Fear is one of the great barriers to career advancement. Sharon Price John’s fabulous career is full of lessons on how to get past those fears and get out of your own way.
Being afraid to ask for that next job. Being afraid to take credit. Being afraid to speak up. These are all ways in which fear gets in the way of making progress in your career. But as Sharon Price John’s career suggests, the fears of what could go wrong are often wildly over-exaggerated, and the upside of what could go right are under-estimated.
Set challenging goals, write them down, and it might be awesome
In her forthcoming book and podcast “Stories and Heart,” Sharon recounts an early episode in her life of ambitiously determining to climb a huge beech tree. She made it to the branch she wanted to climb, and then realized that despite weeks of planning to get up the tree, she had somehow neglected to figure out how to get back down! As she reflected on the experience, she consciously noted that setting challenging goals could be labelled scary (it might be bad) or exciting (it might be awesome). Picking “awesome” made the setting of challenging goals something to be enjoyed, not feared. Writing the goals down also makes them much more actionable.
Sometimes you have to experience what you don’t want to learn what you do want
Sharon’s first try at attending a large university didn’t go so well – she ended up returning home to take a break, worked at a blue jean pick-and-pack facility and could easily have given up. But when her co-workers asked her to slow down because she was making them look bad, she realized that settling for the mediocre wasn’t what she wanted in life. She went back to school, changed her major to advertising and created a personal rubric for making decisions based on her last name, Price. Perseverance. Respect. Intelligence. Creativity. Excellence. These came to be critical to her future choices.
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Sharon was a guest speaker in our inaugural Women in Leadership class at Columbia Executive Education when a participants asked her whether she would advise women to ask for a raise or promotion. She sort of blinked, and then said, “Of course – what’s the worst that could happen? They might say no, but now they know you are interested and can give you suggestions about what might allow you to qualify for that role.”
Don’t overthink everything
As someone from a small town in rural Tennessee working at a fancy advertising agency in New York, the clash of backgrounds with co-workers could be tough to navigate. And yet, as Sharon points out, it would be a mistake to take every mismatch of expectations as an insult or put-down – sometimes, it’s just funny! As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
The two things you learn in business school
Making a huge leap of faith to attend Columbia Business School, Sharon had to face down a lot of self-doubt. A rather cynical colleague said that you learn two things in business school. The first is that more money is better than less money. The second is that money now is better than money later. This was in the day when Columbia was very finance-focused (things have changed since then). Seen through that lens, it was a dumb decision to give up her income and go into debt.
What Sharon learned, however, was that the quantitative and linear thinking this mindset can lead to creates blind spots. Her background in advertising and creative pursuits, coupled of course with financial know-how, would prove essential to her success in leadership roles. She talked her way into a product management job at Mattel, working on the Barbie account, and even though that proved less lucrative than the roles taken by some of her more financially driven colleagues, it was a springboard to future success.
Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be
After doing everything right to launch a new, entrepreneurial product (relaunching Dawn dolls), 9/11 and the subsequent snarling of global supply chains doomed the nascent venture. A move to the toy company Hasbro offered the chance to re-imagine what a corporate career might look like, and Sharon enjoyed considerable success with then-iconic products such as Furby and the Butterscotch pony. But after a corporate reorganization basically eliminated her job, a session with an executive coach led to the realization that she had what it takes to be a CEO!
Stop Doing Stupid Stuff / Start Doing Smart Stuff
Over time, organizations accumulate habits. These habits make sense for the moment the organization is in, but over time many no longer make sense. One of Sharon’s key precepts is to encourage people, with humor, to consider everything they are working on as to whether it is adding value or not. She says, think of it like Groundhog day, in which you don’t get past the day you’re in until you get it right!
New book – Stories and Heart
Sharon and I will be talking about these themes and more this Friday in a Friday Fireside Chat. What I’m particularly excited about discussing is a new model of leadership which – like the Gumby character she used to emphasize flexibility in the face of uncertainty – is flexible in approach, empowering to people and deeply human. It’s going to be fun! Register to join here.