Escape Zoom: What has pushed you out of your comfort zone as a leader?

There’s a saying that before you become a leader, success is all about growing yourself. Once you become a leader, success is about growing others. 

How you define success changes as you grow through your career. But what doesn’t change is where that growth happens: outside of your comfort zone. 

In our latest Escape Zoom session, we assembled a wide-ranging group of leadership luminaries and asked: “What has pushed you outside of your comfort zone as a leader?”. 

Those sharing their experiences included:

Rachel Phillips, Brand and Marketing Director, Freshwave 

Andrew Dimitriou, Chief Executive Officer, VMLY&R EMEA

Luke Smith, Founder & CEO, Croud 

Clare Gambardella, Chief Customer Officer, Zopa 

Rana Brightman, Executive Strategy Director at Re

Chris Davies, Managing Director, OMNE Agency 

Fergus Hay, Founder & CEO, Elysian Fields 

Maya Orr, Head of Marketing & Communications, LADBible 

Ranj Begley, Managing Director, Readly 

Paul Cowan, author of Connecting with Clients

Kevin Gohil, Group Chief Transformation Officer, Publishers Licensing Society

Tamara Littleton, Founder & CEO, The Social Element 

Damian Proctor, Head of Strategy & Experience Design, Redweb

Aron Cody-Boutcher, Chief Marketing Officer,

Clare Gambardella, Chief Customer Officer at Zopa, kicked off the session, offering stories from across her career, including her time as a marketer at Procter & Gamble and as Group Chief Marketing Officer at Virgin Active, sharing her perspective on growth, leadership and embracing uncertainty. 

Judgment before experience

Clare shared insights from her career, and reflected on how she approached novel challenges in new roles. When you approach something new, it is easy to begin to doubt what you bring to the table. But Clare underlined you can still lead a team, without ever having truly been in their shoes. 

“When you are pushed out of your comfort zone, trust in your own judgement and experiences.

Regardless of your tenure in a given industry, good leaders can always listen, learn and apply problem solving skills to any situation. Part of getting comfortable with new or different situations is accepting that by coming to problems from a different angle, you can bring great value and fresh insight”

Getting comfortable with ambiguity

Another key skill for leaders is learning to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity. 

To do this, business leaders must be able to set targets and build principles. Having a ‘true north’ goal helps you see beyond the day-to-day hurdles, guiding you through moments of uncertainty. Principles shape your decision and allow you to adapt to rapid change. 

Clare pointed to COVID. When the pandemic hit, nobody had the answers or the experience. It was a moment in which leaders had to put faith in their own judgement, rather than referring to a specific past experience. 

“You won’t always have all the data, or any directly comparable experience, but you cannot allow this to spark choice paralysis. Fear can set in when the perfect answer isn’t clear. But it is far better to make a good decision quickly than a perfect decision late. Very few situations can’t be undone or are fatal. But we can often feel like they are. 

Ambiguity can be more dangerous than an imperfect action. Instead, create a framework which will help you orienteer towards your north star.” 

Surrounding with trust 

Clare’s final point landed on the aspect of trust. Both trusting your own judgement, and surrounding yourself with people who you trust to help you make the right decision through their expertise. 

The best leaders know when to take the wheel – but also when to let the team drive. Embracing the opinions and advice of specialists and experts in your team is a great way to cement authority, share responsibility and work effectively. Giving your colleagues, and yourself, your total trust is the best way to authentically lead. As Clare concluded – growth is meant to be uncomfortable.

The group divided into breakout rooms where they talked about their own experiences in leadership beyond the comfort zone. Some of the discussion points included imposter syndrome, moving from a ‘looser’ more agile environment to a more structured environment and moving from start-up to scale-up and beyond. 

The stress of a new cultural context

An overarching message was the challenge a change in working situation brings. As Fergus Hay of Elysian Fields explained: “The greatest distortion to your comfort zone happens when the context of your work changes. That means that the habits you have developed over ten or fifteen years, suddenly need to change.”

This change can happen at various moments including if your  business is acquired and merged or you change roles yourself. But all these changes speak to a sharp change in culture, to which a person’s habits and leadership style will need to adapt.

Integrating into a new culture is a huge driver of stress, discomfort and uncertainty. Maya Orr shared her experience in moving from the marketing team at Lidl, to LadBible, and the challenges of readjusting from a formal corporate structure to something younger and more dynamic. 

Aron Cody-Butcher shared his experiences of building his firm through Zoom – how do you build a culture through Zoom? How do you get close to your employees – and get them close to each other? How can you inspire trust without ever actually meeting someone? All of this requires leadership. 

Kevin Gohill leads teams through digital transformation projects and discussed the challenges in bringing people with you along this long-term journey. A key insight was that, “while it may feel like you need to drive everyone along with you, it is absolutely okay for some people to not change – as long as the ship keeps moving.”

Build a library of skills

Paul Cowan introduced a nice metaphor in saying that leaders should look at their career as a bookshelf, and should seek to fill the gaps in their knowledge as they grow, building a library of skills which empower you to navigate areas of uncertainty.

The skills include being able to drive conversations around diversity and inclusion. Leaders need to understand how currents change and adapt to these important cultural forces head-on.

Reflecting on the evening, Propeller’s Group Director of Clients and Strategy, Rose Bentley, said: “Every day, leaders grapple with both the excitement and the uncertainty of business transformation while simultaneously supporting colleagues and clients alike. A swan above the waterline, furious pedalling below it. 

Our work with client leaders is designed to get them comfortable living – and thriving – with this tension while building their brand, so it was great to hear how our guests are navigating these waters.”

For more insights from industry leaders, check out Propeller’s Influencer’s Influencer video series and download their insights in a free e‑book here.