But Sid Mohasseb, serial entrepreneur, investor, venture capitalist, and former the Head of Strategic Innovation for KPMG’s Strategy Practice teaches an entirely different approach: It’s the ability to adjust your strategy, almost constantly, that brings success. The environment is uncertain and changing, and changing with it is vital.
Sid teaches that we must push for more and evolve from one approach to another.
The caterpillar evolves many times over before it becomes a butterfly. It changes form until it turns into a completely different species. The caterpillar teaches us the wisdom of constant and incremental evolution and offers the promise of flying. To compete, to advance and to win, in our businesses and in our personal lives, we must evolve constantly and purposefully, always.
“Things do not change. We change.” -Henry David Thoreau
How is the game changing? And how do leaders prepare for the constant flux?
Innovation is constantly approaching from every corner of the world. The speed of change fueled by unprecedented technological advancements and constantly increasing customer expectations are challenging companies to “stay relevant” – competitive advantages are temporary. The game has changed from, “How do I gain an advantage and defend it?” to “How do I change to stay relevant?”
To win in a state of constant flux, leaders must shift their minds and change their actions. First, by realizing their addictions (old assumptions, orthodoxies, biases, etc.). Next, by aligning with uncertainty – no plans can be permanent and no decisions are certain. Leaders must learn to live with probability and a portfolio of related plans – always ready to take the path that offers the most likelihood of success. They should also appreciate the reality of their capabilities and aim to build the future in increments; success cycles must be shorter and capabilities (people & systems) have to be created accordingly. Last, leaders must constantly look for the next advantage and aspire for more “Aha’s.” They should look for and discover the next challenge or opportunity, always; innovate, always (create new value), and evolve, always.
“To win in a state of constant flux, leaders must shift their minds and actions.” -Sid Mohasseb
Why do we so often refuse to deal with change and uncertainty?
The refusal is more natural than intentional. We refuse to deal with change because of our fears of unknown (what is on the other side of change) and comfort with the status quo (comfortable routines we are used to and have served us well in the past). Most people embrace change when they i) realize the severity of the problem they face and ii) gain trust that what they can change to is a better state. We often refuse to change because we believe that the status quo does not present a major danger and/or we don’t trust the alternative paths offered by our leaders.
At business school and later at work, we are trained to look for certainty to plan to and execute against – assuming reduced risk. In our personal lives, we are comfortable living with probability and operating in uncertainly – there is a 40% chance of rain, and we decide, based on our risk tolerance, to take an umbrella or not. In our professional lives, we are expected to be certain and execute with confidence in outcomes. People, on a personal level, can innately adjust to uncertainty. However, they are reluctant operating with uncertainty at work because corporations expect and reward the illusion of certainty.
“The only thing that is constant is change.” -Heraclitus
Author and serial entrepreneur G. Shawn Hunter is the founder of Mindscaling. His latest book, Small Acts of Leadership: 12 Intentional Behaviors That Lead to Big Impact, argues that it’s the simple things, when done extraordinarily well, that make a great leader.
Shawn and I talked about his book and how it’s not always the most extraordinary, sweeping actions that make the biggest impact.
“The greatest leaders cheer us on when we try something new.” -Shawn Hunter
I love this philosophy because all of us can make just a few adjustments and improve our leadership today.
Do One Thing At A Time
You advocate that small, incremental choices can lead to a big impact. In your research for this book, what one small choice have you noticed in the most successful leaders?
I would say the one thing that successful people do is that they do one thing at a time. That might sound small and trifling, but, honestly, the way successful people get things done, or have meaningful conversations, is to do only that one thing. They turn off their phone when talking to people. They turn off email. They schedule time for writing and reading. They block off time for exercise and reflection. It sounds small, but it adds up.
Is it possible to teach self-confidence? What are some ways to increase it?
The biggest contributor to building self-confidence is building competence. Nothing makes you feel confident like being prepared. There is also a type of self-questioning that can be quite helpful. Instead of repeating the mantra, “Yes, I can do this!” to build self-confidence, try asking yourself if you have the capabilities to achieve what you are envisioning. If you ask specific questions of yourself, you will be forced to answer to your weaknesses and reconcile them.
“The biggest contributor to building self-confidence is building competence.” -Shawn Hunter
You talk about building resilience through challenge. Do challenges make the leader, or does the leader seek out challenges?
