Standing out without standing down

By Angela Armstrong

This past summer, I spent a wonderful week with my husband in the mountains, off the grid.

Where we went, there is no cell signal, the biffies are composting, and the only things to do are take long walks around, or kayak in, the small fishing lake and light a fire at night while watching the magical Milky Way brighten in the darkening sky.

It’s completely relaxing; and it’s an important annual reminder to me that while we live in this increasingly fast-paced digital metaverse, things that matter are refreshingly analogue.

My career roots are also rather analogue. I’ve been in the asset financing industry since I left the University of Manitoba with a fresh bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminology. I thought I would end up a lawyer.

I actually ended up in finance (there’s a long story there!) When I started my career in finance, to credit-approve a client, we literally snail-mailed them a hard copy application, then waited patiently. 

All the work of phoning people for references and fact checking the details they provided were using non-digital sources. The internet was only a couple of years old when I started my finance journey. We used phone books and relied on a bunch of knowledge and experience that credit experts earned over years of work in the industry. The oral tradition, and lots of paper files, were critical to us. 

It seems incredible now. How did we get things done? 

Slow and steady

Of course, the pace was also much different. The technology that we have activated in the credit and finance world over the last 30 years has contributed to a tremendous amount of growth potential, which I believe has enabled a ton of innovation and entrepreneurial activation in our economy. And it happens so FAST now; we just don’t have the luxury of a snail-mail pace in business anymore. Our expectations and behaviours have changed forever. 

But this pace is exhausting sometimes. My antidote to breakneck speed is off-grid, a.k.a. snail-mail mode.

Back then, a lot of other things were different too. I was one of extremely few women in the industry in Canada. I recall attending an industry conference around 1990. Standing in the huge hotel conference room, I could literally count on one hand the number of females in a room of hundreds of energetic finance professionals.

Back then, to get along as a woman in a predominantly male industry, my success strategy was to fit in. How did I know I was having success? When I heard the compliment “You’re like one of the guys.”

Back in those days, I accepted this as it was meant – a compliment. I guess to be kind to my younger self, I can say that I succeeded in blending in. In those days, I believed a key to success was to be a chameleon.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that getting along with others or finding common ground are bad objectives. Aligning yourself with others on a values basis is healthy. Learning where your goals overlap is absolutely essential in business relationships and in life.

Fitting in is not a bad attribute, but I’m sure glad that being a chameleon is no longer necessary, or desirable, to achieve success.

Fitting in, but at what cost?

I am often asked to reflect on what I believe makes a great organization. There are many things I think are important, including having energetic, smart people who raise one another up. A certain amount of work tension between people who are NOT like one another, though, is just as critical.

We all know what happened when group think caused the Challenger space shuttle team to ignore internal team warnings about those ill-fated O rings. In business, group think is literally deadly. 

“So,” you might ask, “wasn’t all that ‘fitting in’ good for your career? You’re President of your own finance business, have held leadership roles across the industry, and have been invited to some amazing tables. That looks pretty successful!”

And I’d say, you’re right. 

I learned skills from people who were very talented. I got along with lots of people and had a huge cohort of friends. I had a lot of fun. I have been mentored by exceptional people and encouraged to strike out on my own. 

But was the end always worth the means?

During those years of getting to success, that getting along sometimes got me into some sticky spots, and ultimately a health crisis. That part wasn’t fun at all. 

Standing up, striking out

It’s much easier with hindsight to deconstruct moments of truth. We do it in our customers’ business journeys all the time, trying to pinpoint opportunities for change and growth. Mine came when I literally hit a wall – a health wall. At that moment, I decided I had to go my own way, or risk the most important thing I possessed.

Fitting in as a strategy isn’t new. Immigrants from around the world choose to change their names and try new adopted-country practices to fit in to an unfamiliar culture. Someone probably just popped into your mind as you read that. So no, fitting in isn’t a new thing.

However, it’s not optimal either to ask people to give up what makes them uniquely them. I’m not talking about ignoring basic community laws, by the way.

But, in business, we all know the risk as leaders of hiring people too much in our own image. It’s awesome to be surrounded by folks with whom we really see eye to eye. In the long run, though, what we end up with is an organization that feels really comfortable. 

This type of comfort, unfortunately, to borrow from Pink Floyd, is like being comfortably numb. I’m pretty sure that in the song they weren’t suggesting numbness was a good state of being. 

Diversity creates space for improvement

Diversity of ideas, opinions, experiences, and personalities makes for robust conversations, and data prove that it leads to better risk management, a happier and more inclusive environment, and more profitability. That’s all true, but there’s another good reason: the health of your team. 

Trying to pretzel yourself into someone else’s idea of “fitting in” feels like it sounds – interesting at first, but, over time, you simply begin to feel like a fraud everywhere. If you’re trying to build a great business, you’ll want to think about this too: healthy tension is the kind that provokes conversation, that challenges conventional wisdom just enough to keep us from getting stale and irrelevant.

However, unhealthy tensions arising from acting outside of your own values compass causes otherwise good people to spiral into depression, anxiety, and loss of behavioural and emotional controls. There is a literal correlation between feeling that you’re acting inauthentically and deteriorated mental health.

A little stress is good. Distress not so much.

A little stress helps us grow; it’s why that proverbial ‘learning curve’ is so darn tiring. There’s healthy stress though, and there’s a state of distress that is debilitating. 

Living in an environment where you don’t get to show up authentically, as the vulnerable, creative, accountable human being that you are capable of being in good circumstances, has a huge negative impact over time – and this damages relationships, the work environment, and bleeds into home life and physical health.

None of that predicts a great outcome, for the person, or for the organization.

As a business leader, this is difficult. It’s much harder to lead people very different from you, but it’s also much more valuable – assuming you agree on the ground rules, values and objectives that you DO have in common, and a way to communicate about your differences. 

When I look back at my moment of health crisis more than two decades ago, that decision was that I absolutely had to forge a new path – one that was authentically mine while still aligning with the core values and objectives around me.

That’s when I found real success. 

Taking the not-so-easy road

It wasn’t always easy. Being different can also lead to being misunderstood, judged, and excluded, even by well-meaning folks.

Today, if someone called me “one of the guys,” I would reflect on what I was doing and try and see if I was chameleoning again. It’s a hard habit to break. I would also work hard to ensure that if I did happen to be trying to ‘fit in’, it was intentional. Sometimes it might be the right choice.

I am so grateful for the amazing people I have somehow attracted into my life, that honour the authentic me and allow me to continue to grow and learn, even while I surround myself with new challenges and deliberately put myself (often) into uncomfortable situations. But it’s intentional and measured, and I know what I’m looking for. I also know when it’s the wrong place to be, and I can make an exit. 

Embrace the differences, embrace yourself

These are the kind of ruminations I have while staring up at that Milky Way during my off-grid time. I am really glad I no longer feel the need to live as a reflection of someone else. It’s so much healthier, for me anyway. 

If there is one thing we’ve learned in spades from the last two years, it’s that the societal warehouse of social sameness is often just a façade. Underneath that homogenous roof are rooms full of challenging and provocative disparity and diversity.

Also under that roof is a room that allows us each to show up as uniquely ourselves, too. 

I’m going to keep opening the door to it, because I know that it’s okay to stand out a little.

Angela Armstrong is President of Prime Capital Group, a national equipment finance organization. She started her finance career on the Prairies with a Winnipeg start-up and now calls Edmonton home. Angela is active in the community and serves on industry, for-profit and social purpose organization boards, as well as being an angel investor and a passionate change agent.