When Clay Christensen, his son Matt, and I first launched Rose Park Advisors, we considered bringing on investors at the GP (general partner) level. During one of these conversations, a prospective investor turned to Clay, and said (paraphrasing), "Love disruptive innovation theory. Love your returns. Now...we need someone on the team who's 40-45, a little grey hair, with financial services experience."
That was actually a pretty good description of the woman sitting across the table from him — me. I'd spent fifteen years, sometimes working over 90 hours a week, in order become an Institutional Investor double-ranked equity analyst. My abilities were market-tested, validated by bulge bracket firms. But none of that mattered, because he couldn't see me. I felt invisible. I admit, and you've no doubt surmised, that the rejection still stings.
According to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson in a recent article in Psychology Today, "The Trouble with Bright Girls," women "judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than men do." When young girls perform well, they are often praised in terms of innate abilities — for being "smart" or "clever" — and so they internalize a sense that their abilities are fixed and unchangeable. Boys are often praised for their efforts — for working hard, or for trying again and again — and so they learn that effort, not ability, is what's important. The result is that girls feel confident until they're faced with a setback, whereas boys' confidence persists even in the face of setbacks. Suddenly feeling invisible is a pretty big setback, and it can torpedo a young woman's confidence. Even in the middle of my career, it felt like a punch to the solar plexus.
But maybe it doesn't have to be such a setback, if we think about the benefits being "invisible" can offer. Of course, no one deserves to go unnoticed. And yet I've wondered if there are times when being invisible can accrue to our benefit. Consider Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak, which he uses in times of danger to outsmart the greatest evil. While your experience is different than mine, here are some things that I have learned while being "invisible."
1. We learn to wield informal power. When we are outside the apparatus of power, we have to find workarounds if we are to achieve success. Often this involves informal power. Because women are frequently required to function within hierarchical structures that are designed and populated by men, we can become quite adept at informal power. This is what I did, unwittingly, at Merrill Lynch. I wanted to succeed as an analyst. I wasn't getting the resources I needed inside my firm. So I started constructing networks that extended beyond my firm. Formal power is vital, but when it is your only lingua franca, you are at a distinct disadvantage in the fluid, information-and-connection-based world.
Lest we think informal power is just for women, consider Shane Battier who currently plays for the Miami Heat. In a 2009 NY Times article called "The No-Stats All-Star," Michael Lewis described Battier as follows: "Shane Battier is widely regarded inside the NBA as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win. Battier seems to help the team in all sorts of subtle, hard-to-measure ways, with a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths." When you are invisible, coworkers may not understand what you do, and you may fit the description of Shane Battier: helping your team in all kinds of "subtle, hard-to-measure ways." What we can't see is often more powerful than what we can — just ask anyone in Washington.
2. Being "invisible" gives you a reason to work even harder. Feeling like no one notices your competence can be a great motivator to achieve visible results. Some sense of invisibility has driven many to great heights, and a humbling dosage can be the antidote to entitlement. Meanwhile, it's possible you aren't as out of sight as you think. At least with the people that matter. Harry Potter wasn't invisible to Albus Dumbledore. Shane Battier may go unobserved by the statistician's naked eye, but not by Kobe Bryant. And at that Rose Park Advisors meeting, I may have been invisible to several people in the room, but I know I was highly visible to my boss.
3. Invisibility provides cover to disruptors. When evaluating a potentially disruptive investment, one of the first questions I ask is: "Are you flying under the radar?" Meaning, are you unattractive enough that competitors have no incentive to either co-opt you or gun you down? It's even better if they treat you as a paper airplane rather than a fighter jet. When you are disrupting, the best possible start-up scenario is to be dismissed, even ignored, just as Blockbuster ignored Netflix (until they were "netflixed")
Nearly all of us have been cloaked without our permission, in a dressing down we don't deserve. There are times, though, when we don the cloak of invisibility ourselves — usually due to a fear that the competent person we've been impersonating will be unmasked. Neither scenario is desirable, but unfortunately, both are likely. However, just as Harry Potter used his invisibility to outsmart evil, we can use ours to upend the competition. Then, with a puckish wink and a smile, we can pull the cloak off.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 06/05/2012.
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