Stories of successful leaders taking risks, stepping out of comfort zone
Lessons learned: Paul Bates shared the lessons he learned from interviewing 50 successful leaders for his new book What I’ve Learned So Far... And How it Can Help You at a Strategic Capability Network event in January.
By Shannon Klie
Since the beginning of humanity, lessons have been passed down to the next generation through storytelling. This form of knowledge sharing is still the most powerful teaching tool, according to Paul Bates, dean of McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton.
“People really learn by listening to the stories of others. We internalize some of the more theoretical learning that we’ve done,” said Bates, who spoke at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto in January.
Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school in Philadelphia, makes the most of this form of teaching, said Bates. The school has 200 traditional faculty and 200 adjunct professors from the business community who share their practical experiences with students.
“It’s the intersection of the theoretical learning and listening to the way that people apply that learning that really brings it all home. We actually internalize more deeply the learning process by listening to the stories of others,” said Bates.
Just sharing a nice story isn’t enough. People need to hear the truth about what happened, especially the mistakes made and what was learned as a result of those mistakes, to really learn from the storyteller’s experience, he said.
This is why Bates interviewed 50 business leaders about their successes and challenges for his book What I’ve Learned So Far… And How It Can Help You.
While he began writing with recent graduates in mind, Bates soon came to realize everyone could benefit from reading these experiences.
“As the interviews unfolded, there was this recognition that everybody has a story,” he said. “As we hear these stories and connect our stories to their stories, it helps us in our humanity.”
Bates and his co-author, Al Emid, interviewed successful people who were in the latter halves of their career, in different sectors and areas of specialty. Regardless of their different experiences, there are several core lessons Bates hopes readers will learn from them.
The most important lesson is to not let the fear of making a mistake keep you from living life to the fullest, said Bates.
“Sometimes, you have to leave the life you have in order to find the life that’s waiting for you,” he said.
Most of the people he interviewed took a risk, made a decision to try something new, and that’s what led them to success, said Bates.
In his own life, Bates had to take this risk. When he was 42, he struggled with the decision to leave a safe job and start his own Bay Street financial firm.
Nothing in his career had prepared him for starting his own business, he said. No one in his family had been an entrepreneur and taking that risk was very scary.
“I knew I wanted to do it but I couldn’t do it,” he said.
He worked with a behavioural psychologist for four months to work through the process of starting his own business and finding the courage, and the faith in himself, to do so.
“I couldn’t have made the decision to move out of comfort and into discomfort had it not been for that process,” he said.
But even the risks that don’t work out are opportunities for growth. The experience of overcoming and surviving challenging events makes leaders stronger, said Bates, and all of his interview subjects overcame challenges in their lives.
“No one has got through life unscathed,” he said.
Surviving challenges breeds resilience, which gives people a better sense of reality, the ability to laugh at mistakes and learn from them, and the ability to improvise.
“Sometimes, all of the tools that we need are not at hand and we just have to make do,” said Bates.
While Bates’ book is one way to learn from other people’s stories, everyone has a story to tell — leaders just have to be willing to go out and hear them, he said.
By listening to people’s stories, leaders are building relationships which, in turn, build networks, said Bates.
“Facebook isn’t a network. The real relationships in your life are your network,” he said.
It’s these relationships that will help you get to where you need to be, said Bates.
“Sixty to 70 per cent of the business opportunities that came my way were the direct result of knowing people as peers.”
It’s easy to work alongside or manage people without ever getting to know them. But this is to a leader’s detriment, said Bates. True leaders need to get up and walk around.
“You can’t learn the stories of others if you sit in your office and write emails. You’ve got to get up and you’ve got to get out there,” he said. “We need to get to know people on a deeper level. We’re in an age where we need to engage with one another.”
When Bates was president of Charles Schwab Canada, he had an open door policy for everyone, from senior executives down to workers in the mailroom. When the firm was bought by Scotiabank and Bates had to let some employees go, he turned their last day into a celebration of their service. When it was Bates’ last day, he received an email from one of his employees.
