The art of being heard

An audience is listening and engaged with a great speaker present.

If it’s true that 90% of of career progression success relies on personal impact and exposure, your ability to be heard is crucial. Janie van Hool, author of The Listening Shift, offers some advice

In 1996, Harvey Coleman published Empowering Yourself, a candid and refreshing insight into what it takes to progress at work. His findings were impactful – just 10% of career progression success, he suggested, came down to being good at your job. The other 90% relied on personal impact and exposure. In the second edition, published 15 years later, nothing had changed, and I have no doubt it still holds true in today’s workplace. Your ability to make yourself, and what you are doing, known about is the art of being heard.

I use the word ‘art’ intentionally – art is an expression of skill and imagination, and to achieve the most from your talent takes dedication and discipline. It often involves the repetition of skill, practicing until it becomes core, and laying the foundations of confidence in our ability. So, what should you be working on to develop the art of being heard?

Are you making it too hard for your peers to listen?

Firstly, establish a connection between what you want to say and what others want to hear. We speak at around 160 words per minute, but we process at between 400-800 words per minute creating a gap that allows our listener’s minds to wander. Relevance is key to managing this challenge.

If your content is not relevant to your listeners – whether in presentations, meetings, or conversations – then you are making it too hard for them to listen. Invest time in finding out what is on your listeners’ minds. What matters to them? What do they want and need to hear from you?

For a presentation, ask your audience (or a proportion of them) what they’d like to know from you. For a meeting, have some targeted conversations beforehand so that you can be sure of focusing on the priorities of those attending; In a conversation, start by asking what would be helpful to the other person or what outcome they are looking for. This might feel like spending time you don’t have – but if you are granted the attention of your listeners, and are heard as a result, then it’s time well spent.

How concisely can you express what’s important?

Secondly, practice brevity. There are few things that switch a listener off more than someone who talks too much and for too long. While we might acknowledge the sentiment of ‘less is more’, being succinct in practice takes work.

To improve at this, you will need to put in some planning time. For presentations, test yourself by imagining a scenario in which you are asked at the last minute to present for two minutes only. What would you strip out? What really matters and must be heard? Look at each slide in your deck and apply the same thinking and then be disciplined about what you choose to add back in from your original content.

For meetings, decide on a point you’d like to make and distil it into one sentence. Practice it so that when you get to speak up, you will sound clear and confident. When it comes to introducing yourself, think long and hard about how you could make an impact in 50 words that cover who you are and what you do, as well as how and why you do it. In conversations, pay attention to how long you speak for… As a practice, have a go at limiting yourself to 20 seconds before asking the other person a question to test how concisely you can express your thoughts.

Make your emotional intention clear

Finally, work on how you sound as much as you work on crafting what you say. In a hybrid working world, your voice will become the most valuable tool to influence your listeners. Tone of voice reveals so much – from self-belief and confidence-level to your emotional response to what you are saying, along with many other inferences.

To make an impact, you need to make sure your intention is clear. How do you want to be heard by your listeners? Should they hear excitement? Challenge? Reassurance? These are very different voices, so choose your emotional intention – whatever is appropriate – and practice how it will sound by recording yourself on your phone. This is an important tactic in building awareness and skill as what you hear conducted through being in your head when you speak is not what others hear conducted through air as they listen. Recording yourself will help you hear your voice as others hear it – and there may be a big difference. Keep doing this, adjusting your delivery until you like what you hear.

If you can’t be heard, you can’t be trusted

With all this in place, it will be audibility that matters. Audibility correlates with credibility… If you can’t be heard, you can’t be trusted. Working online solves this to some degree, but back in the world of communicating in-person, you’ll need to make sure you are speaking at a volume level that is easy to hear. Among people aged 50 years and older, 42% have a hearing problem, according to the UK’s Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and they will switch off if they can’t easily follow you when you speak.

Again, recording yourself will help you understand where you might ‘tail off’, which words sound less clear and the level of energy and conviction you hear in your tone. Consider your audience profile and, when you speak, commit to doing so clearly with confidence and conviction to make it easy for them to hear you.

If you’re serious about being heard, ask people what you could do to communicate more impactfully, asking specifically about the relevance of what you shared, how brief and succinct they thought you were and how they felt when listening to you. Consider asking actionable questions about your voice for ideas to add to your skills practice. While your focus is on helping them listen, you will benefit by using their observations to improve your art and, ultimately, progress your career.

Janie van Hool is the author of The Listening Shift (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021).

Top tips to be a better daydreamer – and how it will help you

A white robot is sitting on the rooftop ledge of a building with the view of a city with lights, holding a red balloon.

When daydreaming becomes a practice, it can bring surprising benefits and help us become better entrepreneurs and leaders, says Nelisha Wickremasinghe, an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School

Daydreaming was something most of us were told off for doing at school,  and if we do it now people say we are time wasting or that we have our head in the clouds. However, certain kinds of daydreaming can help us become better entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators and creators.

