Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how far many of my clients have come. Several women I work with have reached an amazing stage of their career that I call creative audacity. Though I’ve seen it many times, it’s never anything less than thrilling to watch an immense talent achieve real freedom. The freedom to work how, when, and with whom they want. The freedom we so long didn’t think possible or couldn’t yet see a path toward.
But I’ve seen it. I want to share with you today what it means to work with creative audacity, how you get there, and how that freedom can serve you.
After Building Audacity
I created the Building Audacity Principles to help executive women of color gain clarity on how white normative culture and unconscious biases often leave them unable to show up fully, wondering how to deal with toxic company cultures, how to say no to unpaid work, how to disrupt bias, and how to lead through the aftermath of that disruption.
Building audacity is a process unique to every person. The time and work it takes to internalize the principles, get comfortable with who you are and what you bring, build a compelling story, and know your values—that all depends on your career stage when you begin the process.
Sometimes, as in the case of my client who is a Senior VP, you’ve already lived the principles, and so it takes only a matter of months to give language to all the work that’s been done, and then break through to the next level.
For another client who is early or mid-career and has achieved a mid-level position, it can be a year-long process to live the principles, gain additional credibility, and prepare for the kind of creative audacity that’s waiting to be lived.
But here is one thing I know to be consistently true: no matter where you are in your career, you can’t achieve creative audacity without unlearning apprehension about your difference and your value.
What Creative Audacity Looks Like
Creative Audacity is a career stage and a place of possibility—not a singular accomplishment, job title, position, salary, award, or other kinds of traditionally measurable achievement.
Before I go further into how you know you’re working with creative audacity, let me first put out an important disclaimer:
This is not the goal of every client I work with. Nor is it the goal for every executive woman of color. This is not the end-goal I set for all of my clients, and it’s certainly not an expectation I impose on anyone who wants to work with me. Creative audacity is something I am conscious of as a certain kind of privilege. I love working with women who want to do their current work with less grind and more intention, who might aim to shift one particular toxic dynamic, or who might need a strong negotiation strategy. The Building Audacity Principles can help you achieve any number of goals and improve how you work and live.
That said, one of the most gratifying experiences I have is working with women in Creative Audacity, who have gained comfort with their value and bringing that value before others, and who have moved into a space where they are daring to create—building ideas, products, departments, or whole companies where none existed before.
Here’s an example:
After years of pushing through bias, a client had achieved an executive-level position with adequate support, compensation, and space to do something about what she has seen for years: her company’s need for reputation management and repair. Her background gave her insight into how her company could create a new narrative, do real good, and actually expect a high ROI on their efforts to give back. She has the right connections to build a whole new service for her company, and she’s moving to pitch the idea—which involves creating a new department and a new leading role for herself. As we brainstormed some of the logistics of her proposal, she said to me, “I finally have time to think. I’ve always known this was possible and I’ve wanted to do it for years, but I was so busy striving and hustling that I never had time to create like I am now.”
Leveraging Your Process
You didn’t become a professional without high executive function and a distinct process you’ve honed over the years, probably beginning with your time in school. When you excel at your work, it’s because of your process. When you solve problems, you rely on your process. Whether you know it or not, whether you’ve ever stopped to reflect and articulate it or just use it second nature, you have a process. It might be as straightforward as the scientific method or it might be your own unique creation. Whatever your process, Creative Audacity means you’re able to leverage it in a whole new way.
Here’s my process at Leverage to Lead: I build relationships, understand a client’s need, tailor my services to their needs, gain clarity on their strengths, build their story, accelerate their career trajectory, and help them put their unfiltered value into the world. I know my process backward and forward. And I know how to use it to create new workshops, work with larger organizations, and partner with other creatives. When you understand your process, you can begin to apply it in new ways—this is the real work of innovation.
An example: I work with a number of women in tech companies that create countless products never reach an end-user. This creation vacuum leaves engineers frustrated and deflated.
One of my clients knew her own process well—it included being comfortable with asking many questions that engineers are unwilling to ask for fear of not looking smart—she was able to create a new road-mapping process that involved never-before-asked questions about market interest and saturation, which could end up completely restructuring her company’s product creation and eliminating costly and frustrating product scrapping.
When we are free to leverage ourselves, our difference, and our process, we can work counter to toxic currency, with audacity instead of apprehension. This is how we carve out space for ourselves to think and create instead of being trapped in the exhausting grind, or trying to fly under the radar, or struggling to feel safe.
This kind of freedom can surpass money, position, and status in terms of gratification and accomplishment. And this kind of freedom is what actually breaks the glass ceiling: instead of waiting for someone to grant us entre, we create our own path and then walk in with confidence, shattering the barrier without anyone else’s permission.
Benefits and Cautions
Creative Audacity is an exhilarating place from which to work, and it comes with surprising benefits. One of them is increased compensation. It’s not a given, but it is something you will have the confidence to claim because you have a story that supports your worth. With increased compensation comes even more freedom and opportunity. When you’re secure in your position and can afford more and better support and resources, your ability to create grows exponentially.
Creative Audacity is the opposite of being lonely at the top. In fact, you’ll likely be collaborating more than ever before because your ideas will attract other creatives, investors, or innovators with common pain points. At this level, you may be able to tap into partnerships and alliances in the form of advisory boards and councils.
A new idea doesn’t need the whole world to get on board right away. It needs a few key early adopters with the right vision and resources. Breaking through with your innovation now requires you to target your pitch. And with your security and positioning, there’s less risk to your whole career because you don’t need to hit it out of the ballpark, you just need to lock in the right partners.
This is an important caution: we can easily slip back into old habits of asking for permission and apologizing for what we want. We can lose sight of the crucial boundaries we built to preserve our time, energy, and health because we’re so used to sacrificing to get what we want. Lean on your support networks and remember that audacity is what got you here and what will keep you here.
The No’s and the I Don’t Know’s
When you’re collaborating and co-creating, you’re going to meet people who have risen without ever having to think expansively or creatively. I’m talking about some white males and others who easily conform to and are rewarded by the expectations of white normative culture. They’ve certainly had to be smart and hard-working, but they likely haven’t had to disrupt, take big risks, double-down on their difference, or push against whole corporate structures to get where they are. And so, it’s not surprising that they might not know what to do with the idea you want to pursue or the process you’ve built. If they aren’t on board, keep creating and find the connection you need.
In the future, I’ll dive into the more insidious stumbling block of self-oppression, and how you confront toxic dynamics within yourself and your closest community. But for now, don’t be discouraged or dissuaded by any roadblocks—they’re no longer dead ends when you’re working on your own terms with Creative Audacity.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive her newsletter directly in your inbox, please subscribe here.