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How to Lead Outside of Your Comfort Zone

It would be nice if you could succeed inside your comfort zone. But there are only so many leadership positions and the competition is tough. The path to success is rarely straight.

Try not to think of it as winners and losers. It is more accurate to think of it as winners and adapters. If the niche you’d like to occupy is taken, you just have to find another niche. You have to leave your comfort zone and adapt.

Here are a few tips to help you lead outside of your comfort zone.

1. Stick to the basics

When you come into a new program as a leader, you have to hit the ground running. You aren’t really sure which way is up just yet. Aside from doing some homework ahead of time, you aren’t really prepared for all the nuances of culture or unwritten expectations that await you. So, you need to center yourself around something solid – the basics of leadership.

Leading People – When you come into any new organization as a leader you may feel nervous. But imagine how the people you are leading feel. They are being forced out of their comfort zones. Extend space and grace for that transition, to yourself and your team.

Clear Communication – You will be lost in translation for a while, so be sure to ask clarifying questions and paraphrase your interpretation so that it can be corrected. I like to use visuals to display what I  know so far about the new roles, responsibilities, deliverables and processes.  This helps because it is visible to everyone, they can fill in a gap or correct an assumption. This shortens the learning curve and engages the team.

Getting Results – You have to focus on understanding goals and processes. Sometimes there are unwritten steps and assumptions the team is making that they can’t fully articulate to an outsider. If you notice a gap in what they are saying and what you are seeing, keep asking and close the gap. You may be able to uncover real or perceived barriers that when addressed can increase productivity.

2. Focus on the framework

I love languages. Once I became fluent in French, I decided to learn Spanish. It is structurally similar to French, but it was much easier to learn because there were fewer linguistic nuances to pick up. This experience taught me that once you understand the basic structure, you can learn variants more easily.

Bureaucracy has a general framework with a variety of languages. All programs are generally executed on a PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT model. As a new employee, you are learning that basic framework along with the language of your home program. But once you have a pretty solid grasp of that, you can easily learn new programs. It is just a matter of learning a new language. Listen. Read. Engage. Master.

Practical Tip: Listen to guidance and laws with a PDF reader. This will prime your mind for picking up vocabulary and concepts more easily. I  like to listen on my commute, while cleaning my house or while working out. Every so often I’ll hear a term that sounds familiar and I perk up once a nebulous concept or phrase becomes clear to me.

3. Jump in and trust the process.

I didn’t become fluent in French until I studied abroad for nine months in Lyon, France. All the rules I studied started to make sense because I lived them. Practice is the bridge between knowledge and abilities. You can do your homework about a new program, but until you immerse yourself in it, you won’t really understand it. Get your hands dirty, do the work, make mistakes and learn to master a new program.

Remember, you are practicing a critical life skill: adaption. It is initially about learning to swim in different water. It is not a race! You may not have success right away and you may feel like you are drowning, but don’t focus on that – just keep swimming.

Also, I don’t recommend diving off the deep end. You want to feel a bit uneasy – you don’t want to have a panic attack. Expand your comfort zone slowly and deliberately; get used to being uncomfortable. Comfort zones have limits, but you don’t have to be limited.

Practical Tip: Show up and be the leader the team needs. Listen and observe. What is it that this team needs to help them reach their goals? More freedom or more structure? More energy or more focus? Each team is unique and you should tune in to it and adapt.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected] And to read more from our Spring 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Nefertiti is a Supervisory Life Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is passionate about employee engagement, mentoring and helping people and groups achieve their goals. Her leadership mantra is, “Prioritize people. Simplify processes. Celebrate progress.”

In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing and writing. Nefertiti is the mother of a curious and compassionate seven-year-old, with whom she enjoys rediscovering the world.

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