Consider things you hold to be true about our world right now. Would you say it was volatile, unpredictable, uncertain? Would you say the pandemic has unsettled almost every part of our world? Do you worry about how the planet is managing under the pressure of humanity’s increasing demands? In your private moments, do you question how long fossil fuelled cars will be appropriate? Do you worry about your children’s future? Or the future of relationships between China and the US?
From small issues – your own health – to big issues – your work, ensuring you manage your staff, shareholders or supply chain – what we are dealing with is measurably different to what our parents working lives were like.
My father was well-known in business. He loved many of the things I love, people, operations, supply chain, marketing, strategic partnerships and imagining the future. He was good with finances. His day started around 8.30 – 9.00 am and usually involved the newspaper, coffee and cigarettes. Around 10am he would begin meetings. They were… singular. A meeting. They were important with important outcomes, but they weren’t pressurised, there were few if any competing priorities. A day was busy with a couple of meetings, maybe a couple of phone calls, then out by… 5pm. To drinks with friends somewhere down Little Collins Street, in the Melbourne CBD.
He got home to my artist mother, my brothers and I roughly around the time we were doing homework, getting ready for bed.
He would watch the news, something on the ABC with my mother. Then call the day quits. Hard day’s work done. One of his favourite aphorisms was ‘got to be a man in the morning as well as at night’. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to drinking, or hard work. I suspect the former. Whatever happened at night shouldn’t invade the day.
That is seriously not my life, not at all. Like many senior leaders my day starts at 5am. Quick check of news and often critical emails. I’m exercising by 6am and typically my first meeting is at 8am and its cheek by jowl until typically 6 – 7pm. Emails, phone calls, writing, coaching, designing, delivering, planning … and doing marketing, finances, operations, team/business meetings in the thick of things.
My diary looks like a patch work quilt. Today, for instance, I started at 7.30 and I will finish at 11 (this is unusual) and includes 13 separate meetings.
I’m telling you the truth. I love what I do and the people I work with greatly but…
Am I a frog in a saucepan?
That’s what I ask myself, and the leaders I work with. Have we got this right, for the times in which we live? Is anyone noticing that 30 somethings are not too keen on senior leadership roles? Why? Maybe because they see the way senior leaders are working as simply a rush to the finish line. And that’s either a short retirement or an early death.
I think there is truth in this. The busyness of our lives belies the fact that we are not stopping to think that hard work is not the answer, more isn’t better, and life will be over far sooner than we think. We’ve talked about working smarter for decades, but is that actually happening?
If we, and the people we work with, are ‘our’ (however you define that) most important asset, then we need to treat ourselves accordingly. Our world has changed at velocity and in ways that few of us could have reasonably anticipated when we said ‘yes’ to executive roles. Are we equipped right now to make the best possible choices for our organisations, people, markets, suppliers and ultimately, because we are dead a long time, for ourselves?
I think the answer is complex and varied – reflecting our life’s journey; culture, age, language, generation, gender (and all its mixes).
I think – importantly – our answer is also deeply affected by our willingness to keep learning. Simple question, complex answer:
Is what I am doing, how I am behaving, appropriate for the world in which we now live?
We say learning is important, but often we are thinking about others more than ourselves. I think we worry more about budgets and sales, than we do about how we grow ours and others’ brain capacity. Learning on the job is great, but I doubt very much it’s enough.
We all agree that times have changed. But, as someone said or I read recently, understanding the scale of change and its rapidity, is like sitting on a surf beach in the middle of one wild storm. The waves are massive, ever changing, rough, irregular. They churn the sand underneath. Sometimes we must jump up and run back up the beach to escape a wave that’s doubled its distance suddenly. When we least expect it, the wind dies down, the waves momentarily drop…. Then back they come again and mesmerized, we watch the water forming, storming, forming, storming, forming, storming…the surf is ever changing.
There is no norming anymore.
I think there is only one answer to this world we now live in; we must invest as much in the knowledge and capacity we have as leaders as we do in the learning and growth of our children.
Artificial intelligence, technological upheavals, surveillance capitalism, let alone the wildly present challenges we have caused with our natural world, are causing seismic shifts and these represent significant challenges to how we live and the work we do.
Right now, there is no room for certainty. In this world, courage, collaboration, legacy mindset and a passion for learning are likely the only real tools we have. It is hard to respond to and change for this world. In fact, whoever referred to human attributes and interactions as soft made a terrible mistake. Learning is hard and continuous, and we must wrap our heads around the notion of getting things wrong as much as getting things right (and often at an age where our certainty is equated to our success).
Listen to, work with people who are different to you. Be sure that you are open to feedback and willing to act on what you hear. Understand the styles you use as a leader and test the boundaries of your flexibility. What is it like to be in a room with you? How do you handle decisions (small and large), how comfortable are you with resolving (not causing) conflict?
Do you over rely on what you know now, or are you curious about what you will learn as you go forward?
Do you have yes people around you, or are you part of a collective who trust each other, listen carefully and co-create?
There is nothing new here in terms of skills to be learnt by leaders as such. Instead, this is an invitation to go back to the mindset you had in your twenties or thirties where you got your first MBA, or your first promotion into leadership. Light the fires of learning and step into practices that are deeply unfamiliar and require you to attend to the world again with the intensity and focus you had when all you had to learn and do was ahead.
Because, despite your age, the same is true right now.
Founder, Speaker, Senior Consultant & Coach
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