How do different cultures measure ‘success’?

Collaborating with people from different cultural backgrounds means MBA students need to be aware that we all view ‘success’ in different ways, says BI Norwegian Business School’s Anders Dysvik

In recent years, the working world has changed – job roles are more dynamic and flexible, and this has made the planning and management of careers more self-directed. Employees in this ‘boundaryless’ career context are advised, and even expected, to manage their own careers proactively. Individuals’ efforts to progress in this context, through career planning and skill development, are characterised by three core components: ‘taking control’, ‘anticipation’, and ‘information retrieval’.

‘Taking control’ involves proactive behaviours which offer a sense of autonomy and self-control in how an individual’s career is progressing. ‘Anticipation’ involves acting in advance and working towards personal goals before achieving them. In terms of ‘information retrieval’, proactive behaviours centre on accessing information and resources that allow individuals to achieve their desired career goals.

Past research has found that these behaviours are positively related to career success, but what is considered ‘success’ can differ among cultures.

When evaluating how successful we are in our careers, we are likely to have different priorities and be influenced by different norms or values that are set largely by the prevailing culture. Therefore, it is problematic that the majority of studies on proactive career behaviours have been conducted in single countries, predominantly the US and western Europe. These countries overwhelmingly reflect the WEIRD perspective (western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) where a strong emphasis on self-management is more prevalent than elsewhere in the world. This means standards of success are being applied to cultures where it may not be relevant.

Progression and importance

‘Success’ is also a very general term. A distinction needs to be made between ‘progression’ and ‘importance’. You might progress extensively in an area, such as gaining a salary increase, but you might not consider this of great importance so it would not be an appropriate measure of success for you.

My research, conducted with colleagues across Europe, Canada and Colombia, focused on the relationship between proactive career behaviours and the perceived achievement of two different measures of subjective career success: perceived financial success and work-life balance. We used a sample of 11,892 employees from 22 different countries selected from nine culture clusters defined by the Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) project; a project developed to help those in leadership understand which countries had similar and differing cultures.

Overall, we found that employees were more likely to be proactive in their career to achieve subjective financial success than to achieve an effective work-life balance. However, the importance of being proactive to achieve either of these measures differed among cultures.

The GLOBE project identifies nine cultural competencies; characteristics which most cultures exhibit to varying degrees. It was how a country measured on four of these competencies – ‘in-group collectivism’, ‘power distance’, ‘uncertainty avoidance’, and ‘humane orientation’ – which indicated what they considered to be indicators of career success. When it comes to work-life balance, career proactivity was shown to be relatively more important in cultures with high levels of humane orientation and in-group collectivism.

Humane orientation is the degree to which a society encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, and kind to others. Cultures with high humane orientation are characterised by a shared understanding that the interests of others are important, and have expectations of behaviours that promote the well-being of others. This includes countries such as the US, UK, and Australia.

In-group collectivism is the degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty and cohesiveness in organisations or families. In individualistic societies, people view themselves as independent and free to pursue behaviours that benefit them, without much regard to the consequences for the larger group. In collectivist societies, individuals view themselves as interdependent with members of the groups to which they belong. In our research, cultures measuring high on in-group collectivism, such as those in the UK and US, valued career proactivity in attaining a good-work life balance. 

Subjective success

Career proactivity was found to be relatively more important for subjective financial success in cultures with high levels of power distance, low levels of uncertainty avoidance and, surprisingly, among cultures displaying high levels of in-group collectivism. 

Uncertainty avoidance considers the way people in a society deal with unforeseen events and change. Countries that score lower here tend to be better at accepting change, are more willing to take risks, and favour informal interactions instead of regulating situations with predetermined norms. This included ‘Latin American’ and ‘eastern European’ countries, such as Georgia and Brazil.

Power distance concerns society’s views on individual status and the degree to which it accepts there is an unequal distribution of power and authority. Countries with high levels of power distance, such as Japan and China, considered financial success to be an important indicator of career success which individuals should proactively strive for. High power distance cultures are characterised by strong hierarchies and limited upward social mobility.

As cultures with high in-group collectivism value group cohesion and the prioritisation of common goals, it might be assumed that they would also view the pursuit of financial success as a selfish endeavour. Unexpectedly, however, it was found that cultures with high in-group collectivism also considered financial success important for career success. An explanation for this finding may be that high in-group collectivist societies expect individuals to use their financial success for the benefit of the whole group, rather than for individual or self-centred goals. In fact, in collectivist countries, such as China and India, individuals tend to view a poor work-life balance as an inevitable cost in achieving financial stability for their family.

Overall, our findings revealed that proactive career behaviours were significantly related to perception of financial success, but not work-life balance. This means being proactive in your career to achieve financial success is more universally accepted across cultures, whereas the importance placed on being proactive to achieve a good work-life balance differs between cultures.

There are a number of explanations as to how culture has an influence on what is considered career success: culture affects how people interpret their own needs and values and therefore which career goals they are likely to focus on. Individuals shape their needs and perceptions based on interactions with others. This social influence affects how individuals evaluate their career. For example, a culture in which financial success is highly valued could cause individuals to believe that financial success should be important to them, causing them to subsequently direct their career goals towards achieving financial success.

Another explanation is that culture influences what information and resources we are exposed to, influencing the information retrieval component of proactive behaviour. Information from our environment indicates what we should consider as important. Therefore, the information we are exposed to through proactive career behaviours is likely to match whatever is considered important in our culture. For example, if we see that our culture, and others from it, value a good work-life balance, then we are more likely to strive for this. This contributes to individuals working towards career goals that are most compatible with the values and norms of the culture.

Work-life balance: a difficult goal to maintain

Although there was no significant relationship between work-life balance and proactive career behaviours, this does mean that the relationship wasn’t negative. This suggests that employees are not proactively attempting to advance their career in a way which is negatively impacting their work-life balance. This non-significant relationship may be due to the difficulty of maintaining the goal of achieving a good work-life balance, as it is not normally dependent on the efforts of just one person; you might be striving for a good work-life balance while others in your life, such as family or friends, are not.

Research into different cultural perceptions of success is important as career success is associated with greater life satisfaction and psychological well-being. Our findings suggest that proactive career behaviours generally pay off in terms of subjective financial success, regardless of culture. Such proactivity will be especially beneficial for employees in high power distance and low uncertainty avoidance cultures. For work-life balance, career proactivity is more likely to translate into a sense of career achievement in cultures with high in-group collectivism and humane orientation. Individuals should always exhibit career proactivity, but keep in mind how culture may influence the career goals interpreted as important and worthy of proactive behaviours.

Learning about cultural differences should be incorporated into MBA curricula as the world is becoming increasingly more connected and this makes understanding how to work with different cultures more important than ever. For future business leaders, who will be working with and employing people from all over the world, it is an integral area of study.  

Collaboration with other cultures

Collaborating effectively with those from other cultures necessitates an awareness that we all view success in different ways and that what’s important for one employee may not be as vital to another. Business leaders must understand this if they are to succeed.

Encouraging and supporting MBA students to become more proactive in managing their careers, meanwhile, is likely to improve their subjective career success. This can be beneficial for organisations because high career success can lead to lower turnover and increased support for organisational change. 

Although businesses and employees both benefit from being highly proactive, employees should not be allowed to run around recklessly. Any individual’s proactiveness in this regard needs to consider the effect they are having on both themselves and those around them. They might be working more proactively to achieve what they consider goals for success, but ultimately these might not be entirely beneficial for them, the company, and their colleagues, especially if they are neglecting their family life or not working as a team at work.

Anders Dysvik is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Department of Management and Organisation at BI Norwegian Business School.

