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Don't Just Conform: Harness the Power of the Surprise Attack

I was privileged to hear Sallie Krawcheck speak last week at a Chicago meeting of a women's networking organization she co-owns, called 85 Broads.  Those of you who are interested in women's networking should definitely look into this organization.  And the rest of you should please keep reading, because this is not going to get all hissy--there's something for everyone!

At the 85 Broads meeting, a young African American woman stood up and asked Sallie, "what if nobody wants to network with me?  I don't look like anyone else I meet in my male-dominated industry."

Krawcheck, who has made a phenomenal career out of building relationships with sponsors and coworkers, responded brilliantly, saying that people from any minority group within their work environment need to proceed with caution. Paraphrasing, Krawcheck's suggestions were:
  1. Understand the unwritten rules and work within them.  They are not fair, but they are real.  In most of corporate America, it's okay for an older male colleague to go out for drinks with a younger male colleague, but if he goes out with a female colleague, that will create gossip.  It's okay to go out for drinks with the guys, but don't get drunk. And so on.  Ignoring the rules doesn't change them, and simply hurts you.
  2. Look for, and embrace sponsorship.  As Sheryl Sandberg says in her cultural explosion of a book, Lean In, what you need is not a mentor, a person to give you advice.  Ultimately, what you need is a sponsor, a person who will put you into high-prominence assignments to show what you can do.  As with a romantic relationship, "envisioning" your next sponsor won't conjure that person up out of thin air, but if you think through what you want, you will be faster to see and reach out to a potential sponsor than you will be if you just keep your head down and hope to be discovered.
  3. Experiment with the techniques you have for self advancement, and use the ones that seem to work.  Sallie describes being the only woman at the table countless times and using humor to build relationships--embracing the group, not just self-deprecatory!  Or, she said, she created a pattern of waiting for a pause in the conversation and suggesting something good with the opening, "what if we look at this a little differently?" 
These suggestions, which are wonderful, triggered a final one in my mind which I wanted to put out there explicitly as well, although sadly I can't take credit for this one either--I got it from the amazing Chris Matts, and of course I got it as an aside, because he just flings these ideas out there like they are nothing, all the time.

As my blog title hints, I urge you to stop trying to fit in all the time, if you want to move ahead.  "Following the rules" is a constraint which cannot be avoided, but it's hardly a strategic, proactive way to plan out your career.  Steps 1 to 3 may be necessary if you want to swim successfully upstream in a dominant culture.  But at least one more concept is needed before your portfolio is sufficient:

Use your individuality as an opportunity to surprise your networking partners, to create a strategic advantage, and then go for what you want.

Facilitation context
Let's use a folksy metaphor to help you see how this works, within the context of a facilitated meeting, which is something you have probably experienced.  Agile coaches you hire will always make you and your colleagues do something horrible, like juggle hacky-sacks, or throw a ball, or play with legos, and it's not just because they all originally had names like "Rainbow" or "Feather," and grew up in yurts in California.

They do these things to get you off guard so you can bring some of your defenses down long enough to learn and even begin to want to change.  Once one sees this pattern, as a coach, it's glorious (plus, one no longer feels obligated to apply stalwart tools for humiliating people who got chosen last for teams in middle school Physical Education classes).  How many of us have dropped the "talking stick" when it got hurled at us by some ex-jock across the table?

But back to the point:  Chris says that, generically, a good facilitator will purposely throw a group off-guard by surprising them, in order to get them to actually engage in the facilitation.   And indeed, this is advice you can get from other facilitation coaches as well, once you know to look for it.  A good facilitator, as Impact Factory suggests, will "try something different. Take a look at what happens in your meetings and try to 'do' something to the environment or how the meeting is run or how you handle the attendees so you can get people more alert, thrown off guard or surprised."  Note that the good facilitator still needs to reserve a room and make sure there are white board markers.  Surprise is not a substitute for preparation--it is a vehicle for communication.
Career advancement context
Let's return to you and your career--consider your networking partners a group, and consider yourself the facilitator.  And let's return to Sallie Krawcheck for a moment, as well.  Krawcheck didn't get to the cover of Forbes by being a mousy conformist.  If you do a little research, you will find that she is famous for working 90 hours per week, always being ruthlessly well prepared, and putting herself out there.  She spent six weeks personally wooing thought leaders at Bank of America one on one before she took on her executive position there, and turned a slam-dunk disaster into a very effective engagement.

