The Big Decisions – by David Brooks

Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?

In each of these cases the current you is trying to make an important decision, without having the chance to know what it will feel like to be the future you.

Paul’s point is that we’re fundamentally ignorant about many of the biggest choices of our lives and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”

The decision to have a child is the purest version of this choice. On average, people who have a child suffer a loss of reported well-being. They’re more exhausted and report lower life satisfaction. And yet few parents can imagine going back and being their old pre-parental selves. Parents are like self-fulfilled vampires. Their rich new lives would have seemed incomprehensible to their old childless selves.

So how do you make transformational decisions? You have to ask the right questions, Paul argues. Don’t ask, Will I like parenting? You can’t know. Instead, acknowledge that you, like all people, are born with an intense desire to know. Ask, Do I have a profound desire to discover what it would be like to be this new me, to experience this new mode of living?

As she puts it, “The best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.”

Live life as a series of revelations.

Personally, I think Paul’s description of the problem is ingenious but her solution is incomplete. Would you really trust yourself to raise and nurture a child simply on the basis of self-revelation? Curiosity is too thin, relativistic and ephemeral.

I’d say to really make these decisions well you need to step outside the modern conception of ourselves as cognitive creatures who are most sophisticated when we rely on rationality.

The most reliable decision-making guides are more “primitive.” We’re historical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, and there’s often a lot of wisdom in following those life scripts. We’re social creatures. Often we undertake big transformational challenges not because it fulfills our desires, but because it is good for our kind.

We’re mystical creatures. Often when people make a transformational choice they feel it less as a choice and more as a calling. They feel there was something that destined them to be with this spouse or in that vocation.

Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?

Our moral intuitions are more durable than our desires, based on a universal standard of right and wrong. The person who shoots for virtue will more reliably be happy with her new self, and will at least have a nice quality to help her cope with whatever comes.

Which brings us to the core social point. These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”

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Make Your Career a Success by Your Own Measure – by Monique Valcour

As a manager, how can you cultivate a sense of career growth and development for your people, even when possibilities for promotion are limited or nonexistent? I posed this question to my human resource management students recently. (The context was that we’d just been considering some evidence that “Gen Y” employees are likely to head for the doors if they don’t see short-term prospects for career advancement.) While my students generated several promising ideas, some advocated an approach that dismayed me: Companies should increase the layers of management, they argued, to provide for more frequent promotions.

Of course I understood why they might think so, but this was a “be careful what you wish for” moment. Anyone old enough to have worked in the many-layered organizational structure of the past knows its shortcomings.

But what bothered me most about their idea was the reminder of how many of us feel lost without external signposts to mark our success.  Particularly for young people, it is a tough transition to leave the familiar and clear markers of school success behind and learn to thrive on the more ambiguous ones that mark a lifetime of employment.  Crafting a truly successful career demands a high level of self-awareness and ability to self-direct, capacities that schools and universities don’t always do a great job of developing.

As an example, let me introduce you to Sam.  Sam grew up in a close-knit family in a US community with excellent schools.  His father is a sales manager, his mother a pediatrician. Always a top student, Sam did well as an accounting major in the honors program of his state’s excellent flagship public university, graduated and took a job with a financial services firm. That is where his story took a more somber turn.  He struggled with the work and found the corporate culture alienating. Used to outperforming his peers, Sam was shocked at his first performance review when his boss informed him that his performance ratings were unacceptably low. He had six months to improve.

Having always understood the rules and done well playing by them, Sam felt adrift for the first time in his life. Rather than wait for the ax to fall in a job that made him increasingly miserable, he quit after four months with no idea what to do next and moved back home. Although only marginally interested in a legal career, he submitted law-school applications in order to quell his parents’ anxious daily questioning about his career direction as well as the invasive thought that he was a fraud and a loser. At least, he told himself, I know how to be a good student.

Employees of any age can suffer from a similarly constrained career perspective. I recently coached Thomas, an employee in his late thirties, who was thrown into crisis when he discovered that his new boss hadn’t nominated him for the company’s high-potential program. He found it difficult to focus on anything else. A broader view of career success would be helpful to Thomas, as it would be to Sam and to the students in my classroom discussion. It would enable them to tap into a wider repertoire of responses and gain more learning and insight from their experiences.