This article was originally published in Ambition, the magazine of the Association of MBAs (AMBA).



Adopt a learning mindset to succeed in business

Former Olympic rower Greg Searle has translated lessons from sport to the world of business. In an interview with Kevin Lee-Simion, he outlines some practical advice, from ‘un-learning’ bad habits to building emotional connections within teams

It’s 1992, and the men’s coxed pairs rowing final at the Barcelona Olympics is reaching its climax. 

Team GB –  23 year-old Jonny Searle and his 20-year-old brother Greg Searle – are gaining ground on the leaders, Team Italy. The finish line is approaching. An incredible sprint finish sees the Searles overtake the Italians in the last few metres and win the gold medal.  

Greg Searle followed his success at the 1992 Olympics by winning a second gold medal at the 1993 Rowing World Championships. He went on to win medals in the subsequent seven World Championships in which he competed and has a total of three Olympic medals to his name. 

While training and competing in the late 1990s, Searle became increasingly aware that the lessons he had been learning in sport could be translated to business. After the 2000 Sydney Games, he decided to retire from rowing and, after an 18-month spell sailing in the America’s Cup in New Zealand, he moved back to the UK and began his business coaching career in earnest. 

Reflecting on his sporting past and how he made the move into consultancy, Searle explains: ‘I worked with organisations even as I was rowing. I felt I had an understanding of how to get the best out of myself and the best out of teams.’

Rowing ‘smarter’

The temptation of a home Games brought Searle out of retirement to train with the GB men’s eight for the 2012 London Olympic Games and he was rewarded with a bronze medal. He believes his experience as an executive coach enabled him to be a ‘smarter rower’: he put into practice ideas had he learned in the business world to help his team achieve success. 

For example, he had more honest conversations with team members, encouraged the giving and receiving of feedback, took responsibility for his actions and asked for help when he required it.

‘I loved the ethos behind London 2012 of inspiring a generation,’ he says. ‘I felt that I could be part of a great team and I could do something that was genuinely me at my best and encourage others to challenge themselves too.’ 

Now Searle is once again focused on executive coaching and his varied work includes advising business leaders on performance, engagement, change, emotional connections, resilience
and adaptability. 

He firmly believes that, in both sport and business, passion plays a huge part in working towards, and achieving, a goal. 

‘The most important thing is to find something you’re passionate about and really care about what you’re doing,’ he says. ‘There needs to be an intrinsic motivation. Then, I think work doesn’t feel like work.’

Searle believes individuals can find this ‘passion’ by considering four key aspects: ‘First, you have to find work that is meaningful to you,’ he attests. ‘Second, you need to be in control; third, you need a sense of belonging within your team; and fourth, you have to be good as possible at what you do, and get recognised and rewarded for it.’ 

Searle identified a passion for both rowing and business, but needed to complement this by adopting a learning mindset – a will to improve and develop on an ongoing basis – in order to stay at the top of his game.

He explains: ‘Once you attribute your success solely to your talent and ability, you stop learning new things. I thought I was really talented because I won a gold at the Olympics at the age of 20. I didn’t work as hard for the 1996 Olympics, and didn’t achieve a gold medal.’ 

Adopting a learning mindset

Putting this into the context of business, Searle adds: ‘Individuals, organisations – and MBAs particularly – need to keep learning and remain open to feedback. I was rowing at my best when I had a clear goal and I saw every day as an opportunity to improve. MBAs and business leaders need to do the same.’ 

Searle advises people to adopt and retain a learning mindset throughout their careers, asking themselves: ‘Do I have an attitude that says today is an opportunity to learn, so in the future I can take on bigger projects and face bigger challenges? 

‘I want to learn every day – and tomorrow I want to be slightly better than yesterday,’ he stresses. ‘That’s the learning mindset people need to take into work.’ 

If an entire workforce takes on this learning mentality, it follows that the potential of the whole organisation will be maximised. But Searle also emphasises the importance of what he calls ‘un-learning’, which he defines as the ability to forget a habitual way of doing something, so that you can learn a new, and better way. We all have past experiences but we have to decide whether the past comprises the tools that will help us in the future, or whether the past consists of “baggage” holding us back,’ he says.’ It depends on how you filter you past.’ 

By this he means that individuals must take a step back and really evaluate their past experiences, in a bid to identify and interpret the lessons within them as well as the ‘tools’ that can help them move forward. It is important to note that individuals must be careful not to misread the past, to ensure that the things that used to get in the way do not influence the future.  

Moving forward

‘Un-learning’ helped Searle to move forward in his rowing career.

‘I was coached by Jurgen Grobler, the Head Coach of GB rowing for the Sydney Olympics, but I didn’t like his methods at the time, so I tried to prove to him that my way was the best way,’ he explains. ‘As a result, I was competing with Jurgen, and didn’t want to see him be successful. I needed to un-learn my filters about Grobler and his coaching methods.’ 

Searle misinterpreted the past, and brought the wrong ‘tools’ into the present, and this led to incorrect preconceptions about Grobler. 

He adds: ‘It wasn’t until I missed out on a medal at the Sydney Olympics, that I realised I was the one misreading the past – and this was a factor in our unsuccessful campaign’. 

To prepare for the 2012 London Olympics, Searle analysed his past – in particular the events involving Grobler – and identified what he, himself, had done wrong. This meant that he was no longer competing with the coach. 

 ‘When the London Olympics came around, I recognised that my coach offered a lot of wisdom,’ he acknowledges. ‘With un-learning, I was able to white wash the painting and start again.’

Emotional connection

Un-learning was important for Searle and, as a result, he didn’t make the same mistakes in London as he did in Sydney. He realised the importance of the role of the coach and of forging a sense of togetherness rather than internal conflict; one of the elements of an effective team is an emotional connection.

Searle says: ‘One of the most powerful examples I can give about the importance of  of an emotional connection is a story about the French pair to whom I lost in Sydney. During the race, my team mate was just urging me to pull harder while the French bowman was shouting the names of his team member’s children. They pulled even harder and won the gold medal. There is something about having a psychological and emotional commitment to your teammates and these connections  can be developed in any team, sport or business.’ 

However, for this emotional connection to have any sort of effect, let alone push a team to gold, a lot of work has to be done to nurture this bond, as Searle explains. ‘In 2010, we decided, as a team, that the medals we won at the World Championships wouldn’t be defined by what we did on the day but what we did in the next 50 days leading up to, and during, the World Championships.’ 

Having a shared set of values means that the whole team is working towards the same goal, which further strengthens the emotional connection. 

‘We came up with four key words about how we were going to be, leading up to, and during the World Championships: long, relaxed, hard, and connected,’ says Searle. ‘We would row long; we could stay relaxed and enjoy what we were doing; we would be hard on ourselves; and we would be connected [to each other] emotionally, and to the water. 

‘To enhance this emotional connection, we would remove our sunglasses before the de-brief so we could look each other in the eye.’

An emotional connection builds an effective team, and with teams, it is what about what the group achieves together, not individual accolades. Searle relates this to how the role of the leader changes in business and sport. 

‘The coach gets very little recognition and very little reward,’ he says. ‘The coach might have a big ego but must recognise it is his or her job to facilitate the performance of others. In business, the boss gets the recognition when the team performs well.’ 

Athlete to coach and student to leader

Relating this to MBA students, he explains that they need the attributes of both coach and athlete. 

‘You might decide to study for an MBA because you’re a good performer, but after you graduate, you need to facilitate others and sometimes help them do things you couldn’t even dream of doing,’ he explains. ‘So essentially, an MBA student is the athlete, and the MBA graduate is the coach’.