Your mission, should you accept it (and that's a big "if," for some of us, unfortunately), is to take a page from the Krawcheck playbook and to ambitiously own the responsibility for taking your career in some specific chosen direction.  Where do you want to be in 1 year, in 5 years, in 10 years?  Let's say you want to be Chief Information Officer, presiding over larger and more complex organizations.  Or let's say you want to be a career change agent who is constantly in demand, getting more and more interesting engagements, where you catalyze change in a whole bunch of disparate organizations.

Like the facilitator, out at Office Depot at midnight looking for a flip chart for tomorrow's meeting, and like Krawcheck, you need to prepare.  You need to know what a person in your next goal position does, and be able to make a case for why you have the potential to do it, even if you haven't done it before.  You need to know who the key players are who can get you that job.  You need to know what things to say to be convincing, and what things, intrinsic, or extrinsic, to the job you need to be able to talk about fluently.  You should be able to throw off examples of your past accomplishments the way Chris Matts throws off ideas.

But then....

SURPRISE THEM.  Boldly approach people, embracing all of your obvious physical differences, and engage them as equals and peers.  You're prepared--why not take advantage of your audience's stunned silence and say something?  Are you over 50?  Wear your pince-nez proudly, and scare that whipper-snapper from the game industry by engaging them in sensible conversation about the future of the Xbox.  Are you a woman?  Wear a dress!  Not a revealing, provocative dress that breaks any rules of propriety, but not a man-tailored grey suit either, if that doesn't look good on you.  Then talk about calculating NPV on a service portfolio.

Why take this risk?  Why leave the herd?  Two reasons:
  1. Your surprise creates a multiplier effect around your prepared message.  While the person is still gasping internally at your audacity in approaching them, you can say virtually anything intelligent, and sound ten times more impressive than someone who they're expecting to talk with.  
  2. You're fooling yourself if you think you weren't doing it anyway.  If you are the only woman, or only old person, or only person of color, or only transsexual at your business, you are not going to blend in, no matter how many pinstripe suits you wear.  You are hiding your light under an unattractive bushel.  In fact, even if you don't listen to me, and you insist on trying to blend in, you will need to be aware that you have this impact and take measures to avoid scaring your interlocutors into a defensive strategy prematurely, even if they don't act like you've surprised them.
Career advancement can be a cooperative game, but don't make the mistake of thinking it is always that way.  Plan your career like a battle, and don't be fooled by the air kissing at the cocktail party.
It is a standard tactic in warfare for a weaker nation to take on a stronger one using surprise as a strategy.  CACI strategists JP London and Lani Kass point out that "asymmetric foes, unable to take their opponents head on, rely on surprise, shock, and psychological dislocation as force multipliers." They go on to say that the surprising thing is how few underdogs take advantage of their moment of surprise to press forward with a particular agenda:
Ironically, at times the initiator [of the surprise] is too surprised by his initial success to fully capitalize on its impact.  This little known phenomenon - wherein the psychological paralysis and dislocation one intended to inflict on the victim spills over and affects the initiator's own follow-on actions - reflects one of the many dualities inherent in surprise.
Bottom line:  sometimes you can blend in, sometimes you can't, and sometimes you can control your impact in one direction or the other.  By all means, blend while the blending is good.  But where your differences will help you, play them up, don't play them down.  As the inevitable Sun Tzu points out in the Art of War, "All warfare is based on deception.  Offer the enemy a bait to lure him.... Be seen in the West and attack from the East; lure him in the North and strike him in the South.  Drive him crazy and bewilder him so that he disperses his forces in confusion."

Be glad you don't look like anyone else, and go for it.


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