author of Finding Your Strengths in Difficult Times, which goes:

“If you want to feel secure, do what you already know how to do. But if you want to grow, go to the cutting edge of your competence. This means a temporary loss of security. So, whenever you don’t quite know what you are doing, know that you are growing.”

Chuan, a food scientist is proud to proclaim his long 30 years tenure with a reputable food company. His veteran status makes him the obvious choice to orient new employees into the company.

At one such event, a young colleague pulled him aside and asked; “Looks like you are in your comfort zone. Has it occurred to you, the 30 years experience could be the equivalent of one year of experience repeated 29 times?”

The brief encounter invoked an “aha” moment that sets Chuan scurrying in search of ways to get out of his comfort zone.

Stretched Zone

Chuan is a pragmatic guy and holds dear to the belief that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. As expected, he did not storm ahead to do anything radical like skydiving or F1 racing to get out of his comfort zone. Instead he enrolled himself in a practical culinary course.

Upon completing the diploma and after one year of proving his mettle to the manufacturing boys that he has more to offer than just a “lab coat”, he was promoted to a senior role in food production.

His secret of successfully making the transition? Asking himself some very challenging questions.

· What he wants to change

· How much he wants to change

· Will the change enhance his life?

· Does it give him better opportunities?

· What his current strengths are that he can leverage

· What if he doesn’t change?

The answers he duly uncovered provided him with the impetus for change.

Panic Zone

When a person enters the panic zone, he or she becomes overwhelmed by the issues or challenges presented.

Success seems impossible and they can’t see light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s take the rubber band as an analogy of stretch.

When you extend the rubber band, it starts to stretch due to the pressure.

This is the stretch zone where you are truly developing yourself – learning, growing, challenging yourself and gaining new experience to realise your full potential.

If the tension is too much, the elasticity gives way and breaks. This is the panic zone.

A Stretched Opportunity Knocks

Phoebe, a young and upcoming marketing leader is cutting her teeth in the regional marketing role. Identified as a global talent, she was assigned a string of countries in Asia Pacific, a region now becoming the go-to channel for MNC high potentials to exercise their entrepreneurial chops.

From the get-go, she introduced a long overdue revamp to the marketing function with a fervour matched only by her zeal to climb the corporate ladder as chief marketing officer in three years. The stakes are high.

Fearlessly, she went head-on to recruit the best marketing talent throughout the region.

Lining the transformation agenda alongside a wonder team, Phoebe is confident she has it all set!

From Stretch To Panic!

Fast-forward a year into the job, Phoebe is in the panic zone. Work is piling with no respite. Her dream team’s productivity has ebbed and motivation is at an all time low. Requiring constant handholding, her team seems distraught and petrified when faced with problems and decision-making.

Phoebe found herself at their beck and call, responding to their slightest request. The needy team soon earned the moniker “high maintenance” referring to their constant need for attention and affirmation.

The dire state of the regional marketing did not go unnoticed. Phoebe was summoned to attend a post-mortem with the company’s “elders”. The findings are not pretty.

1. Lack of feedback

During the review, it is apparent that Phoebe has lost touch with the mission and all that matters to her are results to fuel her ambition. She did not check in regularly with her team.

In the absence of feedback, the team doesn’t know how they are doing and not motivated to do more.

Let’s face it, constructive feedback or a sincere compliment on a job well done goes a long way. Being told I was a great HR director made me want to be an even better one!

2. Not letting go, not listening

Phoebe was in the driving seat – setting the strategy and executing without engaging her team. After assembling such a capable team, it seems ironic that she is still the key person calling the shots.

She is not listening to them or soliciting their feedback. Her behaviour did not lead to new insights and she did not learn very much from them.

3. Lack of self-awareness

She also underestimated the complexity of some of the transformation she started.

Bulldozing her way did not sit well with those who were impacted by the change. Some of the challenges proved way beyond her capabilities and voila, the mission fell like a house of cards.

Assessment, Challenge, and Support (ACS)

When you want to assign someone a stretched assignment, it is crucial to have a good understanding of the person’s capabilities and constraints. Conducting an assessment will reveal personal and environmental challenges where critical intervention and support can be provided.

A proven approach to sustaining stretch is the ACS framework from the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL).

In short, ACS advocates three core elements – assessment, challenge and support – to be present to create rapid growth without having to go to the panic zone.

Final Thoughts

Stretch for life! Just like a rubber band, we are built for stretch. For companies building your talent pipeline, here’s some advice: stretch your talents, don’t break them.

By adjusting the pressure and turning on the optimal heat, it can result in creative tension, a phrase coined by Dr Peter Senge, referring to a “situation where disagreement or discord ultimately gives rise to better ideas or outcomes”.

For you talents out there, don’t be stuck with resolutions that you broke and then repeat year after year.

To get out of your comfort zone, start by asking; “What needs to change? Why do you want the change? What do you get out of it? What if you don’t change? How do you make the change?”

Once you get past that, maintain the stretch by pushing your personal boundaries.

Know thyself – your strengths, capabilities and areas of development. Have reviewers weigh in with their feedback and develop a thick skin, ask how you are doing as often as you can!

Let go of your familiar, comfortable habits of thoughts and stay open for new thought processes which will lead you to new possibilities.

Anna Tan is a bean counter who found her calling in HR. Her journey in corporate HR has led her to pen STRETCHED! Unleashing Your Team’s Potential by Coaching the Rubber Band Way where she likened human potential as flexible and agile as the rubber band. Click here for more articles.
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