MBAs can take lessons from sport, and these teachings can then be used in business, as Searle points out: ‘Sport is useful because it is so clear where the finish line is. You have a clear focus and can methodically work towards it and check your progress. We can translate this to business by using quarterly/annual goals to measure progress.’  

During the period between Sydney 2000 and London 2012, Searle’s experience in executive coaching allowed him to take the lessons he learned from business back into sport. This included a greater ability to have honest conversations, being prepared to give and receive feedback, taking responsibility for his actions and not being afraid to ask for help. Ultimately, when preparing for and competing in London 2012, he used his role in the team to get the best out of himself and the people around him. 

Analysing failures

In addition to his undeniable success, Searle has experienced ups and downs in his career, and recognises the importance of analysing mistakes. This may help to avoid repeating them in future, but it is also worth considering whether you could have changed outcomes had you behaved differently. 

‘It’s important to think about attribution,’ he advises. ‘When something doesn’t go well, I try to recognise my role in the problem. Then I see if I could have done something about it, or if the problem was out of my control. I say “control the controllables, and control your reaction to everything else”.’ 

‘I love the quote “if you win, have a party; if you lose, have a meeting,”’ he continues. ‘But if you do this, you miss opportunities in both cases: sometimes you win with luck and sometimes you lose even though you did everything right. I would say celebrate the things you’ve done well, regardless of winning or losing, and learn from the things you didn’t do well. It comes back to attribution, and taking a real look at your performance.’ 

Challenging and stretching people

In terms of Searle’s coaching style, how does he use his experiences to coach people in all aspects of the business world? 

He explains that he simply brings in various aspects of the things he has learned himself throughout his career, such as un-learning. 

‘I use my experience to challenge and stretch people,” he says. ‘I try to help them recognise the influence the past has on their performance, and show them how they can get the most out of their life and the people they work with.’

Teaching MBAs to learn from failure

Business Schools can break down taboos around failure and help MBAs cope with and learn from it within a psychologically safe environment. Kevin Lee-Simion talks to three Business School leaders about how they address ‘failure’ as a key topic within MBA programme design

We strive for success, but could it be argued that we must experience failure in order to achieve it? Dr Ivo Matser discusses the topic of failure within Business Schools and for MBA students.

Is failure a necessity?

Yes, but not because people want to fail or people should fail. Failure is not a goal, failure is inevitable. Of utmost importance is the acceptance of failure as a probable outcome of an experiment, innovation or attempt of improvement. Without experimenting, innovation becomes improbable. Accepting failure and not being frightened to fail are of equal importance.

The problem is that we do not share failures and mostly hear about success stories. But ‘behind’ successes are failures. Many success stories are written in hindsight and are not the actual stories. These success stories imply that people understand the market and that decision makers are invariably able to develop reliable forecasts which is impossible in reality. 

Failure does not form the curriculum in higher education

Many people believe in forecasts but they fail to recognise them as projections of a desired future. Not meeting these projections is failing and this is perceived as stupid. Schools want to teach smart things and not stupidity. Moreover, the education system is based on the punishment of failures. 

As children, we are encouraged to experiment. Yet as soon as we go to school we are graded and punished for failures. This does not mean that we should not assess people. Assessment could be more geared towards learning processes and on what people can do. Additionally, it should motivate people to take responsibility for applying their talents properly. Feeling responsible for developing your talents means continuous improvement and not being afraid of challenges. 

Business Schools must create an environment in which MBAs can thrive through failure

There are many ways to integrate failures into programmes. Feeling safe with your peers is a condition to share and use failures. 

It is imperative that MBA students bring their own failures into the classroom and that we can invite successful people to share their dark sides of success. Practising behaviour is important. We can teach how to lead a meeting but it is better to organise simulations where students can practice and learn from their failures and mistakes.

Teaching about failure

You cannot teach how to behave as we need experiential learning – learning by doing and receiving feedback. Failures are important in MBA programmes, however, most programmes do not teach it, but let students experience failures. Feedback is an important learning intervention in behaviour, often more powerful than teaching. I personally train people in giving and receiving feedback.

How to handle failure

An MBA student can handle failure if the MBA is able to create a learning context. If you work in an environment where ‘management by fear’ is the business culture, it is quite naïve to start your own kind of safe environment to share and support experimenting. What I do not see in many MBA programmes is the topic ‘how to manage upwards/boards/shareholders’. Most MBA programmes only focus on managing downwards and horizontally. It is important to learn how to manage superiors or systems to create a learning environment with a supportive feedback system.

Strategies to learn from failure

This is experiential learning but with a twist as it’s based on talents and the potential of people. Successes and failures in your personal development journey work, because this is based on your talents.

Strategies that emphasise failure

If people are not allowed to fail, this does not prevent them from failing. They will simply become very smart at hiding failures or just do the minimum demanded to reduce the probability of failure. 

This means that you are likely to spot failures late in the day, also leading to low productivity and slow decision-making processes. By contrast, openness, transparency, feedback and cultivating a ‘safe environment’ help avoid significant losses, because we notice failures earlier. This results in greater innovation, higher productivity and less sick leave. 

Dr Ivo Matser is President of GISMA Business School

Marco Tortoriello discusses success and failure in business, and the role Business Schools have to play in breaking the failure taboo.

Why is failure a subject that is not really touched upon in higher education?

This has to do with the general image that business leaders like to have of themselves; no one likes to see themselves as a failure. We tend to look at other people’s failings and say things such as ‘of course they failed, they didn’t take this into consideration’. The vast majority of business ideas fail. These ideas don’t necessarily fail because they are bad ideas but because people have a poor understanding of what it takes to implement the ideas.

Business Schools should do more to teach students about failure

Business Schools should collectively teach students more about failure. There should be conversations about failure and it should not be viewed as a taboo topic.

Business Schools need to teach students to acknowledge failure and help them consider failure as part of the learning process.

Case discussions about failure are the most natural way of recreating a scenario in which a decision was made that led to failure. Through these discussions, students can talk about things such as whether there was consistency in the decision made even though it ended up in failure. In my MBA classes, I always incorporate cases studies about failure and keep a balance between the ‘winning’ business moves and the business moves that didn’t go so well. I tell my students that the people who made these ‘bad’ decisions were judged as ‘stupid’. However, in these case studies, the people who failed were the best and brightest in that industry.

When we recognise failure, we should be humble. Dismissing a failure as an ‘obvious’ mistake does not help students to understand the situation that led to the wrong set of decisions. If a mistake were ‘obvious’, they wouldn’t have made that mistake.

We can avoid mistakes by learning from the experiences of others. From that perspective, case studies are useful for examining the failure and success of business moves.

Business leaders can be afraid to fail, and afraid to innovate. Business Schools have an opportunity to change this mindset 

Business Schools need to talk openly about failure and help students consider it as ‘part of the picture’. Failure is a discrete event. But to get to this discrete outcome, there is a sequence of decisions. Business Schools should help students dissect the process to analyse what went wrong in the sequence of decisions that eventually resulted in failure. A critical appraisal will enable students to learn from instances of failure.

People get emotionally involved in projects. When one fails, they don’t want to talk about why it didn’t work. But the point is to think about the next move. This move can be just as important and as relevant for you in your personal growth and career as the previous one that failed.

The best strategies an MBA can use to learn from failure

MBAs can put themselves in the shoes of decision makers. However, this is very hard because we have the benefit of hindsight. So MBAs need to be able to ‘reset the clock’ and only use the information that was available at the time.

MBAs could think of failure as a cadaver, with themselves as the medical examiner. Physicians conduct autopsies to understand what happened when someone has died. They are not emotional and are objective. MBAs need to do the same when regarding failure.

Marco Tortoriello is Professor of Strategy and Organisations at Università Bocconi and Associate Dean Master Division at SDA Bocconi.