People do not advance in the broader arenas of career and life by taking linear steps and acing assignments that are carefully constructed to allow them to prove mastery. They do it by navigating the unpredictable events and conditions that both work and non-work life throw at them — and responding and adapting in the ways that make sense for them. If you’re dependent on external markers to judge whether your career is successful, you will find them, but only in some realms and on certain dimensions of achievement. If you only pay attention to only this limited set of success indicators, you are less likely to experience your career as successful. Imagine going to a sumptuous buffet dinner, but only tasting the salad. It won’t be satisfying.

Visible, objectively measurable achievements such as sales results, salary, bonuses, and promotions are forms of career success that we tend to fixate on—sometimes to the point that we overlook other aspects that are just as valuable to us. It’s important to consider both objective and subjective markers of success. The perceptions and feelings we have about our work experiences and what we achieve affect us as much as the extrinsic rewards do. Consider the fact that there are plenty of people who look successful, who hold high-level positions and earn impressive salaries, yet who feel unfulfilled in their careers.

Be mindful, too, that a piece of work can prove “successful” through individual experience and through interaction with other people. You can feel success when you accomplish your own goals as an individual, when you develop greater understanding of a problem and perceive a solution, or when you express your identity or your values through your work. You can taste success in interpersonal settings, when for example you develop an excellent mutual understanding and rapport with a supervisor or mentor, or help other people to grow, or have a positive impact through your work on the organization or its external customers. Research shows that such subjective and relational experiences contribute enormously to assessments of career success.

Finally, if the promotions and raises a boss can dole out are the only forms of career success you recognize, then at times when there are no higher-level openings to move into, or when budget cuts prevent salary freezes, you have set yourself up to become demoralized. Being able to think broadly about career success and to identify your successes for yourself is essential to resilience.

With this in mind, I encourage you to take a few minutes now to reexamine your own work experiences, and identify successes you might have overlooked. Not earning as much as you’d like? Perhaps you’ve gained creativity by working with highly talented colleagues. Concerned that it’s been several years since your last promotion? Don’t negate the value of your having grown into a recognized subject-matter expert in a strategically valuable area for your firm.

To stimulate your thinking, here are some additional indicators that may help you recognize your own career success more fully, or help you identify pathways toward greater success:

  • Performing work that you find interesting and fascinating
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Having autonomy in how you perform your work
  • Developing new skills and deepening existing ones
  • Having work and personal life complement and enrich each other
  • Doing work that gives you new insights into yourself, your organization or your industry
  • Being recognized as an expert
  • Having the trust of your colleagues and superiors
  • Building valuable relationships inside and outside of your organization
  • Contributing to shared knowledge in your organization by training others
  • Enjoying career stability and employment security
  • Collaborating effectively with a team of talented colleagues
  • Receiving recognition for your achievements and contributions
  • Seeing the positive impact of your work on end users or on society
  • Leaving a legacy that you’re proud of

Now consider: as nice as external markers and affirmations are to get, would you really rather have them than any of the above? Yes, you deserve both. But keep in mind that careers are long, and that it’s rare to experience all forms of career success simultaneously.

You need to develop the awareness and adaptability to notice, appreciate, and exploit opportunities to enjoy career success in all its different forms, even if the most explicit, generic forms of recognition aren’t currently available. With practice and attention, you can reap your own harvest from a wide variety of work experiences, and as a result, enjoy a richer and more satisfying career.

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Monique Valcour is a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France. Her research, teaching, and consulting focuses on helping companies and individuals craft high-performance, meaningful jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevalcour.

Why leadership-development programs fail – by Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane

For years, organizations have lavished time and money on improving the capabilities of managers and on nurturing new leaders. US companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development.1 Colleges and universities offer hundreds of degree courses on leadership, and the cost of customized leadership-development offerings from a top business school can reach $150,000 a person.

Moreover, when upward of 500 executives were asked to rank their top three human-capital priorities, leadership development was included as both a current and a future priority. Almost two-thirds of the respondents identified leadership development as their number-one concern.2 Only 7 percent of senior managers polled by a UK business school think that their companies develop global leaders effectively,3 and around 30 percent of US companies admit that they have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because they lack enough leaders with the right capabilities.4

We’ve talked with hundreds of chief executives about the struggle, observing both successful initiatives and ones that run into the sand. In the process, we’ve identified four of the most common mistakes. Here we explain some tips to overcome them. Together, they suggest ways for companies to get more from their leadership-development efforts—and ultimately their leaders—as these organizations face challenges ranging from the next demanding phase of globalization to disruptive technological change and continued macroeconomic uncertainty.

