I learned to step back and enable others to volunteer while I instead served as a mentor, coach, and team player.
So, here it is. I confess I am a serial volunteer. Yes, I'm always likely to raise my hand.
"Sure, I can do that. I absolutely have the bandwidth for more projects, Ms. Boss. Thank you!" I am certain you know that person, because they live in many of us type A personalities.
Early on, I bought into the notion that the busiest person is the individual you give the most projects to because there was, well, a certain kind of wizardry that the busiest person managed that no one else could do. We got it done. Right?
This certainly started as most work habits do, through continued validation through meaningful promotions and exposure from the C-Suite. The more I volunteered and said yes, the more I was fed, so this couldn't be a bad thing, could it?
As my career grew—albeit many times because of my torturous relationship with saying yes—I found myself tied to my newfound reputation as the person who would always be there.
I loved it and cherished being counted on and seen as dependable. I viewed that as a career-value additive. What I didn't realize was the wake I left in my own sea current.
The only yes
Because I was always saying yes, I was depriving others of being able to raise their hands. Resentment started to grow with my peers and even my staff.
I was unintentionally becoming a ball hog, and I didn't recognize that it was my pattern. In all fairness, as my career grew, I often was "the only"—the only female at my level or in the room or the only African American.
I make no excuses that being the only caused me to grab for projects whenever I could. Although the verbiage didn't exist at the time, impostor syndrome was alive and well inside me.
Did I really belong in the room? Would they find out I shouldn't be there? How do I keep my name present?
I was coached and mentored to believe if I didn't say yes, then the asks would stop coming. So, yes, I will travel 90 percent of the time; yes, I will take on another region to pull them out of the gutter; yes, yes, yes!
In hindsight, there were so many flaws in my thinking. Most critically, I wasn't investing in my people as their leader. I am sure they felt I didn't trust them with plum assignments or, worse yet, that I didn't think they were worth me investing into their career future.
Another flaw in those power grabs was that I was not the best team player. I should have seen that by me saying yes, my peers weren't getting their yes. Subsequently, their own morale had to have unraveled, and they missed out on key development opportunities for their own career trajectories.
Finally, the worst was that because I was taking on so many extra projects and assignments and sitting on coveted teams, my work was hurried, last minuted to death, and for certain not the best I could offer.
I needed to make changes, but I wasn't sure how to go about that. It turns out that the decision was not mine to make.
I received a call that no one wants to get: My doctor informed me that, following a routine checkup, I had a very aggressive form of breast cancer.
I immediately needed surgery. Life as I knew it took on a whole new meaning as I meandered through the unknown territory of my own wellness journey.
My days were filled with schedules for when to take pills, doctor visits, and chemotherapy rooms. Often, I would call my vice president and ask her what was happening in the office. She always answered with: "We are managing just fine—don't worry everything is going perfectly well."
I know her words were meant to give me relief that things were running fine. However, they served to make me feel all the things I always worried about: that I was missing the action but the action wasn't missing me.
I recovered from the cancer. More importantly, I had a revelation in one of the many chemo rooms I visited during multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries: I needed a new way to define my work; more critically, I needed an adjustment on how I worked.
My participation needed to be much more substantive, far more collaborative, and less about my yes and more about giving others the space to receive and be readied for their yes.
Those were critical lessons on releasing and letting go. They were about becoming much more of a teacher, mentor, and coach rather than needing to be center stage.
I found more time to concentrate on a few great projects that were legacy builders rather than grabbing for every bit that blew my way. I was showing up as a better leader and student for those around me, whether they were my staff or my peers.
The notice that I received from the C-Suite became one that was so much more meaningful because now leadership saw me and not just the tornadic flurry of work that had been my companion for years.
The most powerful lesson was that the overly taxed busy person often misses out because others assume they are too busy to take on the real, meaningful work. That lesson is one that to this day I lean into.
Am I completely cured from being a serial volunteer? Oh no, it's a work in progress.
As a chief people and diversity officer now, there are times in an executive leadership team meeting that I really want to volunteer for a plum project. But I stop myself and ask whether there is value additive that I take on the work or whether someone else would benefit from either working with me on this or taking the lead.
A collaborative, teaming mindset has proven to be a far better approach than my often used yes. I watch from the wings as others shine, and my work has never been more valuable and liberated for larger, more-innovative thinking.
This was a life lesson I learned the hard way, but I learned it well.
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.