Failure is part of life but it isn’t addressed sufficiently. Deniz Ucbasaran talks about failure, its concepts and the teaching methods surrounding it.

Most things we teach are geared towards success. We want to attract the best students; those who have succeeded. We carefully pour through their CVs to identify their academic achievements, we scrutinise their prior work experience to see what they have accomplished.

When they arrive, we teach them about success using examples of successful companies and leaders.

This is understandable. After all, nobody wants to pay for an MBA to learn about failures, right? There are a whole host of reasons why such an attitude can be problematic. 

Blameworthy failures

If we’re not careful, we may be committing a scientific sin – ‘sampling on the dependent variable’. If we only look at the practices of successful companies or individuals and conclude that it is their practices that led to success, our conclusions can be misleading. It’s only when we analyse the practices of those that failed as well as those that succeeded, that we can attribute a particular practice to success with greater accuracy. 

Failure and setbacks are part of life. While failing is not a new phenomenon, our ability to predict accurately what will happen next is diminishing as we operate in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. With this uncertainty, comes surprises, setbacks and failures. We therefore need to acknowledge these, understand them and learn how to deal with them in such a way that our failures might fuel future successes.

All failures are not created equal. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, suggests that failures fall within a spectrum. On the one extreme are blameworthy failures such as those that result from people deviating from rules or making insufficient effort. Some failures may result from lack of knowledge or experience or due to overload. In the latter cases of failure, the blame may lie with superiors for misjudging competence and stress levels.  

At the other extreme are ‘intelligent’ failures which are the result of carefully crafted experiments designed to generate learning about what works and what doesn’t. These intelligent failures are low in cost but high in learning. 

For example, you may have an idea for a novel product. Rather than going full steam ahead you might develop a low-cost prototype and start by getting potential customers to use it and provide feedback. You recognise that they don’t want the product you had in mind but learn that they would love it if it were available in a particular style or if it had a particular function. Although finding out that potential customers don’t want your product in its current form might seem like a failure, you haven’t invested a huge amount to find out some information that now provides you with new options. These kinds of failures are part of the various processes that we teach our students. But while they make intuitive sense, these ideas are often harder to put into practice.

Minimising the cost of failure

Many failures are not carefully planned and designed. They can come as a shock and are often hard to cope with. Therefore, although a failure represents a jolt that encourages us to reflect, learning from failure is not automatic. For starters, minimising the costs of failure can be hard. If left unchecked, many of us are prone to the bias known as ‘escalation of commitment’ where we might invest more and more in the hope of turning things round when they look like they may be failing. Also, failure can be an emotional experience associated with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear, blame and these feelings may be heightened in certain contexts and cultures. After all, not everybody lives in the entrepreneur-friendly, failure-tolerant Silicon Valley. The emotions associated with failure might lead to defensive strategies such as blaming others or attributing the failure to external factors beyond one’s control. Such emotional responses may limit the lessons learned from the failure. 

It was partly for this reason that one entrepreneurship professor took issue with the way learning from failure was being presented – suggesting that the process was more complex than it appeared. Drawing on his own experience of dealing with his father who had to close the family business, Dean Shepherd, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Notre Dame University, explained how the failure of an entrepreneur’s business could be likened to the loss of a loved one, generating a response similar to grief. Such feelings might lead to numerous coping strategies, not all conducive to learning from failure.

An appropriate emotional response

Even with less significant failures, emotions are still likely to be involved. So, what can we do to make sure there is an appropriate emotional response? And how can we prepare the next generation of managers and leaders for dealing with failures?

One important first step is to ‘normalise’ discussions around failure. Through discussions about failure we can create safe environments in which failure can be discussed. 

Any discussion of failure should seek to enhance understanding of how people think and feel about failure. By inducing uncertainty and failures in a relatively safe environment we can help our students get to know what it feels like to fail and understand their default responses. Our default responses to failure are often underpinned by our mindset. 

According to Carol Dweck, author of the bestseller Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, for those with a fixed mindset, a failure or setback is self-defining: ‘If I fail at something, that makes me a failure.’ Accordingly, situations where failure might occur are frequently avoided by those with a fixed mindset. In contrast, for those with a growth mindset, even though the failure is still a painful experience, it is something to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.  

Pedagogic approaches that simulate uncertainty and failure may help students understand their default responses and when coupled with having these responses questioned, may allow them to develop new neural pathways for dealing with failure. Role plays may be a powerful method for helping students understand failure better. How, for example, might you persuade a colleague to join a high-risk project? 

Along similar lines, Professor Shepherd suggests students might be asked to role play being a boss having to give a speech, announcing the closure of the business to employees or having to provide advice to an entrepreneur who appears to be coping badly with a failed business. Professor Shepherd suggests that those who have failed should oscillate between a restoration-orientation, whereby they move on and focus on new or different activities, and loss-orientation, whereby they focus on what they have lost and try to make sense of this loss. 

Too much of the latter can lead to rumination and negative emotions, which might get in the way of the individual moving on and functioning normally but too much of the former may mean there is minimal reflection on the failure and therefore limited understanding of what happened. To make the most of a failure, individuals will need to reflect on the failure but also bounce back and apply the learning in the form of changed behaviour.

If failures are inevitable in uncertain environments, we may also contemplate the idea of resilience training – a concept successfully introduced in both the military and in schools by the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Part of the training involves building psychological fitness, which involves challenging the default responses to failures referred to above. This process starts by helping individuals understand that their response to an adverse event is the result of their beliefs, not the event itself, and then teaching them ways to dispel unproductive beliefs about the failure quickly and effectively. 

We’ve all been to one workshop or another, coming away feeling enthused and excited to change our practices and before we know it, we’re back in the usual patterns of work and all is forgotten. So how do we develop the right habits when it comes to making the most of our failures? It requires the kind of practice in which experts engage. Anders Ericsson  – ‘the expert on experts’ – calls this purposeful practice in his book Peak

Unlike regular practice, purposeful practice has a number of features including being focused on well-defined, specific goals; involving feedback, and involving getting out of your comfort zone. Applied to the context of maximising the learning from failure, purposeful practice might involve investing resources into a highly uncertain project. It might also involve being specific about what we want to learn from the project. And finally, it might involve regularly eliciting feedback both during and after the project. 

The knock-on effect

This feedback might include technical data as well as other data from project team members, users and other stakeholders. Provided regularly, this can limit the escalation of commitment but also yield new, surprising information. Should failure occur, one useful method for fostering and capturing the effects of purposeful practice might be the creation of a failure report. 

A failure report captures reflections on the failure and in so doing clearly identifies the lessons learned from these. Knowing that you will have to create a failure report at the end of any project is likely to foster the discipline of purposeful practice. The benefits of creating such reports are likely to be the opening of dialogue around failure and help normalise acceptable failures. The knock-on effect is encouraging innovation and appropriate risk taking. 

Risk taking and innovation run counter to many individuals’ natural inclination to avoid failure. Future leaders therefore play a key role in creating what Professor Edmondson refers to as a ‘psychologically safe’ environment. To create such an environment, leaders will need to help their followers understand the hallmarks of intelligent failures and how to design projects such that learning can be maximised if failure occurs. 

A culture that shares and forgives failures

In her book The End of Competitive Advantage, Rita Gunther McGrath, Professor of Management at Columbia Business School, argues that all organisations need to create a pipeline of transient advantages to replace those that have been competed away. 

Designing a systematic innovation process that supports experimentation, with intelligent failures built into the process, will therefore become all the more important. 