1. Overlooking context

Context is a critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. Academic studies have shown this, and our experience bears it out. The CEO of a large European services business we know had an outstanding record when markets were growing quickly, but he failed to provide clear direction or to impose financial discipline on the group’s business units during the most recent economic downturn. Instead, he continued to encourage innovation and new thinking—hallmarks of the culture that had previously brought success—until he was finally replaced for underperformance.

Too many training initiatives we come across rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organizational culture, or CEO mandate.

In the earliest stages of planning a leadership initiative, companies should ask themselves a simple question: what, precisely, is this program for? If the answer is to support an acquisition-led growth strategy, for example, the company will probably need leaders brimming with ideas and capable of devising winning strategies for new or newly expanded business units. If the answer is to grow by capturing organic opportunities, the company will probably want people at the top who are good at nurturing internal talent.

Focusing on context inevitably means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance. Instead, what we often find is a long list of leadership standards, a complex web of dozens of competencies, and corporate-values statements. Each is usually summarized in a seemingly easy-to-remember way (such as the three Rs), and each on its own terms makes sense. In practice, however, what managers and employees often see is an “alphabet soup” of recommendations. We have found that when a company cuts through the noise to identify a small number of leadership capabilities essential for success in its business—such as high-quality decision making or stronger coaching skills—it achieves far better outcomes.

In the case of a European retail bank that was anxious to improve its sales performance, the skill that mattered most (but was in shortest supply) was the ability to persuade and motivate peers without the formal authority of direct line management. This art of influencing others outside formal reporting lines runs counter to the rigid structures of many organizations. In this company, it was critical for the sales managers to persuade the IT department to change systems and working approaches that were burdening the sales organization’s managers, whose time was desperately needed to introduce important sales-acceleration measures. When managers were able to focus on changing the systems and working approaches, the bank’s productivity rose by 15 percent.

Context is as important for groups and individuals as it is for organizations as a whole: the best programs explicitly tailor a “from–to” path for each participant. An Asian engineering and construction company, for example, was anticipating the need for a new cadre of skilled managers to run complex multiyear projects of $1 billion or more. To meet this challenge, it established a leadership factory to train 1,000 new leaders within three years.

The company identified three important leadership transitions. The first took experts at tendering (then reactive and focused on meeting budget targets) and sought to turn them into business builders who proactively hunted out customers and thought more strategically about markets. The second took project executors who spent the bulk of their time on site dealing with day-to-day problems and turned them into project directors who could manage relationships with governments, joint-venture partners, and important customers. The third targeted support-function managers who narrowly focused on operational details and costs, and set out to transform them into leaders with a broader range of skills to identify—and deliver—more significant contributions to the business.

2. Decoupling reflection from real work

When it comes to planning the program’s curriculum, companies face a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, there is value in off-site programs (many in university-like settings) that offer participants time to step back and escape the pressing demands of a day job. On the other hand, even after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing. Furthermore, burgeoning leaders, no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even their most powerful off-site experiences into changed behavior on the front line.

The answer sounds straightforward: tie leadership development to real on-the-job projects that have a business impact and improve learning. But it’s not easy to create opportunities that simultaneously address high-priority needs—say, accelerating a new-product launch, turning around a sales region, negotiating an external partnership, or developing a new digital-marketing strategy—and provide personal-development opportunities for the participants.

A medical-device company got this balance badly wrong when one of its employees, a participant in a leadership-development program, devoted long hours over several months to what he considered “real” work: creating a device to assist elderly people during a medical emergency. When he presented his assessment to the board, he was told that a full-time team had been working on exactly this challenge and that the directors would never consider a solution that was a by-product of a leadership-development program. Given the demotivating effect of this message, the employee soon left the company.

By contrast, one large international engineering and construction player built a multiyear leadership program that not only accelerated the personal-development paths of 300 midlevel leaders but also ensured that projects were delivered on time and on budget. Each participant chose a separate project: one business-unit leader, for instance, committed his team to developing new orders with a key client and to working on a new contract that would span more than one of the group’s business lines. These projects were linked to specified changes in individual behavior—for instance, overcoming inhibitions in dealing with senior clients or providing better coaching for subordinates. By the end of the program, the business-unit head was in advanced negotiations on three new opportunities involving two of the group’s business lines. Feedback demonstrated that he was now behaving like a group representative rather than someone defending the narrow interest of his own business unit.

The ability to push training participants to reflect, while also giving them real work experiences to apply new approaches and hone their skills, is a valuable combination in emerging markets. There, the gap between urgent “must do” projects and the availability of capable leaders presents an enormous challenge. In such environments, companies should strive to make every major business project a leadership-development opportunity as well, and to integrate leadership-development components into the projects themselves.

