Recently, we coached a newly appointed CEO facing a challenging situation. The CEO said, “I need to remind myself that I’ve been uncomfortable before and I’ve succeeded anyway. And knowing that, I can relax and know that it’s uncomfortable right now because it’s new.” We have worked with countless successful leaders who have learned how to strengthen their “adapt” muscle and embrace the discomfort of the unknown throughout their careers. So what are they doing differently? How do they strengthen that mindset of adaptability and resilience?
1. They actively seek out novelty. If you are not quite ready to be an adaptation black belt in your day job just yet, there are safer and even fun ways to practice. Taking on new habits, skills, and experiences in your personal life could be a safer laboratory for building your adaptation muscles. For example, Nancy Phillips, the CEO of ViaWest, told us that some of her best training to be CEO didn’t take place while she was wearing a suit. She spent three years traveling the world, including a month in China during which she never met another Westerner. “I had to learn how to survive every day,” she said. Discomfort was the only constant, and every new experience required an improvised response. The expense and time required for a global adventure may not be for you. Learning to play an instrument, speak a new language, or simply pick up a new hobby are all simple and low-risk ways to raise your adaptation game. It won’t make you a bold adapter in a business context overnight, but it will help you grow.
2. They weigh jobs as much by their learning potential as their pay grade. Dozens of CEOs we’ve interviewed—and in particular, many of those who have shot to the top faster than average—have made lateral, unconventional, and even risky career moves. Susan Cameron, the retired CEO of Reynolds American, Inc., was one of many who told us that taking a “lesser” role—moving from global brand director to senior vice president of marketing—was the decision that catapulted her to the CEO suite. Stepping into new, unfamiliar roles that broaden their experience or require leadership amid crises are two of the hallmarks of successful CEOs we saw in our research. When Susan coaches her own employees, the No. 1 skill she focuses on is openness to experience—taking on new challenges and soliciting feedback to improve along the way.
3. They acquire the skills they don’t have. Rob Wenger, CEO and cofounder of SaaS (Software as a Service) company Higher Logic, told us his favorite thing to do is write software. But after two years as CEO, he realized he had to be more extroverted. “Growing up, I couldn’t stand in front of a group and talk. I purposefully changed just by doing what I dreaded over and over. I even surprised myself how much the practice itself changed me. Ten years ago, I’d dread dinner parties, and now I walk in and talk to everyone. So now I pick traits I want, and I take action.” Rob also forced himself to practice by surrounding himself with people who enjoyed the activities he dreaded: “My best friend, Rico, was very extroverted. He’d make me go to social things, and I’d give myself a job, like setting up the music.” Rob continued to flex and strengthen that “social” muscle until it became strong and natural. Under his leadership, his company has grown at a 44 percent average annual rate over five years and received a substantial private equity investment. Adaptable leaders work to acquire the skills they don’t have; they get in the ring and practice them, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable they feel at first.
4. They are willing to let go of approaches that have worked before. Most of us imagine that when faced with uncertainty, the biggest challenge is setting the right strategy. In fact, most failures to adapt are the result of a leader’s failure to let go of what has made him or her successful in the past. An engineer at Kodak invented the world’s first digital camera, but company executives threw it into the proverbial broom closet for 18 years. Blockbuster had three chances to buy Netflix.
In 1983, Intel faced a truly dramatic “evolve or die” challenge. The company had single-handedly created the market for memory chips. It was all it did. And yet between 1984 and 1985, its profits dove from $198 million to $2 million. Japanese companies had turned chips into commodities and were beating Intel blind. Its entire identity was memory. This wasn’t just a financial crisis but also an existential one.
Andy Grove, Intel’s founder and president at the time, tells the story in “Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company.” After weeks of paralyzing angst, he found himself standing at a window, gazing out at a Ferris wheel in the distance. In that moment, he rose above the details, above the panic of crisis, even above his own ego. From that height, he was able to ask his CEO, Gordon Moore, the clearheaded question that would change Intel forever: “If we got kicked out, and the board brought in a new CEO, what would that man do?” Grove asked.
Moore didn’t wait a beat: “A new CEO would get Intel out of the memory chip business.”
Grove stared at him, numb. “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?” he replied.
That’s exactly what they did. They shut down Intel’s memory chip business and pioneered a new market manufacturing microprocessors that would increase Intel’s market cap from $4 billion to $197 billion.
The most successful CEOs we know, like Grove, become experts at letting go, whether that means letting go of past company strategies, business models, or their own personal habits. Many of us who start our careers as craftsmen of sorts and who are passionate about our craft must let go of the very practices that drove our success in order to take on leadership roles. If this sounds trivial, it isn’t. Changing any habit is difficult, but changing habits we love, that give us energy and fuel our passions, is almost impossible.
Great leaders, whatever their titles, are constantly becoming—becoming better, different, more informed. In this act of constant learning, they are becoming more comfortable with discomfort.
Adapted from “The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People Into World-Class Leaders,” by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell. (Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, Copyright © 2018).
Elena Botelho is the founder and co-leader of the CEO Genome Project. She has been advising leading CEOs, boards, investors, and rising stars for more than two decades at McKinsey and ghSMART. Botelho grew up in Moscow and Azerbaijan and now lives in Washington D.C. Watch a video here.
Kim Powell is a principal at ghSMART, where she advises Fortune 500 senior executives, private equity firms, and nonprofit leaders in the areas of management assessment, leadership coaching, and organizational change. Powell was an F.C. Austin Scholar at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where she earned an MBA with Honors. She lives in Atlanta.