“He wrote, ‘Don’t be sorry that it’s over, be happy that it happened.’ He sent that email because we had a relationship,” said Bates. “There are moments in time when we can take a risk and step out and get to know people and let them get to know us.”
Being a leader doesn’t mean having all the answers, he said. It’s about authenticity and making a connection with others. To make a connection, a leader must first be comfortable in his own skin and that comes from being vulnerable.
“The beginning of leadership is vulnerability,” he said. “You need to get used to not being in control of everything.”
Unfortunately, it’s hard to teach this in a classroom when MBA programs focus more on the technical and analytical aspects of leadership. That’s why it’s important to incorporate on-the-job learning to ensure students are well-rounded, said Bates.
“It’s in the dialogue, the development of soft skills, what most of us know are the hard skills, that the person becomes a leader.”
9 lessons from 50 successful people
In interviewing 50 successful people, Paul Bates, dean of McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton, learned the following nine lessons:
• Don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from living life to the fullest.
• Expect the unexpected. Life can be hard, full of sharp corners and steep hills.
• People want to help one another.
• Take leadership: Stand up for what you believe in.
• We are all teachers and sales people.
• Good people have good values.
• Tell the truth, be open and honest.
• Learn the language of consensus and working collaboratively.
• Do what you love.
SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.
By Trish Maguire
Paul Bates and Al Emid asked 50 leaders what wisdom they would choose to share with 50 graduates — “If they knew at 25 what they knew now.” The result is a collection of personal reflections, insights and solutions to help overcome life’s perceived obstacles.
Although sharing experiences is a powerful learning tool, these sound bites seem to perpetuate a top-down approach with absolutes for a world that is in constant flux. Many important truths are handed down to us in the form of stories, but new answers and solutions do not necessarily come about because of what sages, presidents, CEOs, leaders or teachers tell us. Not every piece of advice is good for everyone, nor is everything suited to everyone’s taste.
People prefer to find their own solutions but they may not know how. Given the right opportunity and openness, they are more than eager to express thoughts, concerns and ideas about what they would like to learn and hear more about, and from whom. The key is in asking and listening to them with open eyes and ears.
The next generation of leaders is more than capable of choosing and writing its own lessons using quotes, affirmations and stories. Imagine if more leaders spent more time encouraging young leaders to change their thoughts, adopt a beginner’s mind, seek out and discover new possibilities and think about significant learnings from their first experiences.
In our ever-accelerating technological world, we’re in a rush to find the right answers instantly. Self-appointed experts bombard us with quick-fix solutions and, supposedly, answers to life’s challenges. How does that help us learn from experiences and change our thinking? There is no all-encompassing, ideal code to life.
The art of storytelling is unequivocally a powerful medium and, when spoken from the heart, can change people’s thoughts and, consequently, change lives for the better. As a leader, if the desire is to change people’s thoughts and, therefore, lives, you may wish to think about the following quote from Ron Wild: “Seek the wisdom of the ages, but look at the world through the eyes of a child.”
Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on developing customized talent management strategies for small entrepreneurial businesses. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Karen Gorsline
Paul Bates shared some thoughts on what he has learned in life. Some of the lessons were about things you might expect — do what you love and tell the truth. For me, his most compelling learning was the value of stories. Everyone has a story, stories need to be told and heard and stories are inspiring. It is important to understand why stories are so powerful and what they mean for organizations and individuals.
Stories communicate in human terms. They have texture and context. They are rich in imagery and metaphor. They can draw upon emotion and the senses, as well as the plot or story line. In many ways, what we call organizational culture is encapsulated in stories employees share with each other. The stories carry basic messages: this is who we are, this is where we came from, this is how things are done. Stories clarify norms and can also celebrate heroes who challenge the prevailing practice or overcome adversity. Whether sitting at a campfire in a cave or in a local coffee shop, people communicate how their day went and what they learned through stories.