From what I understand through studying flow states, it’s a self-reinforcing paradigm, but only if you get the challenge part right. As your readers may know, flow states occur when the level of challenge presented meets (or slightly exceeds) your skill level. In that state we can become hyper-aware and hyper-focused. We also accelerate our learning. Once we feel that state, we often seek out those experiences which create flow states. There are people who can actually get addicted to inducing this type of state. They’re called Type T people, also known as adrenaline junkies.
Pronoia: believing the world is conspiring for your success.
Persistence. I love the story of your daughter and how she ended up with a rare poster of Taylor Swift. What are some ways to develop persistent curiosity in everything we do?
Good question! The great physicist Richard Feynman once described how you can spot a real expert versus a phony. Look for three little words, “I don’t know.” The phony will have all the answers, while the experts will be willing to admit what they don’t know. Real experts are relentlessly curious, even assertively curious – that is, they will demand explanations for things that many others simply accept as rules.
Here’s an interesting fact about people who describe themselves as curious. These people are also assertive. Curious people are decision-makers. They are influencers. They often say they have direct influence over the outcome of decisions and change. If you think of the people in your company and community who consistently drive change, I bet you will be thinking of inquisitive people – people willing to ask the hard questions.
“Creating confidence is the result of applied effort and work.” -Shawn Hunter
You advocate the counterintuitive advice of taking breaks when we’re busy. Why is taking a break so important? How do you get a type-A, driven leader to follow this practice?
All-nighters don’t scale. Period. In some corners of business, we have created a work environment in which it’s cool to brag about how many hours we work, and how little sleep we get, and how many deliverables we accomplish. I worked in a company once that mandated a rapid response time to every incoming message. When you create an environment which requires people to constantly monitor correspondence over email and text, the next thing they do is constantly initiate messages.
Studies demonstrate what we already know intuitively. That is, our intellectual and productivity capacity diminishes rapidly when we are sleep deprived and when we are distracted. To answer your question, organizations and leaders should reward people who deliver meaningful, thoughtful contributions, not who puts out the highest volume of email noise.
12 Intentional Behaviors for Big Impact
1: Believe in yourself.
2: Build confidence.
3: Introduce challenge.
4: Express gratitude.
5: Fuel curiosity.
6: Grant autonomy.
7: Strive for authenticity.
8: Be fully present.
9: Inspire others.
10. Clarify roles.
11. Defy convention.
12. Take a break.
Of the 12 critical competencies, is there one that more leaders struggle with than others?
How old I was, I don’t know. Probably around four or five years old, give or take, though my father will likely correct the number with his own memory of the same event. It was a typical hot summer day, and my family was enjoying a day at the beach. We were in Ocean City, New Jersey, to be specific. At that time, the beach seemed to stretch on forever, which I now realize was a function of my age more than the actual distance of the sand. We brought food to the beach, which was typical because there was no way my father would pay Boardwalk prices for anything.
As usual, I was in the water. Somehow I lost track of my brother, Jack, who was with me. When I pulled myself out, exhausted, I scanned the crowd, looking for someone I recognized. I started walking, dodging people, umbrellas, walking around towels, sunbathers, and family tents. After what seemed like a few hours, which likely meant twenty minutes, I realized I was completely, utterly lost.
No matter where I looked, I didn’t see a single person I recognized. I was just short of panic. It’s a feeling I can recall to this day. I had never been lost before, uncertain about what to do or where to go.
Then, I spotted my dad. Where I was stressed, he was as calm as could be. My heart rate may have been spiking, but not his. He was scanning the area, his eyes making a mechanical sweep of everything. As soon as I saw him, I felt a flood of relief as if one of the waves washed all of the worry away in an instant.
This is one of the first memories I have of my father, and one that’s fitting to remember on Father’s Day. A few years ago, I wrote about 9 Leadership Lessons from Mom. It was so popular that I was interviewed numerous times about my childhood. Today I want to turn that spotlight onto my dad and share some of that fatherly wisdom. Because that day on the beach, I had a realization: when I was lost, I wasn’t really on my own. Dad was looking for me. And he wouldn’t give up until he found me. Still to this day, when I hear a sermon about God leaving the flock of sheep to look for a single lost lamb (Matthew 18:12), I think of my own dad doing that very thing.
