Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Step Up

“You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?”

This was the opening paragraph from a great article on self-development in Harvard Business Review aptly titled: “If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone You Won’t Learn Anything

The first paragraph gave me flashbacks to the beginning of my career:

 In New York, we had a group that would meet 4-5 times a year. It consisted of senior level HR executives from the region. The 5’O club now known as Get Five would delve into a topic per session. Panel consisted of moderator and 3 panelists who would each give a 15 minute presentation. What made it unique was that Powerpoint was not allowed.

I was asked by the leader of the group to present at next session. My heart sank. I had never presented before a large group before. Attendance was approximately 200-plus of my peers. It created a quandary for me as I could not back out with a weak excuse. What was I to do? Without letting on to my anxiety, my response was, sure, no problem. When I hung up the phone, I was a wreck. Fight or flight and I was still 6 weeks or so away from the next event.

That was so far out of my comfort zone, which is why the article resonated with me. To this day, I strive to never get comfortable in a space. Learning, real learning requires this.

So, I started preparing. I wrote out my speech and I literally practiced every day for those 6 weeks. I felt then that I had to overcome my fear as this was the beginning of my career. I often tell people today, start prepping for these type of moments. As you rise in your profession you, too, will be confronted with this scenario.

The big day arrives

The big day finally arrived, and I asked to go first. My thought was, go first and get it out of the way. As my time came, there was a sense of calm that came over me, literally out of nowhere, and I realized the prep had taken the anxiety away.

As I neared the end of my 15 minutes of “fame,” a sense of confidence like I had never felt draped over me. The applause was deafening. The next speaker commented, “The next time I present, please make sure that I do not have to go behind Ron Thomas.”

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Next on the checklist.

As the session ended, I reflected on the morning and realized that I liked it and I wanted more opportunities to speak. That comfort zone was shattered and now I was ready to move on.

Fast forward

I now speak all over the world and even have an agent who manages my bookings. Yes, I have come that far. I have lost count of the number of my speaking engagements, but it is easily close to 100. This would never have happened if I did not step outside of the safety area.

We all have our safety areas. Only our inner self knows where the “yellow tape” is located.

Whatever your comfort zone, wherever you are planted the ONLY way you will grow is to step outside that zone. Embrace it, acknowledge it and find a plan to move forward. Mine was public speaking. Conquering it has enabled me to travel the world and get paid for it!

So go ahead, the time is now.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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