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How being a rookie could be your best asset

The hardest part about leaving a corporate role I could do in my sleep in order to launch my own company was waking up every morning knowing that I needed to figure out everything from scratch. Nothing came easy.

This was also the best part about embarking on a new career. I wasn't limited by my experiences and could see the problem I was solving in a new light. Lack of experience meant that I could easily work outside the box because initially, I didn't know what the box looked like.

The working world often frowns on those without the right experience or enough of it, but it many ways that can be shortsighted. In her new book, Rookie Smarts, author Liz Wiseman argues the case for novices. She starts with the question "when is not knowing more valuable than knowing?" and arrives at the conclusion that rookies are on the "steep edge of the learning curve" and are continually striving to be their best. As a result rookies often reach objectives that may have originally appeared beyond their capabilities. In other words, businesses should not only embrace novices, but seasoned professionals must tap into their novice mindset to capture this rookie advantage.

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For Glain Roberts-McCabe, president of the Executive Round Table, a Toronto-based leadership organization, a string of rookie experiences transformed her career. She said she continuously transitioned to roles and industries where she felt exceptionally underqualified for what she was hired to do. In one case, Ms. Roberts-McCabe was asked to be a program designer for the Ontario Tourism Education Corp. and she was forced to ask her boss what that meant. Despite her lack of experience, she was quickly promoted in each role and attributes this success to a deep fear of failure.

"When you transition into new industries, you're not trapped by the baggage of people who've grown up in those environments so you tend to think out of the box... This can often work to your advantage when you're not tied to the 'way it's supposed to work,' " said Ms. Roberts-McCabe.

"Sometimes people in organizations get into the rut of doing the same things over and over again without questioning the process. As a newbie, you can provide a different viewpoint," she said, musing that it's this fresh perspective that likely keeps consultants in business.

Sometimes, it's the confidence of a great coach or manager that can inspire rookies to achieve greatness.

Courtney Horowitz said that age 23, she worked as the respite and inclusion co-ordinator for what is now the Canadian mental health association in Guelph. When she started out, she managed one program with a $25,000 budget but it suddenly ballooned to three programs with a total budget of $250,000.

"One thing that helped me manage when I didn't know what I was doing was that my manager clearly thought I could do it," recalled Ms. Horowitz, who now supervises 60 support staff in her current role as support co-ordinator for Extend-A-Family, which helps children with developmental disabilities, in the Waterloo Region.

While rookies can be great, organizations need to find those with the personality traits that will allow them to excel in an untested environment. In her book, Ms. Wiseman recounts one of the most famous rookie success stories of all time, that of Magic Johnson, who in 1980 made NBA history when as a rookie, he led the Los Angeles Lakers to victory against the Philadelphia 76ers. Companies need to not only be able to spot the Magic Johnsons around them, but create an environment that allows them to thrive.

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"Sometimes rookies know exactly what they are talking about, but no one takes them seriously," lamented Catherine Connelly, Canada research chair in organizational behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. This unfortunately comes down to a distrust of new personnel.

"If the experienced workers don't trust the rookies, then the workplace dynamic is soured and workers will hide knowledge from each other," she said.

However, if companies can get around that, they will find rookies to be an invaluable resource since they bring a diversity of background and knowledge to the table, said Ms. Connelly.

But going back to Ms. Wiseman's book, rookies need not only be newbies. Even experienced employees can and should embrace their inner rookie and continue to find new and innovative ways to conduct business. Being a rookie is more of a personality trait than a description of age or experience.

"There are many experienced workers who are open to new ideas and better ways of doing things, and many rookies who would rather go by the book instead of trying something different," said Ms. Connelly.

So channel your inner Magic Johnson by stepping out of your comfort zone and into a state of perpetual learning. Being a novice won't hold you back if you can think like a rookie.

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Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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About the Author
Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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