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5 ways to step outside your comfort zone at work, according to business leaders

If you want to get ahead as a professional, you can't afford to coast. Five business leaders give their tips for broadening your horizons.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Evidence suggests employers are looking for experienced professionals who are prepared to take on new challenges and acquire new skills. So, what's the best way to step outside your comfort zone? Five business leaders give us their advice.

1. Be open to new opportunities

Lalo Luna, global head of strategy and insights at brewing giant Heineken, says the best way to feel confident about new opportunities and challenges is to be open and flexible. 

"It's about the resilience to fears and concerns," he says. "Yes, there are many things that could happen. But even if you fail, you are learning. So, it's always better to learn something new than to just be 20 years in the same role without learning anything else."

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During his career, Luna has been open to new challenges. He's worked for a range of companies in positions around the globe, including his current role for Heineken in Amsterdam.

"I took different roles in my career and to be honest, I am very happy. Some of them worked out and some of them didn't. But I learned from every step that I took in my career, and I am continually learning," he says. 

"What would be my next step? I don't know, so let's see. I am very open to continue traveling around the world and to see what Heineken can propose to me. I am very open and flexible to these opportunities."

2. Talk with bosses about your career path

Alex Hibbitt, engineering director at albelli-Photobox Group, says it's important to embrace change when it happens -- and that's something he's done recently in his own role.

"We've been through a huge change at albelli-Photobox," he says, referring to the merger of two companies in late 2022 to form the new business.

"It opened up an opportunity for me. I started my career with an operations and site-reliability engineering focus. I wanted to expand what I was doing and become a generalist leader across the technology space." 

Through the merger, Hibbitt has had opportunities to take on new responsibilities -- and he advises other professionals to start talking about how they'll make the journey to the top, too.

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"I report directly to the CTO. We speak about where I want to go in terms of my growth, and he helps enable opportunities for me," he says.

"It's about creating an open dialogue about where you want to go across a three-year, five-year horizon, and then communicating that desire to people who can help you progress along the path. That conversation is important in terms of being able to expand your skills and become an effective leader."

3. Try a range of areas to find your passion

Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe, says she advises people to try as many areas of work as possible -- even if that means moving into hitherto unexplored places.

"When I was at the early stage of my career, I tried a lot of different things in the IT world," she says. 

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"Then I even stepped outside of my comfort zone and ran a business unit for a while." 

Stoddard says going into new areas allows you to move outside your comfort zone and discover what you like -- plus the things you don't.

"To be good at something, you must have a passion for it. And you don't really know what that is until you've tried a lot of different things," she says.

"I give that advice to people coming out of college, who might be set on going down one path. They might have already decided it's the route they want to take, but they've never actually tried it, so how would they know if they like it?"

4. Become a subject matter expert

Simon Langthorne, head of customer relationship management at Virgin Atlantic, says the biggest transformational steps he's taken during his career are when he's stepped outside his comfort zone to embrace new opportunities. 

"Every time there's been something new, it's been about, 'How do you go out and find exciting things?'" he says. "It's about looking for opportunities that take you outside the space of your expertise and take you into a place where actually you can lead and grow." 

Also: How to attract top tech talent, according to these business leaders

Langthorne says one of the big challenges that comes from moving outside your comfort zone is thinking about how you'll deal with senior manager-level conversations. 

"They're not your peers; they're the guys that you really look up to. But you're also trying to guide and steer them. They're excited by things like artificial intelligence, but they'll look to you as the subject matter expert," he says. 

Embracing new challenges -- such as taking the lead on emerging technology -- will mean you suddenly have new gravitas in an organization, even if it feels uneasy at first.

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"You're trying to lead people in terms of how this new stuff can be adopted and developed. You need to think about, 'How do I lead someone who's already a luminary in the industry, never mind this business?'" he says.

"But you must take those opportunities when they arise. They don't always go brilliantly, but the point is you learn from the experience."

5. Go out and speak with new people

Stuart Toll, senior enterprise architect at Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM), says one simple way to get out of your comfort zone is to leave the safe confines of the office.

"Come and talk at a conference," said Toll, who spoke with ZDNET at Cloudera Evolve in London, where people from his organization explained to attendees how the finance firm is moving to a cloud-based data platform.

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"We don't do this kind of thing very often, but it's very rewarding, actually. We're meeting people and finding out that our journey is useful to others."

As you step out of your comfort zone, you speak with like-minded people running similar projects and discover the challenges you face are common to others.

That's something that resonates with his colleague, Matt Bannock, who is head of data engineering at LGIM, and who was also at the event.

"I've spoken to a couple of other investment banks and market data providers here today," he says. "They've all got similar problems with legacy systems, where they're trying to undergo digital transformation and system migration at the same time. It's a great experience."

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