I listened recently to Ryan Hawk’s Learning Leader podcast episode with Seth Godin who is, as anyone in the branding industry knows, an absolute guru when it comes to branding and marketing.
The two discussed the concept of random act of initiative where you see an opportunity, grasp it and see what happens.
This is very personally relevant topic for me as I have somehow always been proactive but also grasped opportunities by random acts.
In fact, I often think my brain has as its standard setting for such random acts of initiatives; not all of them are great and doable, but I do have a knack in identifying opportunities and then at least having a go to see what could happen.
My latest random act is WonderWomen, a group of early career scholars (all women obviously) at my university who are doing their PhDs or have just finished their PhDs and are pondering about their options and what to do.
I’ve started the group because I feel that during the last two years, I have had personal breakthroughs and have amassed a lot of learning about leadership, branding and career development that can be helpful for others as well.
Much of our PhD and post-doc education and training is often focused on how to write good papers, how to harness grant opportunities, and how to write well.
Mind you, these are key attributes of good researchers and in academia, these are pretty much the must-haves if you want to develop a good academic career.
Yet, these do not always address core individual aspirations of who we want to be, how do we want to be known by, and what our career goal or vision is that drives us.
By brainstorming with this group and having consistent meetings, I believe that these individuals (all who are already good at what they do) can develop their capabilities further and also support each other in committing to those things that matter to them.
A friend of mine said that I need to be careful not to exert additional pressure on the participants so that being part of this group makes them feel more pressured at work.
The beauty of this group however is that each individual will commit to what she wants to do.
It is up to these women to set their own goals, and for us others to support them on this journey.
It is what some would term “sisterhood in leadership” more than anything else.
This is of course my idealised view of what it will be and I am relying on these women to be open and transparent in giving feedback and also letting me know where I am being helpful and when I need to do something differently.
But most of all, I am humbled by the fact that these women are putting their trust in me as an emerging leader.
Yet, in many ways, such random acts of initiatives will set us apart, and the question we all ask is how we can really stand out in our chosen area.
How to stand out for real
A great resource for people to think about in this regard is Dorie Clark’s book “Stand Out: how to find your breakthrough idea and build a following around it”. (If you want a quick summary, listen to Dorie in Coaching for Leaders episode 189).
I have to say I am consistently impressed by Dorie Clark, by her depth of experience and insights, and the way that she is able to communicate these to others who can then harness these lessons learned.
The book offers timely insights on idea development based on Dorie’s own experience, interviews with some of the leading figures in branding and leadership, and literature.
She beautifully debunks the myth about creativity and innovation (that only pure genius come up with such ideas):
“Big ideas aren’t hatched by a rare breed of intellectuals living in isolation. Instead, they come from regular people who are willing to ask the right questions and stay open to new ways of looking at the world” (p. 17).
For us to start thinking about big ideas all we need really is to ask the right questions, and then be prepared to act on them.
She also calls us to question the field we are in, to question those basic assumptions that everyone else takes granted, because
“Every field has useful guiding assumptions. Received wisdom saves time – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel- and stops you from pursuing fruitless leads, but it can also be a trap, preventing you from exploring new ideas”. (p. 19)
Some assumptions are right and can be trusted, but in many cases once people start blindly believing in some operational principles, they often cannot see new ways of doing things, or miss the opportunity to make a change that gets better results.
What the book does also well is to provide lots of guiding questions for each theme that is covered.
These questions can really propel you forward in your idea development if you take the time to actually jot down your answers and do a bit of research even what e.g. main trends are in your field, but also on what is missing.
The key lesson here again is that there are many people who have the same opportunities as you, might know what you know, might even think like you.
But they are not willing to do the work to get where you are heading to.
Sounds simple, right?
Yet, it’s amazing how many examples there are in this book where someone just started to put a little extra effort in an area that they did not even necessarily have professional expertise in (e.g. degree or course), and were noticed because of their hard work and thoughtful valuable contributions.
We all develop a wide set of skills and expertise in life but it is knowing how to harness those (or not even knowing but having a go) that can change the way we think about a career or opportunity.
Lessons for climate adaptation
For someone like me who has been researching the conventional wisdom we hold about climate change adaptation, reading this book has been so refreshing.
We need more people asking the right questions, asking why adaptation is done or is supposed to be done in a particular way, and whether there are better ways or means to do something that we all seem to be focused on.
We’ve written about the role of ‘adaptation heuristics’ aka rules of thumb that people have started using to define climate adaptation: adaptation is a local issue, it’s a new issue and we have little experience to deal with it, and it’s best addressed through “no-regret” and “win-win” strategies.
Yet, when we have looked at these widespread assumptions (and many of these are luckily changing), we found very conflicting evidence to support these.
These insights and related research did not just come to me by chance.
I studied the field extensively, forged critical collaborations, and most of all kept asking questions that I felt were being ignored.
But in many ways again it was a random act of initiative, a chance I saw and an opportunity to explore something that mattered to me, and I believe that matters for the field as well.
What both the podcast episode and Dorie’s book have reinforced to me is that there are opportunities at our grasp but we need to take these sometimes random acts, and see what they can lead to.
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