How to Adapt to the Never Normal

My conversation with Professor Herminia Ibarra, academic and expert in leadership development, career transition, and women's leadership.

Herminia Ibarra 5330 To Use For All Copy 1

Adaptability in the face of constant change is one of the biggest challenges of the Never Normal, leaving leaders anxious about how they can keep themselves and their teams relevant. That’s why I was thrilled to interview Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, who’s an expert in leadership development, career transition, and women's leadership. I had a wonderful time talking to her about corporate learning, career transitions, habit discontinuity, the importance of connections, women leaders, Microsoft’s impressive culture change and much more.

What got you here won't get you there

When it comes to adaptability, Herminia likes to talk about the “what got you here won't get you there” challenge: “the role of successful leaders today is to increase the capacity of learning in their organizations and in their teams. Satya Nadella, for instance, did a great job with the transformation of Microsoft from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset company.”

One of the most interesting parts of that transition, explained Herminia, was how they got rid of their traditional Quarterly Business Review process because of its completely counterproductive impact. First of all, these reviews were so elaborate and time-consuming that employees spent months during which they were unable to spend quality time with customers, resulting in potentially missed revenue opportunities. Second, the quarterly reviews were all about showcasing perfection and hiding any kind of defeat or misstep. That’s a problem because admitting mistakes and then learning from them is crucial for developing a growth mindset.

I too, had the privilege of experiencing how growth driven and customer centric Microsoft’s culture has become. Their vice chair and president Brad Smith once told me that - at the beginning of each executive committee meeting - they like to hold a 1,5 hour conversation with two prospects whom they had been unable to turn into customers. The aim of that approach is to understand what they should have done differently and how this could be avoided the next time.

The end of hero stories

“Career transition today is becoming both more common and more difficult”, explained Herminia. “In the old days you could "unfreeze” from your old career, change, and then “refreeze” into the next career, following Kurt Lewin’s classic change model. Today, change has become a lot more continuous, with not a lot of time to refreeze before having to make another shift, and this is something that many people perceive as exhausting and scary.”

“Part of what is scary is that the endpoint of our old “ hero’s journey “stories,” she continued, “where you struggle to find or adapt to the next career but finally “live happily ever after” is just too simple to fit today’s realities, volatile jobs and careers. Today, we all need to get comfortable with a new kind of narrative that revolves around what I call “the learning plot”—a story of continuous adaptation. The accelerated pace of technological change and, most recently, the advent of AI are reshaping jobs and organizations in ways that call for constant career reinvention. So we all need to learn to get better at making the most of the frequent transitions that will constitute a long working life.”

No guarantees

Human beings are very good at either-or thinking. Either I’m leveraging my old skill set or I’m pivoting to something new. But most people making a career transition have to do both simultaneously, at least at first—ideally staying in their old jobs and careers while exploiting and exploring on the side until something new becomes viable.

That’s why Herminia believes that leaders need to tell an honest learning story about living in adventurous and in interesting times: “We will do some interesting things together. And we will help you develop your skills and experience. But there are no other guarantees than that.”

But it’s not just up to the employees to adapt. Companies aren’t’ built for learning and change either. “Public companies - with their quarterly reporting pressures- don't create a lot of leeway for fresh thinking. And private companies are putting such incredible pressure for quick results that the result is pretty much the same. So employees become helpless and just execute what gets thrown at them. They don't get to step back to think about what they should be doing.”

Act like a leader, think like a leader

I love how Herminia’s “Act like a leader, think like a leader” model turns the usual ‘think first and then act’ philosophy on its head by arguing that leaders need to do 3 things to learn through action in order to increase their “outsight”, the external perspective they gain from direct experiences and experimentation:

  1. Redefine your job in order to make more strategic contributions
  2. Extend your network so that you connect to, and learn from, a bigger range of stakeholders
  3. Become more playful with your self-concept, allowing your familiar — and possibly outdated — leadership style to evolve

The network always wins

I especially love the network part, seeing that I experienced the importance of change champions during my own career transition from a fresh-out-of-school Alcatel employee to a startup entrepreneur. Back then, everyone told me I was crazy to leave a secure job for an uncertain future in the budding internet industry. My then girlfriend, now my wife, was one of my few supporters, telling me that “if you really believe in this, then you should follow your passion”. She played a crucial role in my decision to focus on the industry of the future.

“"Shifting Connections” is one of the pillars of the “Working identity” career change model”, added Herminia. “Because the ones that we know best – like friends, families, spouses, parents – are most likely going to hinder us, believing that we must be crazy to want to change. That’s why it’s so crucial to keep expanding and altering our social and professional circles, to be able to connect to other networks and other kindred spirits. Most people actually find jobs through personal connections. Weak ties are crucial for this. These are people who can provide insight into different industries because of their alternative knowledge. Look for new peer groups and guiding figures. Attend alumni reunions. Identify with the values of these people. It is important to have guiding figures in your life.”

Habit discontinuity

We also talked about executive learning programs, seeing that we both teach at the London Business School (I as a visiting lecturer, she as a fulltime academic) and I was fascinated by what she saw as one of the most important aspects of this type of education: habit discontinuity. “In more than one way, executive education is less about the content than it is about habit discontinuity. People are out of the office, in a different setting that allows them to disconnect, think anew, meet other kinds of people and compare. And if in coming back re-energized, they manage to make some small changes, then they stand a chance.”

Not a choice

I ended our conversation by asking Herminia about women's leadership and women's advancement, one of her areas of expertise. “Most people explain the shortage of women in leadership positions in terms of women's own choices”, she explained. “Many people do realize there are organizational constraints and biases. On the other hand, many also believe the rather unscientific narrative that women do not want to work as many hours or that they are more apt to make family friendly decisions. When you claim these things, you are basically saying that it's their own fault that their career hits the glass ceiling. We need to make a better connection between women's choices and desires on the one hand and what they experience in many organizational settings on the other hand.”