When I was 21, I was firmly of the belief that I was competent, capable, under-appreciated and under-paid. This is humorously ironic when you consider that I was consulting for the federal government, managing people far older than I was and making what was a relatively impressive salary in those days (regardless of age).
At 31, that perspective had only inflated. I had run my own company for more than a decade, consulting for organizations across the country. I was being sought out as an advisor and recognized as someone in my field with something to say. I was invited as a speaker to conferences across the continent, and eventually around the world. I was guilty of believing that I knew pretty much everything there was to know about project management, and that what I had forgotten wasn’t all that important.
By 41, I was far more humble about what I knew, and what I didn’t. Getting a doctorate will apparently do that to you. I was still valued as a consultant and speaker, but what I spoke about—and the advice I gave—had evolved. My theoretical expertise in all things project management fizzled, as I came to appreciate the richness and depth of the fields that project management had borrowed most of its techniques from. I had been intimately familiar with an entrance hall, blissfully unaware of the mansion of ideas that lay beyond, if only I had walked through the door earlier.
Somewhere in that journey, I started writing on a regular basis. I’ve been contributing to projectmanagement.com for more than two decades now, writing a monthly column for them. That’s a lot of columns. I’ve been writing regularly on my own site for eight years, and before that for Interthink’s newsletter. Overall, there are hundreds of submissions and thousands upon thousands of words.
Going back to my earlier writing is an exercise in embarrassment. That’s not a criticism of the writing; it was perfectly acceptable. Grammatically correct, logically structured and with full paragraphs. Serviceable, recognizable English. But the ideas were… simple. Derivative. Not particularly revelatory. They were aimed at a broad audience, and studiously sought to offend no one in the process. If there was a recognizable party line in terms of what projects were and how they should be managed, my writing hewed fairly close to it.
I have come to appreciate—over the last few years in particular—the process of finding my voice. Much of that evolution is charted on this web site, and what is written here tracks fairly well to the shifts I have made. Those changes have not been obvious. Progressively over time I have found more clarity in what I have to say, and more confidence to do so, even where that goes against the grain of popular practice.
There are values and principles that I lead with in my writing, and that don’t vary with evolving fads and over-hyped ideologies. That’s not to say that I will reject new perspectives at face value. I will take the time to explore them, understand where they are coming from, and what they are intended to do. When there is usefulness, I will recognize that. Where they are not relevant, or just repackaged tools and approaches with shiny new branding, I’m going to call that out.
Taking a stand can seem risky, at least to some. I have come to learn—and it was a lesson that took some time to take on board—that it is not only valuable, it is essential. Writing, speaking or acting in a way that deliberately avoids causing offence is the far riskier proposition here; attempting to please everyone requires being so generic and vague as to be meaningless.
Coming from a place where you take a stance—and back that up—of necessity has solidity and depth. Not only do you have an opinion and viewpoint, but you need to be able to argue for and defend that perspective. That means not only have you thought through your position, but you are also aware—if not sympathetic—to the arguments of others. You can not only make your case, but if you were so inclined you could make the case of the other side.
More importantly, putting a stake in the ground helps make visible where you are coming from and what you care about. It helps you attract your tribe. Clearly communicating your beliefs, perspectives and viewpoints means others can choose whether they find them appealing or repellent. By knowing what you stand for, people can declare themselves as being in or out. They will stand with you or stand opposed. That is an entirely acceptable proposition.
Your voice isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It doesn’t have to, and you arguably shouldn’t try. Rather than trying to reach for the widest possible audience, you should be working to address the most resonant possible audience. They are the ones that value your perspective, that need to hear what you have to say, and that can benefit from its insights. Not everyone will be interested. Not everyone will be able to benefit from your views, or take them on board. That shouldn’t discourage you in the slightest.
Finding your voice is not a process of a day or a weekend or a week. It is not even one of months. It evolves over time, and arguably takes years to refine. More importantly, it will continue to evolve. I have reached a point where I delight in the fact that I’m able to communicate with confidence and thoughtfulness and nuance. I don’t for a second imagine I’m done. Some time in the future I will likely look back on this post as adorably naive. For now, it says what I want and need to to say.
If you want to find your voice, the following is the best advice that I can offer at the moment (but do come back in a few years to see if it has changed):
- Have a perspective. Being clear about where you are coming from is probably the most important part of finding your voice. It is knowing your principles and values, and taking a considered position on your work, your field and how you show up in both. Finding perspective isn’t something you go shopping for, as if it was a car or a smartphone. It isn’t about critically adopting the latest trends, buzzwords and management fads, although there are inarguably those that choose this path. It emerges over a period of reflection and conscious consideration, learning about what works—for you—and more importantly why it works.