Daydreaming is supported by our imaginal capability (which some people associate with right brain activities) whereas being logical, verbal and orderly is supported by our rational capability – often associated with the left brain. To be at our best in business and in life, we need both capabilities – and brain hemispheres – working well together. 

This happens when, for example, we allow our minds to roam and dream actively before opening our laptops each day or when we take a moment each morning to remember our dreams before looking at our phones. Albert Einstein famously said he lived his daydreams in music. He was a rational scientist who was hugely influenced and inspired by his  imagination, and he frequently allowed himself to be carried away by music and dreams. For Einstein, these moments were the source of his brilliant ideas and theories.

Daydreaming as a practice

Daydreaming as a means of improving the way we understand people, or think and innovate, is different from the kind of daydreaming we do when we simply drift off in pleasant thoughts about, for example,  winning the lottery or moving to a place in the sun.  When daydreaming becomes a practice – like yoga or mindful breathing – and is something we do regularly and intentionally, it can bring surprising benefits.

We can experience inspiration, ideas, and insights that would not have occurred to us had we remained in our usual rational, problem-solving, hyper-busy routines. The conscious practice of stimulating both hemispheres of our brain means that those ideas and insights arise ‘around the clock’ – not just when we’re daydreaming. Although they will tend to arise more at particular moments – in the bath or shower, out walking, or on waking without an alarm.

Unfortunately, many of us do rely almost exclusively on our rational capability because as children we were not taught to use our imagination as well as we were taught to use our intellect. On top of that, our culture rewards rational logic and behaviour over intuition and feeling, which makes us value these things and shapes the way we relate to others and the way in which we solve problems.

People who are oriented to rational thinking are often are less empathic, less comfortable with novelty and the unfamiliar, less spontaneous, and tend to divide up the world around them into parts and categories. As a result, they fail to see the deeper meanings and connections between people and situations. Rational people might appear to be smarter but actually their thinking and behaviour is less complex than those whose rational and imaginal brain muscles are working well together. Rationalists will often struggle to ‘think out of the box’ or engage in creative ‘blue sky’ activities at work because their imaginal brain, rarely used, doesn’t have the skill or ability to help out on demand.

The reason our rational capability is less effective on its own is because it is a closed system that can only work with the contents already in it. If nothing new is offered then it will simply re-hash the same old ideas and theories to explain things and make decisions. But ‘explaining’ – which the rational brain is good at – is not the same as ‘understanding’.  The word ‘mansplaining’ is familiar to many of us and refers not just to a male habit of patronising women but also to the rationalist tone of talk with its preference for intellectualising, describing and explaining. When we understand something we see it in its context and experience it more fully and deeply.

Day (and night) dreaming dissolves the hard boundary between the rational and the imaginal and enables us to truly understand ourselves, others and situations. When we dream, we allow the contents of our unconscious mind to influence us and it is from the ‘Mind Palace’ of our unconscious that the clues and suggestions for solving life’s mysteries will emerge.

Five top tips to become a better daydreamer

  1. Give yourself permission to daydream and remind yourself that daydreaming is going to increase your potential and performance.
  2. Once or twice a day, lie back and stare at the ceiling or out of the window and practice the soft gaze. This is when we look into the distance but don’t focus on any one thing. Focusing stops our mind from wandering – which is what we want it to do when we dream. 
  3. Once you have mastered the soft gaze, practise ‘open attention’ by being interested in the comings and goings of your thoughts and feelings without getting stuck on them. If you do get stuck, turn your attention to your breathing. The in-and-out rhythm of your breath is soothing and can help detach your thoughts from worries and overthinking.
  4. Exercise your imagination by resting your gaze on an object – the tree outside or a coffee cup – and imagine yourself to be that object. What do you as tree or coffee cup want to say?  Engage in a conversation with the tree or cup.
  5. Practice ‘freefall writing’. Take a stem sentence from anywhere – a book, or a magazine, or even just words in your head. Examples might be: ‘all aboard the night train…’; ‘Some children…’; or ‘there’s a joke about…’ Now continue writing from that stem sentence. When you feel stuck it’s very important to keep writing. If you stop, you’ve been hi-jacked by left brain rationality that wants you to make this writing tidy and logical. Instead, just keep writing the stem sentence over and over again until you unblock and your imagination flows again. Write like this for at least three minutes (time yourself) and practise daily. You’ll be surprised at what comes out when the ink starts to flow!

If daydreaming exercises leave you feeling cynical or frustrated, remind yourself that much of our greatest literature, mechanical and technological inventions, medical breakthroughs and understanding of the universe has come from open-minded daydreamers who have embraced the novel, the absurd and the unintelligible. If more of us became daydream believers our workplaces and relationships would thrive as we start to see the possibility, mystery and beauty of the everyday and the ordinary.

Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a Psychologist and an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. She is also the author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation (Triarchy Press, 2021).

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.