Chivalry is not dead - why you should open doors for others in the workplace
Chivalry noun [u]
The combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, namely courage, honour, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak.
I attended a conference once where a highly regarded senior leader said to her room of avid listeners, “For every door that is opened for you, you should remember to open one for someone else”. She went on to describe how she had by happenstance come across remarkable and influential people who had been supportive of her development in her career, and if not for those people giving her opportunities to succeed, she would not have found the success she has today.
Those comments really resonated with me and had me reflecting. A close friend of mine working at a design firm frequently vents to me about her manager excluding her from direct interactions with the client, despite my friend doing all the design and prototyping work and it would obviously make sense for her to have consultations with the client. Her story is common across just about every industry. There are many reasons why people are not generous with affording others opportunities – feeling threatened by talented individuals, being caught up in busy schedules, or simply not consciously recognising how their influence can be used to develop others.
But we should broaden our thinking, and consider the opportunity cost in behaving this way regardless of the reasons why – at a minimum you are missing out on doing a positive deed to help someone. But on a much broader and personal level, you are not maximising your capacity to build a strong brand for yourself as an individual. Strip away whatever title you might have in your jobs, and think about how you would be perceived if you were a brand interacting with people - colleagues, friends, acquaintances, strangers. How would you want people to describe you to someone else?
A few years ago I was attending a business leaders’ conference, where a keen and clearly proactive law student came up to me during a break. After introducing himself and a few pleasantries, he said to me with a shy laugh “These conferences are daunting. I think I aimed too high before when I tried to speak to that guy over there”, pointing to one of the panellists who was a respected executive at Company X. He then went on to tell me how he had approached the executive and was told “look, you’re a student, I’m an executive at Company X, there’s nothing for us to talk about” after which the conversation ended and the executive left. I was astounded and it had me reflecting on Mr Executive’s behaviour and short-sightedness. That baby lawyer is probably going to be a grown up lawyer one day and he is going to remember that experience and perhaps share that story with others. Well Mr Executive, I don’t need to be a marketing expert to remind you that even a brand like VW can suffer reputational damage. Worse still, baby lawyer could think that attitude is perfectly acceptable and perhaps emulate it himself on his way to partnership.
I have been very fortunate in my career to date, despite having my fair share of run ins with the Mr Executive types. There have been some key anchor points where if not for a little luck, I would have experienced a very different outcome. And that luck had often come in the form of crossing paths with some very generous people; that barrister who introduced me to an exceptionally gifted female barrister who became my mentor (two lucky charms there), to the senior manager who thought to include me in a major transaction at work which led to my promotion, and subsequently led to many other new doors opening for me.
Both of those examples did not occur by convenience or for particular benefit to the other person, but out of a genuine willingness to support and offer me something that I could benefit from. The ability to recognise these instances is something we should be conscious of working on; too often we don’t acknowledge the generosity someone has acted on or worse, we’re cynical and assume an ulterior motive. Supportive behaviour is what we should all be copying, because I am certainly grateful to those who have been generous towards me and in turn, I am conscious of giving others opportunities when I have the chance to.
You can open doors for others in so many ways – from letting the medical intern put a chest tube in a patient during theatre, to encouraging an aspiring director to apply for a vacant board position that you know about. The fact is, being generous with your time, your knowledge and your influence won’t harm you as much (if at all) as it can build a strong personal brand for you by benefiting someone else and ultimately making you that person that people respect, like working with, and want to work for.