The uncomfortable comfort zone.

Martina Weinberger on February 17, 2016

Are you asking yourself whether you want to push for partnership?

This blog is written for people working in professional services firms, who have been there for at least three years after qualifying, and who are undecided whether partnership is what they aspire to.

What makes this a difficult question?

For a lucky few, it is easy. One of my coachees told me – “I have wanted to be a partner since I was eight”. He chuckled and went on: “I know it might sound nerdy, but it is the simple truth.”

How lovely for him! But for most people it is much less clear. Why? When I sort through numerous conversations…

It tends to boil down to: Fear and uncertainty.

  • Fear: that you might not make it, despite your best efforts and despite doing everything you could and should be doing. (If you do not know what you should be doing, my next blog will be on “Luck needs organising” – How to start building your partner case.)
  • Fear: that you might not be good enough. Many people I speak to are in awe of the partners around them and cannot imagine being remotely as good as they are… forgetting that those partners have 20+ years more experience and were most likely much less impressive, when they were younger.
  • Uncertainty: will there eventually be a slot? Will the market be “right” when the time comes? Do they value your performance? Uncertainty is often exacerbated by partners who are notoriously shy about giving (positive) feedback even to their highest performers. Clear signals along the lines of, “we can see you as a partner” are about as rare as wild Panda bears.

But fear and uncertainty are lousy advisors!

They lead to misplaced energy and endless circular thoughts. Should I stay? Should I go? What will become of me if I do? What if I don’t?

And I get it: It is hard. You are looking ahead… three years from now, no guarantees, no or very little support, long hours. And you have options, other things you could be doing, head-hunters calling…

Waiting it out is not an option – comfort zones are deceptive.

And because it is hard, what I see many professionals do is: nothing. Rather than taking a decision one way or another, they opt for carrying on. More billable hours, more hard work, more performing wherever “good citizenship” is easily measured. The self-talk often runs along the lines of: “Before I make a push or change anything, I need to learn a bit more, work a little harder, prove some more of something, to somebody.” Often this is fueled by the vague hope that someone will notice.

In a nutshell, many just do more of the same… they stay in their comfort zone.

I hear you mutter in indignation: “She has no clue what it’s like to work in a firm like this! ‘Comfort zone?’ You must be kidding!”

Let me be uncomfortably blunt: Whilst your daily “comfort zone” is most likely full of pressure, long hours and little recognition, it still is what you know, what you have learned to do and what you can do. It is the place where your learning curve was steep in the beginning, but has flattened since …  Staying in your (uncomfortable) comfort zone will give you ever diminishing returns. And over time, most people in “decision limbo” start feeling increasingly overworked and underappreciated.

So it is important to ask yourself honestly:

Why are you still where you are?

You have worked here a few years. You have the brand name on the CV. Your learning curve is levelling off. And yet you’re still there. Some of the most common reasons are:

You are not sure whether you will enjoy another job

There’s only one thing you can do about this. Get more information. Start talking with people and learn what other jobs are really like, get yourself a secondment, talk with your clients beyond the current project…
You like what you hear? Go for it!
You don’t? Why would you not stay where you are and go for the logical (and let’s face it: only) next step? With all you have? Opening yourself to learning? And learn what it takes to be a partner?

You like the job, but not the partner lifestyle that comes with it

Most people who bring this up are using the worst of their partners as their negative example. How would you see this, if you looked at some of the better role models? The “saner” life styles?

Also: how much do you actually enjoy the lifestyle you have right now? More often than not I hear “It is pretty bad and I could not really work more…as it is”. So if you already work this hard,  why wouldn’t you want to shape what you do?

If it is really about lifestyle, you need to get moving. At least negotiate a different time deal with your firm, or start looking into alternatives. Always knowing, that many jobs that pay well and are intellectually challenging tend to come with intense working hours.

And if it is not really about lifestyle and you do like the job: Why not put yourself out there, to learn “partner skills”?

You’re too tired to look for other options, even though you don’t actually like what you are doing

If this is this the reason that you don’t want to be a partner, then there is only one answer: get out. Forgive yourself. It is okay not to like it. There are many different jobs for different people. Your CV won’t look any better for hanging in there any longer. The only good reason for staying at this time is if there is anything you still want to learn, something that will (honestly) help you move into your next role. But be clear about it and “organise” the exposure you need.

You might have other reasons for still being there, and you should explore them. But then…

What if you realise that, on balance, you really like what you are doing? You start having your answer whether you should try and push for partnership.

What if it turns out, that I am not “good enough”?

This might be troubling you still. And it might be a good question, but is it a relevant one? At this point in time? One thing is sure. You won’t find the answer within your “do more of the same” comfort zone. Unless you push outside, you will never know.

Looking at the partners around you, are they all “good enough”? Can they do “it”? Can they all do all of “it”? Can they do it all equally well? From my experience, successful partners come in all sorts of sizes and shapes… they all have strengths and weaknesses; they are human after all. So what makes you believe that you might be so different? That you might be the one who does not have the “right” strengths? That you won’t be able to learn?

Look back 10 years at your younger self. Have you been able to learn since? Are you the same person you were? Why should you not be able to learn from here going forward?

During the first electoral campaign of Angela Merkel, I listened to a debate between two prominent journalists. One argued aggressively that she lacked experience and was hence not fit for office. The other replied: This is a not a job you can actually have experience in, can you? Any new chancellor starts into chancellorship without the experience… and they all learn on the job. Some do well, others don’t. Why should it be different for her?

Partnership in professional services firms is complex, and you cannot learn all aspects of it before being a partner. But you can certainly build relevant experience and the proof of the pudding will eventually be in the eating, as always in life.

So, you are still around, something is holding you where you are. And your development so far has clearly shown you can learn. But it is still difficult to answer the question whether to be or not to be a partner? Is it the lack of certainty whether it will work out? Let me get real again. There is no certainty, there are no guarantees. Only one thing is certain, if you don’t try, you certainly won’t succeed.

So let me suggest, since you are still around, why not

Start with the assumption that you want to be a partner.

As long as you are in the game, play it. Play it with joy, play the whole game, so you can learn to play it even better. Play it to get really good first and foremost. Winning is a possible “side effect” but not the most important aspect of playing.

In partnerships the game is to go for partnership. Don’t be a volleyball player in a football match. It is frustrating for all people involved, above all for the volleyball player.

If you are – despite all the questions you have asked yourself – still around, give yourself permission to say:

This is – for now – my game.

And do what you can to get excellent at all aspects of it, not only the part you have mastered already.  Push yourself outside your comfort zone. Start doing. We learn by trial and error, by success and even more by failure.

Be. In the game.

And enjoy the journey. Feeling fear and uncertainty is human. Letting the fear stop you is a shame.

What steps will you take to explore where you really stand, beyond fear and uncertainty?

What is your first step to join the game, wholeheartedly? For now, for real? I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Keep smiling