Let me begin by saying that I’m an ordinary man living an extraordinary life. I am because of people--influential ones--who saw me as being capable of doing more. As a result, they gave me opportunities way bigger than the job I was doing and the title I had. You are reading this blog because you want the same thing to happen to you. Here’s how:
First, in life people will see you three ways:
See you as being more than the labels society put on you. For example, the person who gave me my first big break was an English professor, when I was coming off of major knee surgery my sophomore year in college. Everyone else saw me as a basketball player. (I’m 6’7” tall and was in college on a basketball scholarship.) People thought I would never recover. He saw me as someone who was capable of much more—someone who had to re-invent himself. To achieve more, I had to improve my communication skills. He helped me do so. He didn’t have to but did. I will get to why he and others did later in the blog.
See you as only what you do or the label that has been put on you. To many others, because the lens in which they see people has become so narrow, they are only able to see what they think or heard. (i.e., they will stereotype you.)
Not see you all. You will be the invisible man to them. You will because they only associate with people like themselves. Everyone else is invisible to them. For example, think about the time people have walked right past you without acknowledging your presence. Nothing makes you feel worse than when that happens. I will always remember when I was a programmer how the director of the Information Technology (IT) group would walk pass me every morning without speaking.
The people who saw me as being capable of more did so because of a connection we made. It wasn’t because of anything I did other than doing whatever job I was doing the best I could. It was because they took the time to learn my story. In the process, there was something about my story that connected with theirs. For example, my college professor had a major injury in which he had to also re-invent himself. In another case, the CEO found out that my father had died when I was only 10 years old, causing me to start working various jobs (throwing newspapers, cutting grass, busboy, etc.) to provide financial support to my family. The same thing happened to him at that age. He took me from leading IT to running businesses. The last example is when I went from running businesses to overseeing them. (i.e., being on board of directors.). In that case, I connected with the chairman of the board and CEO of the company because they both had careers that spanned different functions, industries, and geographies.
In all of the cases, the influential people stopped and asked me about myself—not during an interview, but in the course of me doing my job. Note: You won’t get an interview unless some type of connection is made.
In reflecting on my life’s journey, I’ve come to realize that exceptional leaders take the time to learn other people’s stories—people not like them on the surface, but are underneath. For that reason, I made the time to get to know people when I was in leadership positions. I did by scheduling time to walk the halls, eat in the cafeteria, visit customer service, plants, and ride with our salespeople and truck drivers. In the process, I got to know a lot of people’s stories and gave them opportunities far greater than what they were doing.
In summary, it is incumbent on people in power to get to know those who aren’t. When leaders do, great things happen, not only for others but also for them. Speaking of you, you have to be ready to give the 30-second version of your life’s journey when they ask. Focus not on your successes but the adversity you have overcome; the things you have done; and the difference you have made. Doing so will let them see what you are capable of, not what you do or the label society has put on you.
James Dallas is the author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail and an accomplished senior executive. As president of James Dallas & Associates, he consults with and speaks to companies and organizations about managing change. He has been named one of the most powerful black men in corporate America several times in his career by Black Enterprise and Savoy magazines.