Every generation has them. They are the people who think outside the box, march to the beat of their own drum, and are comfortable shaking up the status quo. They challenge us to sit up straighter, think differently, and show up more meaningfully in our own lives. Who are they? They are the disruptors, and we need them.
History provides the proof. A few years ago, music icon Beyoncé dropped her first video album without warning at the stroke of midnight. The attention-getting event delighted her fans and disrupted the way albums are traditionally released.
Bill Gates is famous for co-founding and building Microsoft, the world’s largest personal-computer software company. His passion and vision helped evolve an industry, creating new jobs and work titles that did not exist previously.
More recent disruptors include Lyft and Uber. These start-ups have expanded public transportation. In many big cities, their usage now rivals traditional taxi rides. And don’t forget about Airbnb. Despite controversies about bookings, this resource has given consumers new and viable ways to experience accommodations for business and leisure travel. In the process, they’ve spurred the creation of new cottage businesses.
The mass production of automobiles is yet another example. Back in the day, Henry Ford was quoted as saying consumers wanted faster horses, not automobiles. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing a vision to mass produce horseless buggies. Today, more than 1.2 billion automotive vehicles traverse roads and highways throughout the world. For certain, Ford’s disruption has had an impact on modern manufacturing. If engineering predictions hold, it will be a matter of time before today’s disruptors bring to market cars that don’t need human drivers.
Are Disruptors Born or Created?
Are unique skills required to be a disruptor? Probably not, said businessman Kyle Donovan. “I actually consider myself an inventor although I believe some of my creations have indeed disrupted the norm,” he said.Donovan recently appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank to seek financing from a panel of billionaire investors. He pitched IFork, his vison for innovative and intelligently designed flatware and tableware. His handcrafted line of cutlery allows the diner’s fork, knife and spoon to rise slightly above the tabletop, thereby avoiding contact with unclean surfaces. While enhancing the dining experience, Donovan said the flatware is also a sanitary solution.
Long before designing forks and spoons, Donovan was carving his own path, choosing not to work in a traditional corporate office. Instead, he refined and parlayed his professional photography skills into owning and publishing a national business magazine.
To bring IFork to market, Donavan relinquished his role as publisher of NV magazine. He said the sacrifice was worth it. “It is hard to serve two masters, so one of the biggest sacrifices I made was to turn over day-to-day operations of the magazine. And of course, the personal life takes a hit when you are focused on something and trying to move the ball up the hill,” he said.
Why did he switch gears to disrupt the multi-billion dollar table utensil industry? Donovan says his dream propelled him to invest his own money, identify and secure funding, and travel overseas multiple times to work with manufacturers.
Donovan said the process can be exhausting, “Many people hit a wall or walls and just stop. Every single day I ask myself: What have I done to improve where I am today? It can be something as simple as making phone calls or sending emails, not to people I already know, but to new people to expand upon what I am trying to do.”
Fortunately, Donovan’s pitch on Shark Tank was successful. One of the “sharks” saw the worthiness of his product and invested in his vision. For Donovan, a big bank account is not the ultimate reward for his effort. “Honestly, financial success does not come close to having an idea in your head that no one has thought of before. Bringing a product to life so that it truly adds value to people’s lives is exhilarating,” he said.
“It’s also gratifying to reinvent something that has the potential to become part of our American culture,” said Donovan.
Trendsetters like Donovan are claiming their places in modern society and disrupting existing industries and companies. They are also changing how we work, play, and interact with each other. Whether in the workplace, marketplace or society generally, the disruptors are fostering new ways of thinking and doing. Along the way, they are giving birth to new careers and opportunities for all of us. The good news is that being a disruptor isn’t unique to a few special people.
Six Ways to Successfully Disrupt Your Life
- Change your game. If you do things the same way you’ve always done, you’re likely to get the same result. This is especially applicable if you crave a change in your life, whether a promotion, new job or career change. Take stock of what you do. Assess whether your practices are simply old habits or the best way to do things. Do you need to learn new skills or make additional professional connections? Keep in mind, change does not have to be monumental. A series of carefully planned small changes over time can net big results.
- Talk to different people. Years ago, a colleague from Germany asked me why American workers go to lunch with the same people every day. She said that it was common practice at some German companies to schedule daily lunch meetings with new contacts, enabling each participant to broaden their professional networks and enhance promotion opportunities. After all, she said, it matters who knows you. I adopted this practice when I relocated to cities throughout the U.S. As a result, I was able to cultivate networks that helped ease my transition into new jobs and communities.
- Be intentional. Prior to leaving corporate America to start my business, I became very focused on the change I wanted to make. While unsure about what form the change would take, I enrolled in classes to enhance my expertise and exposed myself to opportunities and professionals who had the knowledge that I needed. Those activities helped me discover the perfect nexus for my talent and passion and provided the foundation for my new enterprise.
- Raise your hand. If you want something, go get it. Women often suffer paralysis on this one. Studies show that women are less likely to apply for promotions if their skills and competencies don’t meet 100 percent of the qualifications, whereas, men will take a chance to learn on the job. According to Sheryl Sandberg, author of the bestselling book Lean In, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, women sometimes feel they don’t belong even when they are invited to the table. “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side and not at the table,” Sandberg said. Key takeaway: If you’ve been invited, you belong. And if you have not been invited, ask for your invitation.
- Be authentic. Far too often, individuals try to satisfy the expectations of others, instead of living their best life. The unique aspect of disruptors is that they are comfortable with themselves and appreciate who they really are. They pursue their dreams without apology. And as history has shown, the larger society often benefits from their bold pursuits. The reality is that each of us has a unique footprint in the world. Take the time to discover and refine your own. This attribute alone is what makes you stand out in the crowd.
- Tap into your higher purpose. Disruptors tend to believe that their cause, invention, innovation, business pursuit, etcetera, will likely benefit others in addition to themselves. This perspective serves to fuel their purpose. They may give back through volunteerism and philanthropy, and they are not afraid to share their wisdom and knowledge even when the benefits are not obvious. While they may appear unconcerned about the immediate rewards, disruptors intuitively they know the gain will be theirs in the long term.
The moral of this story: Don’t wait; go ahead and disrupt yourself.
Debra Nelson is President of Elevate Communications, a professional development and communication services firm. She is a coach and certified facilitator of Korn Ferry’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI), and she consults and speaks on topics related to diversity and inclusion, leadership, personal branding, and women’s empowerment. www.elevatellc.co