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Help Your Career Flourish By Learning to Stand Your Ground

'By taking ownership of my time, I became better at my job all around.'


Originally published on Career Contessa, written by Laura Donovan

During the final interview for my most recent job, my future boss remarked that I seemed like a very “nice” person. In the type of role I’d be holding, he warned, I’d need to let go of that from time to time. I told him that I always try to be understanding but know when to put my foot down, and that helped land me the position.

Looking back on my brief but substantial experiences at the company, I see exactly why my manager stressed the importance of standing one’s ground from the very beginning. Though I was given the title of city manager for an app that matches professional cleaners with customers, I wasn’t responsible for managing the hundreds of independent cleaners on the platform, as that would be impossible for a single person. Instead, I was responsible for maintaining the success of the city itself. Because I wanted to be compassionate and helpful, I’d often go out of my way to answer any questions these folks had and be as helpful as possible on the phone, via email, or in person. It’s in my nature to look out for others even if I know I might not have the bandwidth to do it.

After a while, it started getting very hard to accommodate everyone. Suddenly all the people who needed a favor wanted a direct call from me, and whenever I agreed to do it, I got stuck on the phone for long periods of time listening to all sorts of feedback and comments about the company—things I lacked the power to change in my position. Being there for everybody began to take a lot out of me and prevent me from tackling other crucial tasks that just had to get done. As much as I wanted to be the girl to go above and beyond, I could feel my energy levels and productivity suffering. I had to explain that there wouldn’t always be time to chat over the phone, but that email was the most effective way to get in touch with us. This is true in other parts of my life as well: I slowly get around to answering text messages or voicemails from friends because our culture of constant communication can be very stressful.

By taking ownership of my time, I became better at my job all around. I made it clear that I couldn’t be anyone’s babysitter or lifeline. I didn’t do this to be apathetic or freeze anyone out, but because I had to run a fast-growing operation with a tight-knit team and knew there was only so much each of us could handle.

When I started the job, I struggled during difficult conversations with others. Perhaps I had to remove someone from the platform, or tell another person not to attend orientation because their background check reports came back with discrepancies. These are uncomfortable things to discuss with strangers, but I got very good at broaching these topics with grace and confidence; I never let anyone try to talk me out of a tough decision. In the beginning, I would feel awful and wonder if I’d made a mistake after doing something difficult. Then I remembered it’s impossible to please the world and that I’d never move forward in my career if I let others talk me out of things.

The moment I noticed the change in myself was when somebody showed up more than a half hour late to one of my presentations, and I told him to reschedule for another session. In the past, I would have shrugged off the lateness and let him catch the rest of the PowerPoint, especially since we’re in L.A., which is a perpetual mess of traffic congestion. But historically, I’d observed that people who are egregiously tardy tend to have additional issues long-term, so I didn’t let that slide. It was embarrassing to look like a mean teacher and tell the guy to go home in front of the room, but when I explained my rationale to the crowd, one woman said to me, “I drove all the way from Carson this morning too and I got here early. You were in the right.”

Though I never hope to be viewed as cold-hearted or too strict, I’m proud of the fact that my doormat days are behind me. As a result, I know I’ll thrive professionally and personally for the rest of my life.