3. Underestimating mind-sets

Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mind-sets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do. Doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors, and bosses—but if there isn’t a significant degree of discomfort, the chances are that the behavior won’t change. Just as a coach would view an athlete’s muscle pain as a proper response to training, leaders who are stretching themselves should also feel some discomfort as they struggle to reach new levels of leadership performance.

Identifying some of the deepest, “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a precondition of behavioral change—one too often shirked in development programs. Promoting the virtues of delegation and empowerment, for example, is fine in theory, but successful adoption is unlikely if the program participants have a clear “controlling” mind-set (I can’t lose my grip on the business; I’m personally accountable and only I should make the decisions). It’s true that some personality traits (such as extroversion or introversion) are difficult to shift, but people can change the way they see the world and their values.

Take the professional-services business that wanted senior leaders to initiate more provocative and meaningful discussions with the firm’s senior clients. Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their narrow functional expertise. As soon as the leaders realized this, and went deeper to understand why, they were able to commit themselves to concrete steps that helped push them to change.

A major European industrial company, meanwhile, initially met strong resistance after launching an initiative to delegate and decentralize responsibility for capital expenditures and resource allocation to the plant level. Once the issues were put on the table, it became clear that the business-unit leaders were genuinely concerned that the new policy would add to the already severe pressures they faced, that they did not trust their subordinates, and that they resented the idea of relinquishing control. Only when they were convinced that the new approach would actually save time and serve as a great learning opportunity for more junior managers—and when more open-minded colleagues and mentors helped challenge the “heroic” leadership model—did the original barriers start to come down and decentralization start to be implemented.

Another company decided that difficult market conditions required its senior sales managers to get smarter about how they identified, valued, and negotiated potential deals. However, sending them on a routine finance course failed to prompt the necessary changes. The sales managers continued to enter into suboptimal and even uneconomic transactions because they had a deeply held mind-set that the only thing that mattered in their industry was market share, that revenue targets had to be met, and that failing to meet those targets would result in their losing face. This mind-set shifted only when the company set up a “control tower” for reflecting on the most critical deals, when peers who got the new message became involved in the coaching, and when the CEO offered direct feedback to participants (including personal calls to sales managers) applauding the new behavior.

4. Failing to measure results

We frequently find that companies pay lip service to the importance of developing leadership skills but have no evidence to quantify the value of their investment. When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that improvement initiatives won’t be taken seriously.

Too often, any evaluation of leadership development begins and ends with participant feedback; the danger here is that trainers learn to game the system and deliver a syllabus that is more pleasing than challenging to participants. Yet targets can be set and their achievement monitored. Just as in any business-performance program, once that assessment is complete, leaders can learn from successes and failures over time and make the necessary adjustments.

One approach is to assess the extent of behavioral change, perhaps through a 360 degree–feedback exercise at the beginning of a program and followed by another one after 6 to 12 months. Leaders can also use such tools to demonstrate their own commitment to real change for themselves and the organization. One CEO we know commissioned his own 360 degree–feedback exercise and published the results (good and bad) for all to see on the company intranet, along with a personal commitment to improve.

Another approach is to monitor participants’ career development after the training. How many were appointed to more senior roles one to two years after the program? How many senior people in the organization went through leadership training? How many left the company? By analyzing recent promotions at a global bank, for example, senior managers showed that candidates who had been through a leadership-development program were more successful than those who had not.

Finally, try to monitor the business impact, especially when training is tied to breakthrough projects. Metrics might include cost savings and the number of new-store openings for a retail business, for example, or sales of new products if the program focused on the skills to build a new-product strategy. American Express quantifies the success of some of its leadership programs by comparing the average productivity of participants’ teams prior to and after a training program, yielding a simple measure of increased productivity. Similarly, a nonprofit we know recently sought to identify the revenue increase attributable to its leadership program by comparing one group that had received training with another that hadn’t.

Companies can avoid the most common mistakes in leadership development and increase the odds of success by matching specific leadership skills and traits to the context at hand; embedding leadership development in real work; fearlessly investigating the mind-sets that underpin behavior; and monitoring the impact so as to make improvements over time.

About the authors

Pierre Gurdjian is a director in McKinsey’s Brussels office; Thomas Halbeisen is an associate principal in the Zurich office, where Kevin Lane is a principal.

The authors wish to thank Nate Boaz, Claudio Feser, and Florian Pollner for their contributions to this article.