- Make sure its your perspective. Let’s be clear: as human beings, we are magpies. We are attracted to bright and shiny and new as much as the next species. It can be incredibly tempting to be attracted to an idea or viewpoint—or someone’s entire body of work—and adopt it wholesale. There will be people and ideas who have formative influences on you, and these will be hardest to call into question. Everyone and everything has its flaws; there is a reason you should never meet your heroes. Critically relating new ideas to what you already know and believe, and understanding how they live alongside and contribute—or counter—considered viewpoints is essential.
- Speak from your perspective. Take ownership of your views, your opinions and your beliefs. Recognize that there is a shift in what is described here; what you learn—as you take it on board—becomes your own. While it may be what you believe, it is also only your opinion. It is not fact, per se; it is your perceptual reality, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for objective truth. Still, it’s your truth, and you should own it as such. Be clear about where you are coming from, and why. Be prepared to back up your views with how you have developed them, and why you think they are relevant and appropriate. Stay rooted in your principles, and how your ideas evolve and relate to them, and you will always have a way back to your core truths.
- Speak your perspective plainly and well. There was a time when I mistook good business writing for flowery use of buzzwords and multi-syllabic words (and while it took time to get over myself, I’m pleased to say that I did). It’s important to know where jargon and buzzwords come from: it’s exclusionary vocabulary, designed to separate us and them. The use of acronyms and trendy terminology is intended to signal knowledge and membership in a tribe of the initiated. It is perfectly acceptable to ask someone what they mean by a particular term; it is also amusing how often they are unable to do so articulately. The measure of knowledge of a subject is the ability to express it clearly and simply. Richard Feynman’s measure was the ability to explain a complex topic to a fifth grader. It is a useful benchmark still.
- Avoid trying to please everyone. Even if you try, you won’t please everyone, and you will likely offend some. Trying to be universally appealing requires vague generalities; even then, you will be annoying those who want you to be clear about what you mean. Take a position. Don’t do this to be contrary; do this because you believe it, because it is grounded in your principles of how you approach your role, and because it is your considered and grounded viewpoint. Not everyone will like this, of course; those who are annoyed would have been anyway, while others will be far more appreciative and grateful that you’ve taken a stand. Those are the tribe members you should be speaking to most.
- Seek feedback and learn how to hear criticism. The only way to get better is to hear what you are not doing well. As human beings, we like tummy rubs. While praise is wonderful, it doesn’t help you get better. Listen for the criticism. Ask for it. Seek it out. It might be hard to hear, but don’t reject negative feedback out of hand. Consider where it is coming from; try to identify what prompted it; evaluate the merits of what is being said, and how you might have approached your work differently.
- Resist others telling you how to think, act or be. Valuing and welcoming feedback is one thing; doing so uncritically is another. There will be those who want to shape and mold you, and influence how you show up. Very often, they are doing this to serve their agenda, not yours. I have been told I am too loud, too strident, too confident; I should be more considered, I should be more cautious, I should be more doubtful and questioning. I actually took this advice for a time; the consequence was an entire undermining of my self-perception, self-confidence and gift of doing what I do. Undoing the influence of others has been a lot of work. Welcome advice and perspective, but evaluate it and consider where it comes from. Be clear about how you need to and choose to show up, based upon what works for you.
- Be willing to change your mind and your mindset. What you believe today is what you believe today. Future you may look at those core beliefs and shake their head in bemused and affectionate dismay. Future you may also believe them more strongly and more stridently. Life is a journey of learning, discovering and figuring out. What you know now is not the end-point; it’s barely even the mid-point. There was a time when I thought management needed to be formal, structured and rigorous. That if you couldn’t quantitatively prove something, then it wasn’t true. I am a long way from that perspective today. Formality has its place, but it is in a very narrow and confined corner of my reality. You will find your perspectives shift over time; welcome that, own it, acknowledge it, and keep learning from it.
Finding your voice is the journey of a lifetime. It involves listening to your voice, first, and knowing what it is saying and why. It also involves critically evaluating and assessing what we believe and why, and being clear about the principles and values that shape our actions, our behaviours, our interactions and our overall approach to work. Reflecting on these values, and how they show up, is an essential first step. Being willing to change your beliefs as you gain new insight and perspective is the long-term mission.
Find your own voice. Own it. Inhabit it. Speak it. Say what only you can say, and speak that truth because it needs to be heard.
What have you discovered about your voice, about refining it and shaping how it shows up in the world?