Storyteller-in-Chief: Embrace Being Uncomfortable

Ryan Buchanan and family

Ryan Buchanan, CEO of advertising and marketing agency Thesis, on the merits on putting yourself into uncomfortable positions in business.  

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I was raised in a family of entrepreneurs in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood, with loving parents who were deeply engaged in their kids’ lives and the local community.

I grew up privileged in every way — white, male, American, growing up in a nice part of town. I was comfortable.

0120 storyteller myanmar87Knowing that, my folks made sure to expose my sisters and I to uncomfortable situations.

When I was 10, my dad challenged me to rally my fifth-grade peers and elementary schools across the country to improve our academic performance.

No joke.

When I was 12, my parents took us on a six-week trip to Japan, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Thailand.


Ryan Buchanan in Myanmar in 1987 (bottom row, right)

We were often the only foreigners in mountain pottery villages in Japan, staying in guest houses nearby Buddhist temples, and we ate raw eggs and raw fish for breakfast. We primarily communicated through body language.

My experiential growth was far beyond anything I learned in school.

After college I moved to Portland. I couldn’t get enough of the mountains, coast and rugged terrain of the Pacific Northwest. Every February I’d head to the backcountry and spend days in a yurt without electricity or running water in below-zero temperatures.

I fooled myself into thinking that exposing myself to short-term physical discomfort during a magical backcountry ski trip would somehow transform me.

Eight years ago, my doctor told me I was experiencing the final warning sign before a heart attack. The culmination of extreme stress and anxiety, from trying to turn my company — a digital creative agency — into a software company, brought on that alarming experience.

We had failed and the consequences were overwhelming. But I’m forever grateful for it.

I was lucky. I didn’t have a heart attack, but my business did. No matter how much I believed and tried to convince employees that it would be OK, 38 of our 41 employees resigned over six months.

I thought I was the victim, when in fact I was the problem. I spent so much time trying to sell employees on the new vision that I never had the uncomfortable conversations about what would happen if the risky venture failed.

They had every right to be angry with me because I did not prepare them or myself for what might happen after failure.

There is a two-step framework for embracing being uncomfortable:

Step 1: Awareness. Gain awareness of where you are stuck. That can sometimes take years, and often starts with self-awareness of an activity you fear and avoid because it causes you pain and/or you likely suck at it.

Step 2: Action. Ask yourself how you can be intentional and take action to overcome that fear.

Four years ago, I was at an executive event in Portland with 90 business owners in the room, many of them friends of mine. In that moment, something became abundantly clear to me that had been there all along: I looked around and finally noticed that 85 of the 90 of us were white men. I realized I was the problem.

Unconsciously, by attending and networking at events with people I typically surround myself with, I unconsciously helped to create a system of privilege that benefited me and people who look like me — my company was not racially diverse.

A week later, I wrote a blog post called “Portland business community, too white, too male,” talking about my conviction and awareness that, like my own company, leadership throughout Portland companies was quite homogenous.

The Portland leadership community did not reflect the diversity of our population, and my call to action was for executives to commit to hiring a college student of color as a paid summer intern.

Writing the post was uncomfortable for me as one of the few white male CEOs in Portland to publicly talk about the importance of racial diversity.

I feared that I’d be viewed as a hypocrite because my company was not diverse at the time, or that I’d surely say the wrong thing, and the consequence would be career suicide.

That blog post marked the beginning of a nonprofit I co-founded, Emerging Leaders. We quietly started a movement. Emerging Leaders has placed more than 320 interns of color at 100 Portland companies and matched 97 mentors and mentees.

It has helped dispel the myth that there is no diverse talent in Portland.

I’ve learned something fascinating about people in power. Many times, we will choose a comfortable status quo and risk underperformance rather than be uncomfortable and talk about race.

At our digital agency, Thesis, we have made intentional strides in creating an inclusive workplace. The result: Four years ago, before we were intentional about diversity and inclusion, 12% of us were people of color. And now, with intentionality, 33% of us are people of color.

It’s only when we get uncomfortable and truly connect with people who have a different lived experience that we personally grow — and our companies grow too.

By taking risks and building relationships outside our comfort zones, we can create a far more inclusive culture where we can all show up fully ourselves.

Ryan Buchanan is founder and CEO of Thesis, a digital marketing agency, and co-founder of Emerging Leaders, a nonprofit dedicated to improving racial and cultural diversity at the leadership level in Portland-area companies.

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