Over the past couple of years I’ve attended several conferences aimed at innovating, evolving, or just plain reinventing the field of Human Resources. There is one theme speakers and participants have highlighted over and over again: Quit waiting for permission. Figure out what needs to be done and just go do it.
At first I nodded along, thinking, “Yeah! HR needs to get its act together. Stand up and make some noise. C’mon people!” Then I was surprised when the message really hit home. They were talking about me! I resisted it, of course, but it was true. Like everyone else on the planet, I like to believe I do a good job. No, that’s not quite right. I like to believe I do an outstanding job. How could it be? Maybe you can relate.
Looking back on my career, I can see how far too much of it was spent waiting for permission. Once I was given a task, project, or even a general direction to move in, boom!, it was done and done well. I still take pride in the work I did, but am not happy with the realization I wasn’t initiating as much as I thought. Doing what I’m asked – even doing it well – isn’t the same as being bold.
Other times, I saw what was needed, asked for permission, and took the answer at face value. If it was “yes” I moved forward. If it was “no” I moved on to other things, figuring there are so many things needing to be done and so many ways to do them, very few were hills worth dying for. But some of those were worth fighting for.
Then there are other moments. The times I am most proud of because I created something truly different. The times I saw a need and took action. I sought input, experimented and piloted possible solutions in a low-cost/low-risk way, and then had proven results to use as a case for rolling out on a much bigger scale. These weren’t the moments of just polishing up what I was already doing. It was creating something new and different. These are the moments I’m most proud of, the moments I wish there were even more of.
There’s an old saying that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. It’s generally true simply because people tend to reflexively say “no” to new ideas when they don’t understand them, but when they see the idea in action – even if it doesn’t work out – it’s easier to understand the intention and purpose and say “yes”.
As I look back, I realize that company leadership liked those moments too. They liked being shown what could be done instead of having to think it up on their own. They liked seeing what was possible instead of wondering if they should ask. They liked knowing we were pushing for bigger results instead of meeting the minimum expectations.
I am not suggesting HR (or anyone) runs amok and does what they want regardless of policy, protocol, or permission. That’s not greatness, that’s anarchy. I am suggesting that there is so much that can be done without waiting for executive leadership to come up with ideas on their own or decide it’s a great idea. So much that can just put into place and then explain why it was necessary. If we need approval, get approval, but think small. It’s much easier to get the approval to do a small experiment than it is to roll out a new company-wide program; and it’s much easier to get permission to continue than get permission to start.
It would be easy to look back on my own career and be satisfied. I’ve done all that was asked and more and usually went above and beyond expectations. But so what? I want to play bigger, push back the barriers, give the status quo a good kicking, and create outstanding results. I want to pursue greatness.
And I can’t do that by asking for permission.