A key component of any such process will be the creation of a culture that shares and forgives failures and even celebrates them if they have been designed intelligently and lead to valuable learning. This might involve leaders sharing their own failures or conducting an intelligent failure audit like the one suggested by Ashley Good, Founder of Fail Forward, an organisation that helps other organisations learn, innovate, and build resilience. 

Learning should take place after both successes and failures. Although the incentives to do a’ post-mortem’ following a failure may be greater, we may need even stronger incentives to understand why we succeeded. Therefore, while it is important to teach students about failure, it is just as important to teach them concepts such as purposeful practice, resilience and tools to facilitate systematic reflection to help them through both the ups and downs.

Deniz Ucbasaran is Professor of Entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School

7 tips for thriving in your workplace

For recent graduates and professionals seeking their first real taste of working life, thriving in your workplace is vital. After all, this is the first step in what will be an illustrious career for you, so you want to make it count by being the best you can be.

Truly thriving in your workplace can also only increase your job security, help you network internally, raise your confidence and help with career progression down the line.

Here are a few tips for those who are looking to maximise their chances of thriving in the workplace:

1. Set up quarterly targets with your manager

In some industries, like sales, your performance will be entirely measured on targets. However, why not set some individual professional goals to achieve with your manager too? These are ones that you won’t share with the rest of the office.

It’s always good to have something to work towards and it should ensure that you are constantly developing. Plus, you’re bound to work more efficiently and with more motivation if you’re chasing a goal, rather than simply praying that the clock hands move faster.

2. Write out daily and weekly targets

Setting more frequent goals is an excellent way to motivate yourself. Each Monday morning, for example, you could set out what you want to achieve for the rest of the week.

The best part is, these goals don’t even have to be work-related. They can include something as simple as talking to your colleagues at lunch in order to improve your working relationships or using your break to walk around a park and get some fresh air.

Writing out a to-do list each morning, meanwhile, can keep you organised and on top of your tasks for the day. It also helps you to see where you might have free time to ask for more work. Organisation is a key strength you need in order to thrive at work.

3. Work with your colleagues

If you’re an introvert, this can be difficult. However, working alongside your colleagues can play a huge part in not only enjoying your job, but perhaps thriving in your role too. 

For recent graduates, this is likely going to be your first experience of a full-time working environment. You don’t want your first proper job to be awful, do you? This is the start of your career, so you need to hit the ground running.

Show your colleagues that you aren’t a deer caught in headlights and offer your knowledge and insight into projects. Plus, don’t be too proud to ask for help or to work on certain tasks in the first few months. This will enable you to bounce ideas off your colleagues, gain some invaluable knowledge of how tasks are completed and start building a strong professional network.

4. Lead meetings or projects

For recent graduates, confidence in your new role is key. From the very start, you want to show that you belong in this environment and you’re far more likely to thrive in your workplace if you feel confident.

You’re never going to gain leadership skills by taking a back seat. So, why not take some initiative and put yourself forward? Whether this is asking to lead meetings, client calls or projects, putting yourself in these positions is an excellent way to acclimatise yourself to working life. It also sets you up nicely for career progression too!

5. Hone your key skills

If you’re good at something, whether that’s a certain task or use of a specific software, demonstrate your ability. When starting a new job, doing something you know you’re good at will fill you with confidence.

What’s more, you may become the go-to person in the office that people come to when they need help with a task you’re proficiently skilled at. This will ensure you thrive in your workplace, and allow you to develop your best skills to a level of expertise.

6. Jump into the deep end

However, don’t just focus purely on one particular skill you have. You don’t want to be a one-trick pony. This can damage your chances of getting a better-paid position or promotion, as employers will always pick an employee who can offer versatility in their skill set.

Learn new skills, put yourself out of your comfort zone – these are just a few examples of what you can do to improve your versatility. If you’re worried about the consequences, make sure you have a few safety nets to fall back on. For example, ask a senior colleague to listen in on your client call so they can help you if you get stuck.

7. Are you ready to thrive in the workplace?

In order to secure career progression and get higher paid jobs in the future, you need to be the best you can be in your current role. When applying for new jobs, you will most likely have to use your existing employer as a reference. It goes without saying that if you thrive in their company, they’re far more likely to give you a glowing reference.

Make sure to follow these tips whether starting a new job, or if you just want to improve in your current role. Thriving in the workplace goes a long way to helping your career!

Lee Biggins is the CEO and Founder of CV-Library, an independent job board in the UK. Having launched the company from his bedroom nearly two decades ago, Lee has since seen CV-Library grow from strength to strength, and he is now committed to growing Resume-Library, its US sister site.

Future-proofing your organisation: developing well-rounded leaders

Many organisations have created a talent base that is skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not prepared for upper management

In a 2017 post for AMBITION, Juliette Alban-Metcalfe talks about developing a learning culture in organisations, stating: ‘We can’t afford to maintain the silos we’ve built up and ignored for years.’ In this statement, she challenges us as learning and development professionals to address a very important issue, developing well-rounded leaders.

For years, we have helped people develop expertise around specific jobs. However, the need to expand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our future leaders is often neglected. We’ve created a talent base that is skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not prepared for upper management.

It is said that by 2030, baby boomers will be completely out of the workforce. So we, as L&D departments and professionals, need quickly to rectify the silos of specialists we’ve created by broadening the role-specific training of the past in order to address the workforce needs of the future. 

Our challenge is to develop a new generation of company leaders capable of making well-rounded and well-informed decisions. So what types of things should we be helping employees to learn, and how?

Many employees don’t know the strategy of their organisation. They are so focused on their individual job that they miss the big picture.

Competitor knowledge is something we’ve seen particularly lacking. People get caught short in being able to ‘sell’ their products and services as the best choice in comparison to their competitors. In an ideal world, all employees would understand their company mission, vision, strategy, and competitive advantage.

Few individuals understand their company’s business model, and how it makes money. Understanding how the company makes money helps individuals make better decisions regarding expenditure, negotiations, investments, and more. 

Continuous improvement is a concept that every individual should embrace. There is always a better way to do something and each individual should be responsible for ensuring that their job is done in the most logical, efficient and ethical manner. Continuous improvement helps a company make incremental improvements over time, and achieve ‘breakthrough’ improvements.

A stakeholder is someone with a positon on a topic, so they can be anyone. Knowing who the stakeholders are helps employees to ‘see the big picture’ and make better decisions.

The next question is: ‘How do we help employees acquire this kind of knowledge and skill?’ Knowing and doing are different things. Also, learning opportunities need to be structured to ensure real-world, on the job experiences.  

One idea that is rarely used is job rotation. Anyone who aspires to lead in an organisation should work in at least three different areas of the business. 

Unfortunately, most companies reserve their rotational programmes for ‘high potentials’. A better approach would be to create an immersion programme for all employees, so that everyone has a more rounded view of the organisation. This will help in retention as well as educating employees about their role.

Most people leave an organisation because they feel there is no growth or advancement for them. But what if they were able to identify their own future role? Participating in a rotational programme could inspire them to contribute to the organisation in many ways.

Organisations must focus on developing well-rounded individuals who can take the organisation into the future. The future success of our companies depends on it. 

Nanette Miner is the Founder and Managing Consultant for The Training Doctor, LLC, a learning design firm.

Surviving and thriving in your post-university life

How can you ensure you don’t end up in a job for which you’re overqualified? HelloGrads co-founder, Sophie Phillipson, offers some practical steps

After years in education, we all look forward to the photo opportunity that is graduation. But beyond the gowns and mortarboards, there is a lingering sense of dread – the unknown is just around the corner.

The charmed walk into jobs and graduate schemes, others look to PhDs or gap years. The best advice you’ll ever get is this; even if you aren’t sure what you want to do for a living, the more preparation and planning you can squeeze in before you leave education, the better your first taste of the real world will be.

