How to Effect Change at Work When You’re “The First” or “The Only”

An executive was recounting a recent work “failure” and asking for some advice. She had been brought in to a software product company to add her UX (user design) experience. And, despite all her best efforts to apply her distinct perspective and vision to the company’s goals, she felt frustrated that, really … nothing changed. She recounted how she had started off feeling so grateful to join, then slowly frustrated (and, later, angry) by how little she was listened to, and then ultimately disappointed in herself as she walked away from the company, ineffectual in applying her design-thinking skills to what the company clearly needed (and yet resisted).

She was the First. And Only. And, not very able to effect change.

Based on research, this is not that unusual, actually. Most people celebrate “the firsts” who get asked to join organizations, as key “change-makers”. As a recent example of this celebration: Time recently created a compilation of 1st women leaders across different domains, adding a sub-tag that “these are the women who are changing the world.”

Key Change Making Distinctions

While it’s true that by their very presence, the women that Time featured have “changed” something. A woman (in place of a man) serving as an executive, or celebrated for being top of one’s field. This is one framework of change, where change is defined as an equivalent substitute; to be an equal in a field where once women were shut out is one form of change.

Change can also be the ability to create a different outcome, to alter the way things work, or transform what is created. In this 2nd definition, most “firsts” don’t change much. The data says that whenever any of us represent a marginal point of view — when we’re less than 15% of the total — we experience three things that constrain our ideas:

  1. We feel highly watched and thus have a burden of performance pressure.
  2. We feel isolated and excluded from social settings (which is where relationships and trust are built) that would enable us to succeed.
  3. We feel tremendous pressure to assimilate to the group’s norms.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, an HBR professor whose expertise is on change-making described this pattern of behavior as part of “tokenism”, defined as difference being allowed in, but in such a small amount as to never affect the power structures.

People who are “firsts,” “onlys,” or “the exception to the rule” feel this effect.

And, in the case of the UX executive, this distinction of change-making matters for what she was trying to do. If we don’t understand these two distinct definitions of change, we can’t understand why we can be the change but not able to enact change.

“Change Things” By Being a First, But “Enact Change of Direction” Together

If you are a “first” and want to enact changes of direction, I offer some insights I gained by an interview with the editor of the magazine TeenVogue, Elaine Welteroth.

In the below interview, she shares the backstory of how she “transformed” the publication from one that was previously limited to lip gloss to become relevant in engaging the intellectual curiosity of young women. One measure of success is that after years (years and years) of declining circulation numbers, Teen Vogue curtailed the losses and web traffic has more than doubled in the past year.

Elaine joined Teen Vogue as a Beauty and Health editor in 2012, as a first. She was the first black beauty director in Conde Naste’s 107-year history. That is a big First; a lot of Only. And she recognizes this was a big deal. “As you put someone different in a position of power, simply by the law of alchemy, it’s going to change the nature of the conversation.”

But then she said that the first thing she did was to make she didn’t stay the first, and only.

Surround Yourself With People Who Fit Your Future, Not Your Past

Her first hire was her beauty director, Phillip Picardi, “a young gay man.” She says she got a lot of heat for that as people questioned her choice of “a Boy in Beauty.” But, as she brought him in, she describes how it changed the climate for her own leadership.

“Together, Phillip and I created a safe space for those who feel othered.”

Onlyness Is The Opposite of Otherness

To be othered is to focus the things that makes someone different from others, often using irrelevant things like age, gender, color. To focus on otherness is to pay attention to the ways you don’t belong; to focus on onlyness is to focus on what makes you uniquely and meaningfully yourself, so the point of connection isn’t on the superficial points of difference but on what you distinctly bring to the table. Otherness takes away the capacity to contribute; Onlyness enables it.

If you are “other” by societal definitions, you need to find those who actually see you for who you are.

As Welteroth describes it, their relationship changed each other, “Phil had never had a black friend, now his boss was a black woman. My exposure grew by knowing his experience as a gay man. We cared for each other, and we saw each other as humans. Ultimately, we created a space to show up as our full selves.” It wasn’t just that she added a person who was “different” like her; that’s the starting point. As she created the kind of peer-to-peer conversations that let people “show up as their full selves”… and in doing so, made it safe enough to try new things, each person is be embarrassed or punished for speaking up.

It’s counterintuitive to understand how to be a change-maker if you’re a first or an only.

Use Your Onlyness to Build Your Community

We can be more ourselves, as we find those who care about the same things as us. This is the power of onlyness. You might look at the fact that Elaine was in a hiring position and think of the ways you are not. But any of us can build a community by finding those who care.

Imagine, for example, if the UX person had found those people at her firm who cared about design, independently of anyone’s job titles. She could have enabled that community by signaling her interest and then surfacing others by creating a regular luncheon seminar (with invited speakers and exercises and video tapes). Then created the conversation on different aspects of design, experience, and user interactions and how it can positively affect all parts of the business. What could have happened in those conversations? Who might she have partnered with to effect change?

NEXT / ACT / DO:

If you are a first or an only, how can you build the community and related safe space so that you can be entirely yourself? Once you’ve done this, you’ll no longer be change making alone, but together. Your odds of success in what you seek to change is that much greater.

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