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Finding just the right amount of discomfort to push your growth

Published on
July 24, 2022
Tony D. Thelen
Chief Product Officer at John Deere Financial
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We all have comfort zones where life just feels better.  Hometowns, hanging with friends, a favorite chair, certain foods, or even a favorite blanket or pillow could all be part of a comfort zone.  Even my dog, Angel, has a few around our house as shown in the picture in this article.

Careers have comfort zones too. We get into routines, get to know people, and learn skills that we become very good at. But to truly grow, you have to get out of your comfort zone to experience new things.

This happened to me about 6 years into my career. Below is the story of how it happened and what I learned from the experience.  

In the early 1990’s I was a production supervisor at one of our factories when my supervisor asked me what I was interested in doing in my career. I said I really enjoyed the work I was doing, but if I ever got the chance to work closer to the customer I’d be interested in doing that. My logic was if I was going to have a 40-year career in the company, I needed to learn more about customers and the commercial side of the business.

Life went on for 2 more years and I had started an MBA program at the University of Northern Iowa. I was getting into my comfort zone in manufacturing when my boss came to me and said “Are you still interested in an opportunity in the field?”. I was nearing 4 years as a production supervisor, and 2 years into my MBA program, but I still had an interest so I said, “Of course I am, what’s going on?”

My supervisor indicated there was an opening and I was to meet with the head of HR in the Kansas City Sales Branch. We arranged the meeting and I drove to Kansas City on a cold January day in 1996.

The HR manager stated, “We have a role that we think you might be interested in Tony. It’s a marketing rep position located in Wichita, Kansas Training Center. It’s a labor grade lower than where you are now. It will involve working farm shows, things like wiping the dew off tractor tires in the morning, lots of time on the road, setting up equipment, and training dealers and occasionally customers on how to operate our products. If you do really good in this role then you might become a Territory Aftermarket Manager someday. If you do really good in that role, you might become a Territory Manager someday. Also – we can’t predict where these openings will come up and when they do come up, you will most likely have to move your family each time. So Tony, are you still interested in the position?”

So I thought to myself… let me get this straight: I would go from a Production Supervisor, a job I loved, and throw away 2 years invested in an MBA, to take a job that pays less, and is 2 positions and probably 4 years away at a minimum from the job I thought I really wanted.  On top of this, I would be required to move my family every time and no guarantee where or when or even if the next opportunity would present itself. Hmmm.

“Sign me up. When can I start?” was my response. I accepted immediately and my career was forever changed in ways I could not have predicted.

We all face moments of truth in our career where we need to decide if we are willing to take a chance and step out of our comfort zone.  I’m glad I did and below are my 5 lessons I learned in the process.

1.    Family: Over the years I had spoken to my wife about how we would handle this if the situation presented itself. If she would not have been supportive, I would have never taken the job. In looking back, I was lucky to have her support, as moving toward opportunities helped me gain valuable experience in my career.  

  • My recommendation is to have conversations with people you love well before you are faced with the decision to make a change. To me having a great career but losing the people you love was not a sacrifice I was willing to entertain.

2.    New Experiences: Moving from manufacturing to sales and marketing seemed like I was joining a new company. Whatever I learned in manufacturing really didn’t matter and at first this was hard for me to understand. My true learning began the day I let go of all that I learned in the factory and focused on what I needed to do for our dealers and customers.  

  • My recommendation is to find the fulcrum of change as fast as possible in the process, acknowledge it, let go of the past, and commit to future learning and growth.

3.    Risk: I vividly remember being told there was no guarantee of any further growth in the field beyond being a marketing rep.  I remember thinking even if that is all that happened the journey would still be worth it. This helped me make the decision without looking back and fully commit to the new role.

  • My recommendation is to assess the value in the journey itself and determine ahead of time if you would be happy even if things didn’t work out perfectly.

4.    Learning: I had to learn about our entire product line – every piece of equipment, how it was supposed to function, how to optimize performance, and how to fix it when it broke down. There were no shortcuts to this as I spent countless hours attending training, reading technical manuals, and working on equipment to understand how it works.

  • My recommendation is to do the homework necessary for success, whatever that may be. This may require much sacrifice on your part, but it will be worth it in the end.  Look for people who do well in your new environment and learn as much as you can from them as possible.

5.    Impact: The long-term impact of this decision was substantial as it fundamentally reshaped my understanding of the company and who I was as an employee.  It ultimately led to 15 years of sales and marketing growth, something I could never have imagined in the original determination to leave the manufacturing role.

  • My recommendation is to be open to what wants to happen. Keep your mind open along the journey, and understand that some of it needs to evolve over time as you and the world evolve. Some things cannot be known ahead of time, and that’s OK.

Everyone is on a journey in their career and no one can truly step into your shoes and make the decisions for you. To me that is a beautiful thing – it’s up to us to take the next step, however challenging it might be at the time.

I would encourage everyone to take a few risks in your career and step outside your comfort zone. You never know what lies ahead, and if you truly commit yourself to growing your chances of success and fulfillment will go up.

A silver lining update: After 4 years in the field I was transferred back to the Kansas City metro area in 2000 where I was able to complete the necessary requirements for receiving my MBA in just under the 7 year statute of limitations. In the beginning I gave up the MBA, but in the end it all fit perfectly in ways I could never have predicted.

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