The risk of overqualification in your future employment

Research from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that graduate overqualification is a particular problem for the UK, compared to the rest of Europe, with 58.8% of UK graduates in non-graduate jobs – a figure only exceeded by Greece and Estonia. That means the risk of under-employment – doing a job you’re overqualified for – is high.

How to boost your prospects of securing the right job

The good news is there are some practical steps that can be taken before the training wheels come off.

1. Prime your CV

Life can get hectic at university, especially in the final few months. Finals loom, essays are due and the question of ‘what happens afterwards?’ keeps getting pushed back to deal with what is right in front of you. So kickstart your post-university prep before the final semester. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do from day one.

One of the best ways to enhance a CV is to get involved with, or run, a society, particularly if it bears some relevance to your chosen career path. Be it student media, young entrepreneurs, LGBTQ or debating, there’s either a society to be joined, or a gap for one to be started.

Not only will you meet interesting people, pick up new skills and potentially participate in big events, but it’s a golden opportunity to become more employable while enjoying yourself.

Likewise, hobbies and sports can demonstrate that you’re passionate, a team player, disciplined or dynamic.

2. Network

One of the biggest concerns we hear from new graduates is that they’ve left university without having any idea about what they want to do thereafter.

Having an idea of your career mapped out is sometimes half the battle, but this doesn’t mean Googling job titles – you need to start talking to people. There is no better way of understanding a job, or an industry, than to speak to someone on the frontline.

Spread the word among family and friends. If you stumble across a contact with an interesting job, send them a message or arrange a call and ask about what they do. Most people will be flattered to be asked.

If you don’t know anyone, try professional networking on LinkedIn. Search relevant content, read all you can, and try to strike up a conversation with someone in an industry that appeals to you.

Check out careers events taking place at your university. Dress smarter than the average student for these, as this is an opportunity to speak to industry insiders, glean useful knowledge, and make your mark.

Also, look at local employers. Can you start making relationships with small businesses in the same city while still at university, either by offering your skills as a temp or by doing some work experience between classes?

3. Great expectations

Speak to career coaches, professionals, graduates, or anyone with a job and they’ll all tell you your degree doesn’t define your career or your route to success.

Take the late billionaire Donald Fisher, who studied business at UC Berkeley. It was decades after he left his studies, and with no retail experience, that he founded Gap aged 40 because he couldn’t find jeans that fitted him. Dexter Holland completed a master’s in molecular biology then suspended his PhD studies to pursue his passion project which became the internationally-acclaimed punk rock band, The Offspring.

No one’s life or career is a well-structured race to the top. If you prepare properly and take the necessary steps to give yourself the best chance – as you’ve already done by investing in higher education – then, trust me, things will work out. But effort is required to make the transition easier.

By the time you leave higher education, you should already know how to solve problems, work hard, focus and really get stuck into a project. But you can make your way into the ‘real world’ much simpler with some thought and planning.

Sophie Phillipson is co-founder of student and graduate support site HelloGrads, which offers help and advice on careers, life and finances to those leaving university.

Why old business paradigms no longer work

The way we do business is changing. As a result, that the old paradigm of ‘win-lose’ is dying out, and anyone still operating in this way looks set to become obsolete. 

Our ability to survive this shift depends on our skill at adapting to the environment – the basis of Evolutionary Theory. 

Survival of the fittest is not about being the strongest, biggest or fastest, but it is about what is the best ‘fit’ for the environment. When the environment changes, the fittest adapt, they are the survivors. 

You might think that if a company isn’t in the business of creating something that can be digitalised, they don’t need to worry. You’d be wrong. In the cultural evolution of our time, organisations need to be aware of the changes so they don’t disappear.

Every era of humanity has cultural shifts where the mass population decides that something previously ignored is no longer acceptable, such as the trafficking of slaves. As we advance as a society, the overlooked become something the majority of the developed world disapproves of. 

Now, the vast accumulation of wealth, without consideration for others, is on the list of activities that are no longer acceptable.

The next phase of humanity is about being decent. It’s about knowing we are consistently doing right by other people – and ourselves. If you think this is just limited to political opinions and parenting, think again. 

The businesses who fail to acknowledge this shift, from win-lose to win-win, will fail to survive and those that are among the first, will thrive. It’s about clearly demonstrating your commitment to being a force for good – in your company, your community, and on your planet. That in itself is a beautiful opportunity, where you can create a lot more than monetary wealth, get to raise kids who aren’t embarrassed by your unethical policies, are proud of what you do, and don’t have to be begged to visit your deathbed to hear your dying regrets.  

This is why you have to pass all your decisions through the win-win filter.

It has to be from the inside-out, because the way you treat your employees, your investors, your customers, and the planet, is increasingly related to your profitability.

At the very centre of a true win-win is honesty, absolute transparency, and open communication. Those who can approach business with honesty in order to create genuine win / win outcomes, are the fittest, and they will survive. Applying this outlook to every situation may take some time at first, but it gets easier with practice – and it will ensure that your decisions are future friendly, and allow you to shift smoothly into this new paradigm of business.

Michelle Lowbridge is an author of numerous books, and a business owner.

Comfortably numb: the peril of a plateau

A plateau in business is really an invisible state of decline, unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. Leading out of it involves innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability, argue Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze

‘Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?’

Does the above quote from Pink Floyd’s hit Comfortably Numb ever resonate with you and your workplace?

We have defined this comfortable numbness as a ‘plateau’: when a business or economy reaches a certain point in its growth trajectory and, while not failing, has become stagnant. 

Putting this into the context of a natural metaphor, a stagnant pond cannot support life; it is dying, poisoned, unhealthy and toxic. In short, both metaphorically and literally, the plateauing, stagnant organisation could be toxic as well. 

Crisis versus plateau
Companies, operating in the volatile ‘new normal’ of the business world will face crises, opportunity, highs and lows. Threat is a now a constant reality and, as a result, businesses are becoming increasingly proficient at managing through crises. 

In the short term, at least, crises can generate positive opportunities. 

They bring a degree of drama which energises the leadership population  and galvanises entire workforces into action. This crisis mentality can engage teams and spur their inner heroes, mobilising them into fight-or-flight mode, where the adrenaline is pumping and making them feel good about themselves. This often leads to great results. For the short term.

For most businesses today, however, there are the plateaus; businesses are failing to achieve growth. Many of these organisations remain in this state, with their only response being to keep generating modest profits through cutting costs; for instance, achieving a 0% sales growth but 2% or 3% profit growth each year, which keeps the city happy and the board and the all-important shareholders satisfied. There is no profit warning, so no real problem, right? Wrong. 

This cost-cutting phenomenon is nothing more than a metaphorical anaesthetic, numbing the pain, dulling the ache, keeping the proverbial wolves from the door – but it is lobotomising the business of the innovation, creativity or passion it desperately needs.

Its people – and leaders – are internally dissatisfied; they see no way through this fog. They are comfortably numb.

This is a financial plateau. Often underneath this is a cultural plateau – in which employees are bumbling along in silos, disengaged and counting the minutes until home time. There may also be a leadership plateau – an habitual state of not focusing attention on real change and, quite simply, not feeling the need to.

Plateaus produce a compelling, but largely unconscious, dominant logic in the minds of leaders as well as employees. This creates a perceived safety zone between the pendulum swing of modest profits and cost cutting. 

However, beneath the financial plateau is a plateau of the imagination. 

In this instance, people in the organisation cease to be able to imagine another way of doing things, or a place of business where purpose, boldness, creativity and innovation lie at the core of the culture and are not the exception. 

