The following is a fictional story inspired by true events. All references, real or otherwise, are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.
Clay sunk into one of the conference room chairs and pulled himself to the table. He and his supervisor, Alice, sat at the corner so they wouldn’t be separated as much as they would sitting across from one another. This little habit was one of the ways their company’s leadership tried to help employees feel like members of a single team: they avoided reinforcing “leaders vs. employees” language as much as possible.
“How are you feeling?” Clay asked, cracking open his notebook to a blank page.
“Good. I got a lot of rest this weekend; John took care of all the stuff around the house I was dreading. He’s sweet.”
“That’s great. So you’re pretty much back to normal?”
Alice hesitated, smiling. “Maybe 90 percent today. Still congested.”
Clay nodded and looked down at his notebook.
“So,” Alice began, “How was the conference?”
“Yeah, um,” Clay fully anticipated the question, but still found himself at a loss for words. He leaned forward on his elbows and glanced around the room.
“It was pretty hard.”
“Okay. What made it hard?”
“I think just being there by myself, rather than having you or Jerome there too, was the hardest part.” Clay paused, flipping through the memory of the previous weekend.
Alice had been out of the office since Wednesday afternoon, when she left with a fever and all the symptoms of a bad cold. Though she had always been in charge of running their booth at this annual conference, she appointed Clay to run it on his own while she recovered. They agreed before she left that it would be a “growing experience” for him — a way to get him out of his comfort zone.
“I definitely understand that, but remember, that’s why I wanted you to do it.”
Clay bristled and spoke quickly. “But I’m not sure now that it was a healthy way to leave my comfort zone. There’s a difference between trying something new and taking on an overwhelming responsibility, especially on short notice.”
“What was overwhelming?”
“Not that the whole thing was overwhelming, just certain parts. Like when people would ask me really specific questions that I can’t answer, since I haven’t even been here a full year yet. I just haven’t been able to soak in the culture or get a handle on all our procedures and that really made me feel . . . .” Clay shook his head. “I don’t know, unqualified.”
Alice nodded slowly. She hadn’t expected such a negative reaction from Clay, who was normally a highly ambitious worker with big plans and relentless positivity.
They continued to sit in silence while Alice pulled her thoughts together. “You’re not unqualified, though. I would have canceled our booth if I thought you were.”
“Still, I just felt so out of place, being the youngest person there . . . .”
“Being young has nothing to do with being qualified. Some young people lead companies to incredible success. And some leaders with an entire career’s worth of experience lack the basic ability to connect with others.”
Clay nodded. He could understand Alice’s idea and perspective, but he struggled to really believe it.
“The reason I wanted you to go by yourself is to give you a frame of reference. Now you know how first-timers feel, right?”
“So, what are you going to be able to do next time you attend any kind of networking event or conference?”
“I’ll know what to look for in other people and help them feel like they belong.”
Alice nodded and reached for the small pack of tissues she had brought with her. “That too, but what about yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“How are you going to make yourself feel worthy of being at those events? Anywhere for business, for that matter.”
Clay thought for a while, tapping his notebook with his pen.
“Maybe by taking ownership of why I should be there. For the things I love, like improving processes and learning software, I always feel like I own what I do. But for meeting people or networking, it feels like I’m struggling to keep up with everyone else. I just feel lost.”
Alice interjected, “Well, there may be a few people who really love those events, but I bet you’re less alone in feeling ‘lost’ than you think. Some people go to conferences because they’re passionate, others,” Alice gestured to Clay, “are told to go by their superiors.”
“Okay.” Clay leaned forward and folded his hands. “So, next time you assign me another ‘growing’ experience—” Alice smirked at his sarcasm. “I’ll spend more time preparing for it. I’ll try to internalize the desire to do uncomfortable things and decide that I will have a positive experience no matter what happens.”
He looked deep in thought, his brow tight and gaze focused on the center of the table.
“And remember that you can always come to me, Jerome, or any other leader when you need something. We’re here to give you tools for success, not to abandon you to things you aren’t good at.”
Clay’s expression cleared. He looked at Alice, who hadn’t broken eye contact through nearly the whole conversation.
“Thanks. Is that all?”
“Not quite,” Alice said. “I want to ask you something.”