Becoming comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

Ted Eichten, Price & Promotion Director in NA, talks about challenges in his career and the importance of honesty, respect and trust.

A summary of your career to date?

I have always been in retail consulting and retail software for better or worse. I started with Accenture where I had my first exposure to dunnhumby when I was working on the Best Buy account and I ran the full gambit of merchandising projects. Ultimately as an employee of Accenture I felt like a number on a spreadsheet (the organisation was too big) and I went to a start-up in the retail software space where I could continue working providing solutions in merchandising.

This was over ten years ago, and it was exciting being part of something on the cutting edge for the time. Small companies can be fun in the sense that there is no game plan or guidelines and it is up to you to make it work. I left for a wide variety of reasons but mostly it was because I recognised that I went from one extreme to the other. I was interested in pursuing some middle ground where I’d have some freedom in what I do, be valued for my contributions (and not a cog in a machine) but also where I’d have some definition around my role and our direction as a company and a sense that I didn’t have to do everything on my own.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve faced in your career?

Learning to be uncomfortable. The only way I have ever grown was by attempting something that made me uncomfortable. Growing up my parents stuck a saying on the fridge from Frank A Clark (the author not the politician) that said: “We find comfort among those who agree with us — growth among those who don’t” and that resonated with me to always make sure I wasn’t getting too comfortable or set in a certain way without testing myself.

Whether it was my first presentation to an exec team, managing my first employee, letting an employee go, taking a position counter to managements, being fully accountable for a major client or anything else that required a “first” or a new skill -I have found that I have often been apprehensive to make a leap into the unknown but I have NEVER regretted it.

What are your most important values?

Honesty, selflessness, equality. What I strive for and appreciate in others is doing the “right” thing, not necessarily what is best for one self or the short term but what is best for all.

What does inclusion and belonging mean to you?

Before I answer I need to add a preamble in regard to this and the next few questions: I feel a sense of pride and some confusion as to why my opinion is even being sought. I will be the first to point out that any adversity I have ever encountered likely pales in comparison to countless others at dunnhumby. That said, per my response about growing from challenges, even though I’m somewhat uncomfortable sharing on this topic I feel if what I have to say can even help one person see things differently that sharing my thoughts would be worth it.

Inclusion and belonging to me means that the starting point in any interaction is one of honesty, respect, and most importantly trust. As an individual we all want to be included and when we feel included and trusted we are more open and engaged. A relationship built on trust whether person to person or as a group, benefits from honesty, an increased sharing of ideas, perspectives, and better collaboration.

When we recognise the humanity in others and appreciate the distinct and unique perspectives that those around us can provide this not only serves to aide ourselves on our own personal development journey (by challenging ourselves) but also helps foster an open and trusting environment.

Trust is so important in our relationships and it requires us all to take a chance on others and when we are in a trusting environment we all benefit. You only need to imagine the opposite (hat tip to Jose Gomes for this technique) to see how important this is.

What value does inclusion or belonging in the workforce bring?

From my experience a team that is inclusive will benefit from everyone feeling that they can contribute, to be honest and open in questions, that all viewpoints have value and are respected, and that everyone is sincerely engaged. Teams built on trust, with people you know you can be open with and rely upon have not only been some of the most successful teams I have been a part of but also the most enjoyable. When team members have been unafraid to ask questions, contribute, and collaborate we have achieved more as a team and have grown more as individuals.

We spend a large part of our lives at work and I believe that if you are not able to be yourself or feel that you are not being valued for who you are – that this will become a constant weight that will be hanging over you. When I haven’t felt able to be open with or able to trust others I have found myself being reserved, guarded, and never totally committed or engaged with a team. I know from talking with friends and family that this can be even more compounded based simply on how different they may be from the rest of their peers or how quickly and easily someone can superficially relate to someone (or not) without getting to know the individual more than skin deep.

Do I understand this to the extent that others have had to deal with it? Absolutely not. I did find myself early in life trying to be all things to all people and this was not only determinantal to myself but did not benefit anyone around me.Life is too short to live under false pretence and trying to do so will be a miserable experience. I found trying to do so will directly impact not only your own engagement, disposition, and relationships but also impact those around you and your teams. Attitudes and outlooks can spread like a virus and a single disgruntled person who does not feel included or engaged will affect everyone around them while true optimism can become infectious.

What are you doing to make sure everyone feels included?

I am always looking for ways I can do more. I try to help the team operate in an environment where honesty is a priority, where all opinions are valued and constantly encouraged, where dissent or questions are not a negative but a healthy function of working in a group, and everyone has an opportunity to contribute. I try to lead by example in a respectful environment with a focus on the values that are important to me of honesty, selflessness, and equality. My modus operandi in life since I was a kid has always been the golden rule: “Do for others what you want them to do for you” and I try to carry this forward in both personal and professional relationships by trying to make sure I take a minute to consider how someone’s perspective may differ than my own before taking an action that will impact them and adjusting if needed. This is not something that ever can fully be achieved but is rewarding when you do make a difference for someone.

How do you empower your female colleagues?

I am not going to go into checklist of actions because if someone just repeats the actions without understanding the reasoning behind it than no significant change has been made. This topic is too important to be treated without concern for the why first and foremost.

I constantly try to be self-aware of how little I know and how little I likely fully appreciate the difficulties and challenges faced by women and anyone else that is challenged to feel equal in the work place. I remind myself that our culture openly and blatantly treated women and really anyone else that was different as anything but equals less than a generation ago. The blatant and direct lack of equality may be toned down from the “Mad Men” era but it does still exist, not to mention all the subtle, subconscious, and indirect transgressions that transpire from those who may not even be aware of it. I have observed a lot of lip service to equality in the workplace and yet have still seen underlying tendencies and attitudes, consciously or not, that is still prejudice even if on a minor scale. These occurrences discourage the recipient of being open and honest, of feeling included and engaged, as they know they are fighting a current and culture even if it is just one born out of ignorance and negligence. So again I am sure I have let those around me down in this area at various points but I strive to consider if an action or comment I make, no matter how seemingly innocent, carries undertones that would potentially add to someone feeling excluded or being pushed away as I know that is NOT how I would want to be treated.

I am sure that to some people the above will not resonate at all. And personally, as someone less likely to be a victim of prejudice, it was easy to be blind to or ignorant of the fact that it was still occurring around me. Yet when I was forced to confront that this is still real, that this is still affecting those around me that I respect and care about, and that I couldn’t compartmentalise this as a far-off problem or of another time -it woke me up.

I encourage everyone to have a conversation with their friends, family, or co-workers and ask if they have ever felt excluded or treated differently for who they are even if it was the result of an indirect action or something that may have been meant in good spirits. Too often people believe these things no longer occur because they either don’t experience it themselves, don’t see the blatant versions of it, or are oblivious to the subtle version that still occur. Having these discussions were a completely eye-opening experience for me and has hopefully changed me for the better and positively impacted those around me. I have made it a priority to try to be inclusive in all that I do because the opposite is insanity and is not how I would want to be treated nor is it how anyone, ever, deserves to be treated. If I have had even a tiny positive impact on someone else than it has been worth it, and I can only hope that those who feel excluded start to see positive change around them and that everyone takes the topic seriously for the sake of us all.