Colouring outside the lines


I’m sure you remember children’s colouring books.

Learning to colour inside the lines was key.

For small children, training their neurons and muscles to handle fine control by having a line to stay inside of is part of growing up.

At the same time, dealing with a challenging world effectively requires that, from time to time, you have to break through the lines. You have to learn to colour outside them.

That’s hard to do, when you’ve spent a lifetime learning to stay within bounds.

Schooling, of course, is designed to build on early childhood colouring skills. We learn to sit in place, to work to schedules (9:00 language, 10:00 arithmetic, 11:00 science, then homework tonight, homework due next week, test a month from now), to give back the answers that are expected of us.

Yes, as we move up into higher education a little more creativity can come into play — especially in graduate school — but even the doctoral candidate, busy adding to the sum of human knowledge, does so inside a framework they dare not violate (if they’d like to be awarded their degree).

Then we go to work, and let’s just leave the entrainment that comes in cubicle farms alone, shall we?

This is a time, though, when well-established positions can suddenly disappear, and well-known names suddenly go out of business, be acquired to be shut down, or the like.

Personal due diligence to see that it might be coming your way is all very well, but there’s also the question of what to do once you know. That’s one of the places where Personal Due Diligence, the advisors, comes in: not just helping you sort out seeing future threats and opportunities, but also making the sometimes difficult adjustments required to personally capitalize on them.

Those adjustments are the modern career management equivalent of having to suddenly colour outside the lines.

I’m reminded here of a comment made by David Bolchover, in his book The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out, the shocking truth about office life. He was relating his own experience working for an insurance company that (literally) “lost him”: he’s been given permission to take a leave of absence to do an MBA, and when he returned two years later (and two reorganizations later) they’d left him off the org chart. So he was told to stay home (he’d be paid) while they sorted out a position. He left eighteen months later, never having worked again.

His comment: in a big firm, you have your box and you stay in it. In a small firm, you have to be a jack of all trades, but there’s always work to do.

For someone who’s spent much of their career in a large organization, suddenly moving to a small one is a period of intense culture shock. All of a sudden there isn’t a person over here or a unit over there who “does that”. If it’s going to get done, it can’t be passed off from you (and your team: this isn’t a commentary on the vice of not delegating!).

Increasingly, in today’s economy, people are suddenly finding themselves outside the lines of the life they’ve led.

Trying to rebuild that life in a setting not suited for it is a good way to fail — and end up even further outside the lines than before (your original work doesn’t want you back because you’ve “been away from it too long and besides we only hire from our competitors” and peers of the type of place you just failed at don’t respect you).

Colouring outside the lines, in other words, can’t be an accidental act. You can’t just “start a business” because you’re no longer the Third Sub Assistant to the Deputy Vice-President in Charge of Closet Space — or because you’re no longer the Chief Executive Officer of a publicly-traded company. You can’t just jump blindly from a firm of 30,000 people to one of 30, or 300, or (most likely) even 3,000, either.

You most definitely can succeed at any of these, but not blindly. It must be conscious, and you must be aware of the liabilities you bring with you.

(The same, incidentally, is true if you’ve spent a number of years in self-employment, or in small organizations, and suddenly make the jump to “the big time”, taking on a senior role in a large enterprise. Or if you’ve spent a lifetime in the private sector and now find yourself in the public sector, or the reverse. The passive voice and appearance of compliance cannot be donned, nor shucked, overnight.)

That’s why personal due diligence is three words. Diligence is obvious: trying to ferret out the situation ahead of time, knowing as best you can what’s coming at you so you can respond. Personal is less obvious: it’s as much about you as it is about global affairs, labour market trends or other big issues. The due in the middle shows that there’s a price to be paid, and that you owe it to yourself to do so.

Otherwise, when it’s time to colour outside the lines (or swim in the blue ocean, find yourself dumped into the realm of chaotic order, or whatever other metaphor you find works for you) you’re more likely to make your situation worse than better.

Isn’t it time you managed your risks proactively?

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