1. Leaders never stop learning.
My dad loves to learn. His degrees range from electrical engineering to operations research (and many others). He went to seminary and then got an MBA. Even now, he is finishing a doctorate in business. My siblings know that our family was able to “Google” something long before the search engine was even formed. We simply found Dad, inputted the question, and out would come the answer. When the internet first started, I would often find he was faster. And, when we took a family trip, we would have to stop and read every plaque and see more historical sites than anyone else I knew.
Leaders have an insatiable curiosity. The more you learn to ask questions, the more you will learn information that may change the future.
“Leaders have insatiable curiosity.” -Skip Prichard
When my wife and I were first married, we moved quite a bit. Guess who helped us move? Painted? Took down or put up wallpaper? How about fixing the leaky sinks? Inspecting the house? You’d think he was a contractor until I add that he did our taxes, analyzed the best mortgages, and told us about the history of the area.
That’s another way of saying my dad is uh…cheap. And you’d have to be with only a government salary to raise six kids and numerous others we would take into the family home. The lesson, though, is to look for the value in everything. Don’t overpay. Realize that we need to be good stewards of what we have. Don’t waste anything.
Leaders don’t wish for the impossible; they create results with what they have.
“Leaders create results with what they have, not what they wish they had.” -Skip Prichard
Yes, he had an important job. He dutifully gave his time and talent to his employer. However, my father didn’t lead at work and then fail at home. He spent time with us. He was loyal to his family, and in particular, to my mom. None of us ever questioned his devotion. And that taught me a powerful lesson about leadership: it isn’t defined by a job.
Leadership is defined by character, not position.
“Leadership is defined by character, not position.” -Skip Prichard
5. Leaders appreciate the uniqueness of each individual.
My childhood home was a bit unusual. Somehow people found their way to our home when they were in trouble. If you were abused, our home was a place of refuge. We had our share of rather strange people stopping over. I never recall my father judging any of them. They were in need, and so they were welcome. And that was it.
Leaders don’t judge. Leaders appreciate each individual for who they are.
“Leaders appreciate each individual for who they are.” -Skip Prichard
If I came home with a 93% on a paper, I don’t recall a celebration. Instead, I was asked what I got wrong, why, and did I understand what I did wrong. The focus wasn’t on the criticism, but on learning and on striving to be better. My parents required each of us to learn a musical instrument, too, simply because of the benefits we would accrue by doing that.
Leaders raise the bar. Leaders push those around them to reach for more.
“Leaders push those around them to reach for more.” -Skip Prichard
One of the most important skills today is the ability to be comfortable with being a novice. The world is changing so fast that new skills and knowledge make all of us feel uncomfortable. Embracing our inner novice, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and accepting being bad at something on the way to mastering it is the most important way to stay ahead.
“The ability to learn quickly is the most important skill to have.” –Erika Andersen
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses on leader readiness. She’s the author of three other books: Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic, and Growing Great Employees. All of her books are full of actionable advice from her three decades of advising and coaching executives.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Erika about her research into being comfortable with being continuously uncomfortable.
Be Bad First
What does it mean to be bad first?
It means being willing to go back to being a novice – to being not-good at new things – over and over again. As we move through our lives, it becomes increasingly challenging to accept the need to “be bad first.” We come to rely on and identify with our expertise; we get used to being treated as knowledgeable and experienced. To have to go back to being a beginner in order to acquire new skills and knowledge – especially in the public setting of work, in full view of our employees, bosses, and sometimes our customers – can be scary, embarrassing and frustrating. I wrote Be Bad First because I’ve come to believe that in order to succeed in this ever-changing world, you must be able to learn new things continuously and well – and that requires, among other things, getting good at being bad first.
There’s a generational change from Boomers and Gen-X to Millennials that is also at play. How do different generations react to this concept?
Generally, we’ve found it’s somewhat easier for younger folks to be bad first in the service of learning new skills. They tend to be still in the process of developing their expertise and are often therefore less “stuck” in what they already know. Also, most Millennials have grown up experiencing daily change in technology, communication, society, and business – for them, keeping up with ever-accelerating change has been the norm for their whole lives. However, many Millennials have a hard time with other aspects of new learning – especially Aspiration and Neutral Self-Awareness.