The cultural and leadership plateaus that cause, and result from, this failure of imagination are a threat to vitality, invention and wellbeing. They create a workforce of comfort seekers and cynics; they create an illusion of activity when really the business
is engaged in a sophisticated game of killing time. 

Killing time for what? Killing time until employees can reach the top of the organisation, pay their mortgages, achieve promotion or just pluck up the courage to leave their job and focus on something that would genuinely engage them. If these feel like strong and unpalatable statements, they need to be. A plateau is really a decline.

The trouble with crises
It is easier to strategise around a crisis than a plateau because there is a consolidated and absolute focus on getting a problem sorted. A crisis is often more about recovering after a difficulty rather than maintaining or sustaining growth.

A case in point is Samsung. In October 2016, just weeks after launching its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7, the company had to recall more than three million devices after reports of overheating and exploding batteries. One clever PR strategy later and some Samsung super fans are still holding on to their Note 7s despite the risk. Given strong customer satisfaction with the product line, plus loyalty to other Samsung products, this customer base looks set to put the Note 7 fiasco behind it quite quickly.

Another example is Volkswagen. According to Harvard Business Review, less than two months after a scandal broke around Volkswagen cars’ high emissions in 2015, German consumers were already ready to forgive the company and look past its transgressions In a national survey, 65% of respondents believed that Volkswagen still built outstanding cars and that the emissions scandal was overblown. Less than a year later, the company had returned to profitability.

There is strategic merit in distinguishing crisis from plateau. 

During a crisis, businesses experience the behaviour from their people that they would expect all the time: excitement flares up, employees shine, and then, as quickly as it sprang up, this enthusiasm fades away.

Businesses generate a lot of discretionary effort in crises; lots of high-level communications, collective responsibility, increased collaboration, more truth telling, more focus on customer, very high levels of support and a ‘can do’ attitude. 

But some organisations ‘manage by crisis’ all the time due to the misguided belief that this management strategy keeps people mobilised. The tragic reality is that this is neither helpful nor sustainable over the long term. In fact, this type of initiative will run out of potency fast and, if leaders declare a crisis every few months, then the impact of it declines over time.

Boom and bust 
Considering the logic of organisational history, companies in the past would typically move through a cycle of massive change, steady state, then massive change, then steady state. The aim was to get through these waves as efficiently as possible and businesses became experienced at catching up and repairing gaps, to return, eventually, to where they wanted to be. Corporates that were good at change management were celebrated, but change management sometimes equates to nothing more than an illusion to keep people active, productive and focused.

The low-growth environment of the past decade has partly contributed to an acceptance of plateaus in productivity and growth. But a plateau is a long burn; an unseen issue within the business that can be easily disguised. It is a major challenge, but it is insidious because its damage will only be noticed when measured over a long period.

A well-supported decline?
We’re going to throw a spanner into the works here, because after defining the plateau, we want to argue that the plateau doesn’t, in fact, exist. It is an artificial state of mind. 

If the only way business leaders can generate any positive results is through cost cutting, then their business, essentially, is not plateauing. The ‘plateau’ is nothing more than an invisible state of decline – unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. It is an illusion – a cloak of artificial buoyancy that props up a lack of positive activity. 

So, with that in mind, our definition of what has commonly been described as a ‘plateau’ in corporate life is, perhaps more appropriately, ‘a well-supported decline’. 

This decline occurs when organisations stop challenging their limiting assumptions or constraints. They’re creating results through deficit rather than innovation and, in a psychological era of austerity, it’s understandable how this subconsciously unfolds within business.  

The hollowing effect
If businesses continue in this stasis for long enough, they become hollow. 

Their core values, purpose, culture is removed and this often manifests itself through people movement. 

Senior executives typically remain in a role for no more than three or four years; they simply become part of the hollowing mechanism coming to believe ‘cost cutting is what we do here’. 

In large organisations, whole generations of leaders often leave within months of each other, simply because they’re unable to shift or lead the business away from decline. In other words, instead of companies making difficult changes or hard decisions, leaders who don’t make a difference are moved on. 

As a result, these businesses don’t disappear – the cycle merely starts all over again. Leading a business in a state of gradual decline is much harder work than leading a business through a crisis. Some leadership teams are ‘relieved rescuers’ when a crisis comes along, adopting the mentality ‘right we know what we are doing here, let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it…’

Leading through a crisis
Waking up the organisation up in a crisis is easy – you don’t need to tell people too much about it as they usually already feel the heat from the metaphorical flames. The clichéd burning platform is screaming at you so there little analytical is skill required to diagnose the challenge ahead.  

Crises respond well to the traditional hierarchy of status and power. Leaders want people to act immediately without too much deliberation when a command is given. So, divide up the tasks between the team, project manage, communicate quickly and regularly, and make sure everyone knows where you are up to by establishing crisis management teams for employees outside of their day-to-day work.

The leaders’ role is often to act as a container around the crisis in a bid to stop panic, keep calm and project an in-control image. The brief is to make the difficulty go away, recover and return to order with perceptions of security, as quickly as possible.

Leadership energy during a crisis is characterised by endurance: grit your teeth, get through it even if you have to collapse on the other side. This is one of the reasons that it isn’t a sustainable, long-term strategic choice. 

Leading out of a ‘plateau’
Waking the organisation up to a well-supported decline, a ‘plateau’, is an altogether subtler act. It is an act of observation, looking differently at what is reality rather than what we imagine it or wish it to be. 

This is an act of courage and responsibility; a process of leaders being comfortable with their vulnerability and saying ‘we don’t know’. The diagnosis here is mostly about identifying and surfacing the repeating patterns of behaviour that are keeping the business stuck and circular in its leadership activities. 

Leadership action in a ‘plateau’ has an experimental nature to it: trial and error, probing, testing and learning; finding some data and bringing it back to the table for examination. It involves applying all of the organisation’s efforts to the day-to-day work, and not separating from it through analyses. The day to day is where the insidious patterns exert themselves and where they need to be disturbed.

Authority at this time emerges from how the system organises itself around the leader, how the individual is connected to others and how much they trust in their team, the culture and the corporate vision. This is because new performance needs leaders to disrupt the system and to disturb it first. After this, a leader needs to take a stand to achieve breakthroughs, bearing in mind that this tactic may be received by the establishment as something ridiculous that feels ‘out of sync’ with the way the business is currently tracking. 

Leaders in a plateau display anxiety in a different way to what is needed in the crisis. They put themselves at risk, but at the same time need to create a sense of psychological safety so that others will want to step out and join them on the precipice. They must quickly become experts in dealing with disappointment, loss of hope, resignation, and perhaps most importantly, resisting invitations to return to the past. 

Conclusion
So, in short, do we live in a business world led by people who love a crisis but are so comfortably numb the rest of the time that they embrace a plateau with open arms? 

In terms of energy and ongoing momentum, anything that looks like a straight line on the balance sheet is actually a decline. The flat line causes a decline in energy, expectation, imagination, belief in possibility and desire. Over time (and perhaps unnoticed) all the people with any energy and purpose start to leave. 

Those with more of a personal investment in the organisation will stay until their own needs are met, but ultimately the effect on the overall organisational system is one of intransigence and self-justification. 

Austerity is the fiend that appears to be the friend of growth – when the real solution to leading from plateau to profit is innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability. 

Retaining leadership energy in a plateau has a different feel to leading through growth or indeed crisis. And, if you’re reading this and you feel comfortable in your business performance, you should ask yourself if this is, in fact, merely a placebo effect of numbness?

Shouldn’t we, as leaders, always be uncomfortable? If not, how can we possibly be agile enough to innovate perpetually? 

Now is the time for leaders to be savvy, strategic and take a sustainable, long-term view. Great plateau leadership will ebb and flow and leaders need to know when to rest and when to up the intensity. 