The social network is, most importantly, social. Though we’re in a digital age, with workplaces that emphasize analysis, people still want to make human connections. One need only look at the explosion of the Internet and social networking across all age groups to see the powerful need for social connections. What is significantly different about our digital age is stories can spread like wildfire and recycle over and over again.
Stories that are retold or reflected upon capture meaningful moments in time. These may be moments of choosing between doing the right thing and “taking the easy way out.” The moment may be an “ah ha” incident. The most meaningful stories may be as vivid in memory as the moment when an incident occurred. For example, I remember the “story” of when I learned how I thought I was behaving and how I was perceived to be behaving could be very different. I remember the incident clearly, reflect on it often and have retold the story to make clients and colleagues more aware of how this may be occurring with them as well.
Stories are a powerful inter-generational communication tool. In a drive for productivity and in the interest of being busy, stories may not be valued by organizations. Telling and listening to stories may be interpreted as “wasting time.” However, it is through stories that information and learning passes from one generation to the next. Also, younger workers may share new technologies and approaches with older workers through their stories.
Most religions rely on stories or parables to convey their most important values and learning. Stories are used to blend together knowledge and experience to convey wisdom. Stories play an important part in organizational culture and organizations need to understand the potential of storytelling and listening as tools for knowledge transfer and building wisdom.
Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at email@example.com.
By Tom Tavares
Enron, Sept. 11, Arthur Andersen, SARS, Nortel, Hurricane Katrina, Bear Stearns, General Motors, Manulife, BP and Toyota — in the past decade, we have seen widespread breakdowns in the internal controls of corporations, accounting firms and regulatory agencies. Buckling in intelligence-gathering, health care and disaster response capability have also been reported in detail. Domestic automakers have hit the wall and the global economy is still reverberating from the 2008 meltdown in United States investment banking.
Understandably, this institutional crisis has raised questions about the integrity of leadership. As in all walks of life, there are unscrupulous individuals in business. However, that is more the exception than the rule. Based on a sample of 500 senior leadership profiles from a broad range of industries, the vast majority of executives have sound basic values.
To understand these institutional breakdowns, we need to look beyond the conduct of the 10 per cent of people in formal leadership roles.
Based on an analysis of 50 diverse firms, there are highly uniform behaviours inside most companies: weak internal communication as well as low levels of innovation, teamwork and performance feedback. Many management tools are employed to shift these patterns: mission statements and employee surveys; innovation centres; team-building retreats; and performance management programs. However, everyday behaviour in companies has proved stubbornly resistant to influence.
As change accelerates, a gap opens up between everyday behaviours and the demands on companies. Priorities shift more rapidly and confusion spreads about the direction of the business. Teams work in silos, slowing the execution of changes. Employees become increasingly disengaged and isolated. As a result, the 10 per cent of people in management end up trying to solve 100 per cent of the problems, which is, at best, improbable.
The growing institutional crisis over the past decade has more to do with leadership succession than personal values. Starting out as expert problem-solvers, many leaders see managing internally as a “soft” issue and neglect it. As a result, they become isolated from the 90 per cent of people not in management, depriving their companies of the problem-solving power needed to keep pace with change.
A two-pronged approach is required to meet this challenge. First, leaders must recognize the seriousness of this threat, and its source. Second, they need to take action in a fundamentally different way. Instead of fixing things, leaders have to invest more time in talking and listening to employees if they are to break down the isolation and boost problem-solving power.
There is a fundamental flaw in management, specifically in managing internally. Because this gap is systemic, the action required seems paradoxical: Leaders have to slow down in order for organizations to speed up. When something seems so counterintuitive, it is important to ask basic questions such as, “Is it possible for 10 per cent of the people in management to solve 100 per cent of the problems as the complexity of change continues to increase?”
Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he is also the author of The Mind Field, published by Carswell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like to attend one of the upcoming Breakfast Series? Here’s a look at the next session:
March: The workplace bullying epidemic — especially for HR professionals, with Valerie Cade (March 15, Calgary).
March: Workplace design as a lever for culture change, innovation and more, with Mandy Sutherland of Steelcase and Ken Owen of the City of Mississauga (March 29, Toronto).