Labeling ourselves

I have always been a dependable person. In high school I followed through on the commitments I made to clubs, earned pretty good grades and had friends from all groups around school. In my professional life I showed up at the right events, talked about topics people expected to hear and joined the type of professional organizations one would expect. In those settings, I often volunteered for roles that fell into the category of – you guessed it – dependable people you can count on. Even in a leadership role I’d often find myself doing work in the background, coordinating events and inviting others to speak.

While I did this and basked in the relative comfort of being known as a capable and thoughtful team player, there was always a little piece of me that wondered what “those other people” knew that I didn’t. The people who raised tons of money for good causes, won awards and effortlessly accumulated (and sometimes declined) speaking opportunities.
Last year during my mini-sabbatical I finally figured it out.

No matter where you reside as you read this, you probably know the people I describe above. They’re the handful of people who are ubiquitous around charitable, civic and business circles. This is the soundtrack that would often run in my head about this group of people:

“When I get that next promotion, I’ll have the right title to join that group.”

“I said yes to the role this year because they didn’t have anyone else. I’ll just keep the trains running on time for now and let next year’s chair address those things because he’s more knowledgeable.”

“I’m just a PR person; not a lawyer, investment banker or corporate executive. I can support the effort but I don’t really have access to the kind of contacts I need to make that happen.”

How much B.S. is that? It’s a lot.

Each time I said something like that I gave myself permission to stay in that dependable role of “doer”. I never gave myself permission to be a person who makes things happen. Even though I could. How many times did I hear myself say, “Give me a job. Sure I’ll do that, I’m a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person.” Yes that’s true but I really didn’t give myself much credit for my other pretty significant contributions. I’m also a strategist, an adviser, a connector, a speaker and a probably a whole lot more.

Last year’s break from the corporate world was very eye-opening for me on so many levels. Once I was stripped of my corporate creature comforts like a job description, a boss who could bestow an “attagirl”, business cards with a fancy title and a recognizable employer; the only thing left was me. I had to figure out what I was willing to say about myself; how much credit I was willing to give myself, and how seriously I was willing to accept myself as a contributor to the business world. Unfortunately I realized I’d been labeling myself as that dependable doer for a long time. I wore it like a badge of honor.

And the irony is, when I asked friends and colleagues as part of a business planning exercise what they thought were my best attributes the words that came back were creative, strategic, results-oriented, polished and even risk-taker. Not one person said dependable!

So the secret to cracking the code on that inner circle? There really isn’t one. One of the best lessons I learned being my own boss was that if you think you’re capable and deserving, you are.

Sometimes it takes a major jolt to our routines or forcing us out of our comfort zones to learn this. While the last several years have not been without bumps in the road, I’m grateful for the learning opportunity. It has made me realize I can be peers with lawyers and accountants, I can write confidently about non-PR topics, and I can network with the best of them.

To be honest I’m not sure I would have done this so determinedly if I were still in my comfortable surroundings in Boston. As much as I loved the roles I occupied there, I also realized I had gotten so comfortable I may have wrongly imposed limitations on myself.

We already know slapping labels on others is bad, yet many of us do it to ourselves. I’m ready to give myself a break from that!

Now when I get ready to attend a networking event I think a little less about being dependable and little more about being creative, strategic and results-oriented!