But the challenge must be moderated by encouraging teams and peers, in order to keep up the momentum – because the cloaked nature of the plateau can make the finishing line seem a long way away. 

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze have been Partners at Relume Ltd. since 2000. Specialists in coaching senior executives to be challengers of the status quo, their clients are listed corporations worldwide. 

They are authors of The Challenger Spirit – Organisations That Disturb The Status Quo (2011) and Flawed but Willing – Leading Large Organisations In The Age of Connection (2014). 

Investing in your personal purpose to become a better leader

It’s time for our personal purpose to step into the light and shape our leadership style, writes Laura Wigley

Purpose. Our plan. Our life. Our mission. The thing we wake up for every day. At work, thanks to a revived focus on creating a great working culture – imbued with vision and a reason for being – we focus heavily on the business purpose: its mission, its values. 

Yet personal purpose, the thing that drives everything we do as individuals, is often left at the wayside and seen as something that should only be focused on outside of work, if at all. 

The world of work continues to change, with the challenges of work-life balance and operating in a connected world two of the most significant for employers. Should we, as leaders, bring our personal purpose to work? It is the norm to integrate work and home lives? Realistically, businesses only talk about the future in business or leadership terms. But perhaps organisations should be supporting us, as leaders, to think more widely and to define our life purpose? Should they be helping us to achieve the balance we desire and encouraging us to view our work as part of something bigger?

The argument for alignment

I believe the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Unfortunately, however, given the way most businesses are currently organised, there is no opportunity to achieve this deep self-exploration. There is no moment to be mindful of who we are and what we stand for. Yes, we’re encouraged to have a leadership purpose – how we want to be seen as a leader or to define our authentic leadership style – but this is rarely considered alongside personal purpose. If businesses want to create and motivate brilliant leaders and to deliver a sustainable leadership pipeline, this has to change. For me, defining personal purpose is the most important thing you can do for your own personal development, because investing time here will ensure all subsequent decisions can be based on a clear rationale and will support the achievement of long-term goals. 

I would also argue that, for organisations, providing this deep support and guidance for their leaders is one of the most effective, long-lasting investments they can make. Ensuring leaders are clear about what they stand for as an individual can be the foundation for ongoing, self-driven development, engagement and motivation. It also has the potential to help the business stand out from the crowd: going beyond everyday corporate thinking when investing in their people. 

Sure, it’s difficult to see a direct return on investment and there is a risk that people will leave the organisation following such exploration, but creating this type of clarity is a direct way to promote engagement right to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and to increase discretionary effort. It reminds me of that much-quoted dialogue been a fictional CEO and his financial director. ‘What if we invest in them and they leave?’ asks the latter; the CEO responds: ‘What if we don’t and they stay?’

Leadership purpose versus personal purpose 

As US politician Sharron Angle once said: ‘There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life, no matter what its location, age, gender or disability.’

Everyone has a driver that gets them out of bed in the morning, whether it’s raising their family; giving something back to society; achieving career success or some other personal purpose. It’s personal purpose that motivates you. It’s the reason you do the things you do. It could centre around family, friends, health, career or spirituality but it will be unique to each of us. Some may realise their purpose early on, others a little later. But, eventually, everyone will find they have an in-built compass guiding them towards something that resonates and rewards them. 

By contrast, not everyone will develop a leadership purpose. Leadership purpose comes about only when someone has a desire to lead others. Once you become a ‘leader’, whether that’s on the sports field, in business or in a war zone, you’re typically encouraged to define your leadership purpose or vision, describing what it looks, sounds and feels like. This purpose focuses on how you wish to lead; what’s important to you in your leadership style; the sort of leader you’d like be seen as. 

In my opinion, a leadership purpose is not sustainable or rewarding on its own. No matter how good a leader you are, if you’re not also tapping into or fulfilling your broader personal motivations, it’s not going to fulfil you in the long run. Over time, this may prevent you achieving your potential in work or life.

A thought here: I don’t believe it’s wrong to invest all your time and energy in your career, as long as you’re mindful of the trade-offs you’re making in other areas of your life. You must ensure you’re focusing on the things that mean the most to you, deriving motivation and satisfaction from your work, and embracing the ‘imbalance’ rather than seeing only the sacrifices made. 

In an interview with the CoFounders Lab, Storenvy founder, Jon Crawford, summed this up perfectly, saying: ‘Work, sleep,
family, fitness or friends – pick three. It’s true. In order to kick ass and do big things, I think you have to be imbalanced. I’m sure there are exceptions, but every person I’ve seen riding on a rocket ship was imbalanced while that ship was being built. You have to decide if you really want it.’

The ideal, however, is perfect alignment: leadership purpose which encompasses personal purpose to create a balance in both work and life.

How to achieve the balance

The route to achieving a perfect balance is not simple. It’s not something you can achieve alone and it’s certainly not something that can be achieved in a day. Once set out, it becomes a regular exercise – refining it, developing it and adjusting it according to your current situation and your progress. However, it can be achieved. For me, there are three key elements that promote success in identifying, communicating and actioning your purpose. 

The first element is impartiality: gaining an outside perspective to help you ask yourself, and dissect, the tough questions. Using a coach or someone who isn’t linked to your organisation can help you uncover and drive your understanding of what you stand for, though this can be harder to justify to senior management, from an ROI perspective, than corporate coaching. With personal coaching, it is unlikely that there will be open goals that are shared with the company, or a specific business challenge to focus on. The session must simply support private exploration. Some numbers-driven organisations may baulk at the request, but it is important for individuals to open up completely, without the threat of repercussions.

The second element, and the one that requires the most work – and is often be achieved through personal coaching – is to become clear what you stand for, both personally and as a leader; achieving an understanding of your values, your motivations, your needs. My framework for this is simple and can be used to help you discover your personal purpose. You should then apply it continuously to all you do as a leader. It comprises just four steps: define, create, plan and do.

The third and final element to ensure a link back to your organisation and career is an honest and transparent relationship with your line manager, where you are ready to help them and they to help you. While you can choose what to share, and how much to share, about your personal purpose, it’s important that there is maturity in your relationship with your manager so that you can support and embrace this. This is because, once you’ve achieved this level of clarity, you may want to change the way you operate as a leader which requires an honest conversation with your employer. 

You may also need to sell these changes to your employer. Start the conversation on the right foot. Consider how you could demonstrate the positive impact your changes or requirements would have on the business. For example, if you’ve defined your purpose as ‘giving back’, you may want to volunteer during the week, or become a mentor for those who value your expertise. Whatever it is, you need to ask yourself: ‘What is the business case?’ You need to sell the idea to the business and create a win-win scenario.

What this means for organisations

Very few large businesses are set up or ready to have conversations about personal purpose, and how to align this with business purpose, as they are a broad departure from the traditional way of doing things. But organisations need to recognise there is more than one way of achieving success. Being open and committed to investing in coaching relationships could achieve less tangible, but important, outcomes. Be open to individual workers’ suggestions and requests when they do share them and role model from the top. 

Taking time to consider, define and set out your personal purpose is an essential tool in the leadership toolbox. Time invested here has the potential to drive motivation, engagement and achievement, way beyond the original investment. As author Eugenio Pirri, Chief People and Culture Officer at Dorchester Collection, says in his book, Be A People Leader: ‘Unless you truly understand who you are, how can you possibly help someone else grow as a person, grow their career or ensure they reach their
full potential?’  

Life is a balancing act. Knowing your purpose is the key to achieving this equilibrium happily and sustainably.

Laura Wigley is the former Global Talent and Development Director for luxury hotel management company, Dorchester Collection, and is now People Director at luxury health club operator, Third Space.