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In Search of Tall Poppies

The Art of Standing Your Ground in a Sea of Naysayers

Tall Poppies. An analogy for those who stand above their peers due to their skills, accomplishments and personal success and whom are, by virtue of what they’ve accomplished, often targeted by their peers and society in general. The phenomenon has become so predominant that we now identify it as TPS, Tall Poppy Syndrome. The origin of the term came from Australia where cultivators of poppies felt that all flowers in their fields should grow uniformly, and thus would snip the taller ones down to size. It has been historically used as a cautionary tale of what happens when you fail to maintain modesty and humility. It does not apply only to the rich and famous; high achievers in virtually any environment can be targeted.

If you have ever been exposed to ‘tall poppying’ it is not likely a good memory. Even when you have survived such attempts at pruning, it leaves you bit more hardened and a bit more isolated with every round. Is it enough to stop the best and brightest among us? Of course not. However, it is worth a bit of exploration into how you might minimize the downside of being a tall poppy so that you may enjoy the fruits of your labor and aspiration.

I am a business consultant specializing in strategy, risk and resilience. My primary goal with every client engagement is much the same as it was in my corporate career – let’s cut though the noise and focus on what really matters (vision, people, execution) even if we have to break new ground with how we get there. I don’t care much for rigidity and I cringe when I see process get in the way of critical thinking. I honestly believe that 80% of traditional program designs can go right out the window and you won’t miss a thing. What remains, when correctly integrated, creates a far more efficient and effective system to support the purpose, growth and survival of any organization. My attitudes towards rote application of standardized business practices make me a bit of a maverick, and I occasionally find myself subject to criticism, both productive and not, by those who don’t get it, don’t like it, or just don’t want to change the status quo of organizational dysfunction.

I spent the first half of my career studying best-practice business process models and the second half dismantling and rebuilding as I needed to make a system work better. My penchant for bucking the system has not always been well-received, and it happened all the way up the chain. I was met with co-workers inventing fault in the processes I designed, managers withholding necessary information only to ambush me later, and executives expressing utter disinterest unless there was some quid-pro-quo to be bartered. In my early days, I found it simply astounding that even when there was no valid reason offered, an idea could be shut down simply “because”. I was even more astounded to see personal attacks against me (and others) in the form of snide remarks about lack of experience or intelligence, aggressive ladder-climbing and, when all else failed, speculation about inappropriate relationships with the boss. Ever had a picture of Godzilla taped to your office door? I have.

The value of connecting to other tall poppies is that they not only get your passion and drive, they understand what you’re often up against …

All of this nonsense didn’t stop my moving forward, but it did slow me down. It was painful and it threw a lot of doubt and professional insecurity into my world. When I left my corporate job over five years ago with a short stack of degrees, more than 25 years of experience, and list of certifications and other credentials, I still wondered if I was good enough to hang up a shingle and give advice to really smart people on how they could do things better within their own organizations. It took me over two years to put my personal business vision to paper. I knew that I could create a simplified integrated approach to strategy, risk and resilience that would set a new standard for performance excellence. I also knew that it would come under scrutiny both good and bad. I swallowed hard and then leaned in with everything I knew about how to gracefully stand my ground in the inevitable sea of naysayers that would come. Three tenets serve me well and I share them often.

First, consider the motives and agendas of those who would seek to cut you down. People react the way they do for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes its envy, which I personally believe propels most tall poppy reactions, driving perfectly nice people to go to great lengths to find all the fault and none of the value in what you’re doing. Sometimes though, it is fear. You may have colleagues who are heavily invested in whatever you’re trying to change. They may be concerned about losing face, afraid that what you propose will adversely impact them, their function or division, or they may simply be reacting to a risk they see in your plan. Recognizing and addressing the drivers of such reactions head-on will allow you to clarify both your intention and dispel misperceptions, pulling would-be naysayers into your corner as advocates.

Second, practice humility and open mindedness. As noted earlier, the tall poppy analogy is a cautionary tale of what happens when you throw modesty and humility to the wind. Being humble should not be confused with confidence. I have tremendous confidence in my ability to identify and diagnose problems for my clients, however I also know that the solutions to those problems require the input, experience and acceptance of my client and their team – not just me. Further, having the confidence to own when you’ve hit a dud is just as important as getting the touchdown. Self-reflection is important here, so if you are receiving consistent feedback of a certain nature, take some time to stare into the mirror and decide if it warrants a change in your tactics.

Third, search out other Tall Poppies. Like attracts like and that is a good thing. Early in my career I read a sign that said “Sometimes it’s not you. It’s them.” This puts a smile on my face when I’m particularly frustrated or doubtful. People don’t like change (they say they do, but they really don’t) and this requires you to persevere in your efforts and squash the negative self-speak in your head. The value of connecting to other tall poppies is that they not only get your passion and drive, they understand what you’re often up against and more importantly, they can help you self-assess and see roadblocks that are in your blind spot.

In Seth Godin’s Tribes, he asks the question: “Do you believe in what you do? Every day? It turns out that belief happens to be a brilliant strategy.”

I agree.

People know intuitively when you are sincere and passionate about what you do. So, if you practice a bit of humility and emotional intelligence along with it, you will make it easier for others to let you simply be a tall poppy and flourish in your success.

Erin Sedor is the owner of Black Fox Strategy and is the designer of Essential Strategy and the Agile Framework. Her career spans nearly 30 years with publicly traded entities, non-profits and tribal organizations. Erin holds an MBA in Operational Risk and BA degrees in both Organizational Management and Finance.

This article was written for Strive Magazine. View In Search of Tall Poppies here.

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