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December 16, 2017
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What is holding you back?

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It's time to identify your obstacles and deal with them, rather than allow your preferences and fears to dictate your career path.

Every four years, I watch the Olympics for two weeks. I love seeing the best-of-the-best vie for medals, for records, and for national glory.

Sometimes what is even more compelling than the world-class athletic feats themselves are the human-interest backstories. These personal histories are eye-openers for me. They force me to put aside my preconceived notion that all Olympic athletes are born talented, and that their achievements come to them naturally. Instead, like hurdles in a track competition, many—if not most—Olympic participants have had obstacles to overcome.

Two examples come quickly to mind. The first is Oscar Pistorius, the South African paraplegic. Because of a medical condition, his legs were amputated halfway between his knees and ankles when he was 11 months old. He runs on specially designed blades. Clearly, he had much to overcome, not the least of which was getting the South African Olympic Committee to allow him to participate alongside the "able bodied."

The second example is Katie Bell. In 2007 at the U.S. College Big Ten Championships, the 4-foot-11-inch, 95-pound platform diver got "lost" in a handstand dive off the 10-meter platform and landed flat on her stomach, dislocating some of her ribs and collapsing a lung. Thanks to therapy (both physical and psychological), she made it back onto the diving platform and eventually to the 2012 Olympic Games. She did not let her injuries or her fear stop her from achieving her best.

We are not all Olympic athletes, but each of us wants to excel in our chosen area of expertise. But we also have obstacles, preferences, likes, dislikes, and sometimes even fears. Think about these factors in relation to your job performance. Are they silently holding you back from what you want? Are they keeping you from taking your game to its highest level? It's time to identify these obstacles and deal with them, rather than allow your preferences and fears to dictate your career path.

Commit to change
In our heart of hearts, we know what our obstacles and fears are. Maybe it is public speaking, giving criticism, confronting co-workers or suppliers, or dealing with dissention. These are the things that keep us up at night, that make our pulse race, that make our mouths dry. These are the things we need to do but don't do (or don't do well) because they make us uncomfortable or fearful.

Or we may be doing the correct thing but are doing it in the wrong way because of individual preferences, likes, and dislikes. An example would be speaking too bluntly ("We are all adults; she should be able to deal with it.") or carrying out a task but not following the rules ("Who has time for all that paperwork?").

These shortcomings are hard to detect because they don't bother us like they do others. They are insidious that way. If you are prone to such problems, hopefully they will be highlighted in your annual review or will be brought to your attention in candid conversations with co-workers. Take this feedback to heart. It is a gift, and you need to make constructive use of it.

Like New Year's resolutions, you need to commit to goals and put them on paper (or computer screen, as the case may be). Write down the top two or three things that you believe are holding you back. Only select two or three, at most. That is all a person can effectively work on at one time.

Bear in mind that the list will **italic{never} be finished. Once you are satisfied that one of the obstacles on the list has been conquered, another one will almost certainly pop up to replace it. Your process should reflect the philosophy of kaizen, or constant, continuous improvement. With time, the items on your list will be more about refining a skill rather than conquering a fear.

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." By doing so, she believed, people could overcome their fears and gain confidence in themselves. In our context, that means applying yourself daily to tackling your issues. With your list in mind, marshal your resources. If your fear of public speaking is limiting your career, enroll in Toastmasters. If your difficulty giving criticism is holding you back, find a book about providing constructive feedback. Other possible learning resources include community colleges, online courses, libraries, and firms that offer training or management seminars.

Some companies have a training and development budget that could cover classes that may help you to address your issues. Explore this option. It shows that you are interested in improving your skills and contributing more to the company.

Stay on track
It also helps to apply the old supply chain axiom, "If it can be measured, it can be improved." Track your efforts so you can see your progress. Unfortunately, many of the issues you may be tackling will be of a qualitative nature, which are not easy to quantify. Regardless, you need to record your efforts and your progress—and sometimes the lack thereof.

As an executive coach, I help my clients refine their skills and overcome their obstacles. Part of that process is holding them accountable for the progress they commit to make. I cannot over-emphasize how much being accountable to another person will positively affect your outcomes. Tell someone—a friend, spouse, co-worker, or online support group—about your goals and ask them to hold you to them. Just as having an exercise partner makes you go to the gym regularly, having a support person will provide an incentive for you to follow through on your self-improvement plan.

Most importantly, do not allow yourself to become daunted by your personal weaknesses or past mistakes. Olympian Oscar Pistorius' sporting motto is: "You're not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have." Use your abilities to overcome what is holding you back.

Tim Stratman is founder and president of Stratman Partners Executive Coaching Inc.

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