How to Summon Courage and ‘Get on the Bus’

I know we’re well past the first day of school, but recently I was joking with some co-workers about how it seems that during the holidays the kids are out of school more than they’re in! Between national holidays, teacher conventions and the big holidays, it feels like the season conspires to winnow school days down to a minimum.

It makes me laugh and remember… The first day of school typically is filled with anticipation, excitement and nerves regarding the unknown. Going back to school is a yearly reminder of being pushed into an unfamiliar environment — a possibly uncomfortable environment. Stepping into the unknown teaches resilience; and, it lays the groundwork for a lifetime of taking risks.

Anticipation, excitement and nerves are healthy; they’re also generally temporary feelings that soon disappear if you’re willing to work through them. They’re reminders that something big is about to happen, and they force us to ground ourselves and take stock of how we want to show up in our new environment.

This year, I remember that for my daughter, her energy was focused on planning the right thing to wear on the first day of high school. I’m sure that was a comforting way to focus the anxiety of a new school, teachers, friends and experiences.

My first day of school was quite different.

My family emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1982, seeking the American Dream, limitless opportunity and access to higher education. I didn’t speak English. I went to my first day of school clutching a small, brown Swedish-English pocket dictionary.

Dressed in an “American” Oxford dress my dad bought, I summoned all of my courage and got on the bus — all by myself. It was the most uncomfortable moment of my life, and the feeling of anxiousness is as real today as it was when I was eight years old. But with that first step, I started a lifelong journey of welcoming the unknown, building my courage, improving my focus, and trying not to show when I’m scared out of my wits!

As it turns out, I survived that first day, and I thrived in my new environment. It was a life-shaping experience and one that has influenced my approach to work, life and leadership. As a result, I try to take every opportunity to encourage my team to test their own resiliency thresholds.

One example is a meeting I recently hosted in a Miami warehouse, where I encouraged my ADP TotalSource® leadership team to take chances and express their “real” selves.

We chose a non-traditional festival theme grounded in inspiration and music. No standard PowerPoints — that alone made some of them a little uneasy. In addition to setting goals and action items, I suggested that we paint a wall of graffiti together. I wasn’t sure how the group would respond, which left me feeling vulnerable as a leader (and reignited a tinge of that first-school-day anxiety). Then, the first few daring team members started painting their individual contributions…and something amazing happened.

One by one, everyone stepped up and started connecting their individual creations into one larger work of art. Coming together as one, the graffiti exercise went from an awkward and uncomfortable experience to a symbol of collaboration and team.

Today, I continue to focus on sustaining that spirit of collaboration. I ask myself and my colleagues: How do we build greater velocity? How do we keep pushing ourselves and our businesses forward?

To get started, here are some basic questions we’re asking ourselves:

1. When was the last time you personally felt vulnerable?

2. When was the last time you and your team took a risk?

3. Are the excuses you give yourself and others for not taking a risk real? Are they actually material or really trivial?

4. Are you standing in the way of speed and the ability for your team or colleagues to be nimble?

To begin to answer some of these questions, I encourage them to think of the feeling they had on their first day of school, first day at ADP, first day on a new team or in a new position. I also remind them that it’s important to understand that not all the risks you take will turn out to be successful. Celebrate the ones that fail as much as the ones that succeed. Learn from them. Commit to having faith in your teammates and enable them to make decisions on your behalf. Trust.

In the months and years ahead, our success will require collaboration, courage and innovation, and bold leadership. At times we may find ourselves in an uncomfortable environment. Don’t run from it; embrace it.

In short: Get on the bus.