4 Mental Skills for Learning
1. Develop Aspiration
Let’s talk about your ANEW concept. A, for Aspiration, is the first step.
The model at the core of Be Bad First consists of four mental skills for learning that we call ANEW: Aspiration, Neutral Self-Awareness, Endless Curiosity, and Willingness to Be Bad First. Becoming adept at these skills will allow you to be a high-payoff learner, a master of mastery.
Aspiration means, quite simply, wanting something that you don’t now have. In terms of learning, aspiration is key because we only learn the things we want to learn. For instance, you can say over and over that you want to learn Spanish – but if you don’t make the required effort, it means you don’t really want to do it.
“Great learners unearth and then build their aspiration.” –Erika Andersen
I believe we often tell ourselves we want to do things because we worry that if we don’t actually want to, there’s nothing we can do about it. Fortunately, that’s not true. You can change your level of aspiration: you can make yourself want to do something. The secret is to identify benefits that are personally motivating to you of doing or learning that thing, and then envisioning a future where you’re reaping those benefits. (You may have noticed that you do this automatically when you do want to do something.)
So for example, if you decided to ramp up your aspiration to learn Spanish, you’d think about ways in which you might benefit from doing that – and perhaps the one that really resonates for you is that it would enable you to be a part of the team that’s expanding your company into the Chilean market. You imagine yourself in a couple of years, on that team, living in Santiago and building new business. If that’s personally exciting to you, I suspect you’ll suddenly find yourself taking real steps to improve your Spanish.
By the way, the problem many Millennials have with Aspiration is their belief that wanting or not wanting to do things is permanent and unchangeable – and they tend to reinforce their not-wanting by saying things like “No, I don’t want to – it’s just not me.” However, I’ve worked with Millennials for whom the idea that they can consciously change their level of “wanting” is hugely liberating, once they accept it.
2. Cultivate Neutral Self-Awareness
N, Neutral Self-Awareness. That one grabbed my attention. I think all of us have witnessed someone who is completely unaware of something – thinking they have a strength when everyone else knows it is a weakness. What’s the best way to see yourself objectively?
Wonderful question! The place to start, when trying to become more neutrally self-aware, is to note how you’re talking to yourself about yourself. Our self-awareness (or lack thereof) lives in our mental monologue. We’re continually commenting on ourselves internally: I’m great at that – I’m terrible at that – I used to be good at that, but I’ve lost the knack – I’m terrified of trying new things – I don’t mind making mistakes – I’m a slow learner – I’m the smartest guy in the room – I already know that…. You get the idea. Sadly, this internal commentary can often be dead wrong – and we tend to accept it without question because it’s happening inside our own head, most often beneath our conscious awareness. It’s like subliminal advertising!
So the way to become more self-aware is to recognize and question what you’re saying to yourself about yourself. For example, let’s say your boss tells you that you need to get better at delivering tough news to your employees. Perhaps your first thought is, What? I’m good at that. I may not be as direct as my boss would like, but at least I don’t make my folks feel bad.
Once you notice that you’re saying this to yourself, rather than just accepting it as true, ask yourself, Is that accurate? That has the effect of taking you “off automatic” and causing you to examine your beliefs about yourself more consciously. You might then realize that you don’t really know if your self-talk is accurate. So then you ask yourself, What facts do I have in this area? You might then remember that one person on your team has been consistently missing deadlines, and you’ve been “waiting for the right time to mention it” for months. Or that quite often when you think you’re being clear with employees about changes you want them to make in their behavior, they don’t seem to get the message. Now your self-talk about where you’re starting from in this area might shift to something like, I can see my boss’ point – I don’t seem to be very good at communicating difficult messages in a way that works.
And you notice, in this example, that as your self-talk becomes more accurate, you’re more neutrally self-aware, and better able to understand and accept what you need to learn.
(Many Millennials have a hard time with this because their parents have told them they’re great at everything, so their self-talk about their current strengths and weaknesses in areas of new learning is both woefully inaccurate and somewhat “stuck.” However, this same approach to recognizing and managing their self-talk is equally effective if they buy the core premise of needing to get more neutrally self-aware.)
“Accurate self-talk frees the brain to focus on learning.” –Erika Andersen