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The Best Leaders Are Insatiable Learners

Nearly a quarter century ago, at a gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, John W. Gardner delivered a speech that may be one of the most quietly influential speeches in the history of American business — a text that has been photocopied, passed along, underlined, and linked to by senior executives in some of the most important companies and organizations in the world. I wonder, though, how many of these leaders (and the business world more broadly) have truly embraced the lessons he shared that day.

Gardner, who died in 2002 at the age of 89, was a legendary public intellectual and civic reformer — a celebrated Stanford professor, an architect of the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson, founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector. His speech on November 10, 1990, was delivered to a meeting of McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm whose advice has shaped the fortunes of the world’s richest and most powerful companies. But his focus that day was on neither money nor power. It was on what he called “Personal Renewal,” the urgent need for leaders who wish to make a difference and stay effective to commit themselves to continue learning and growing. Gardner was so serious about this learning imperative, so determined that the message would get through, that he wrote the speech out in advance because he wanted “every sentence to hit its target.”

What was his message? “We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they would care to admit,” he said. “Boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organizations. Someone said to me the other day ‘How can I be so bored when I’m so busy?’ I said ‘Let me count the ways.’ Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves—are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits?”

So what is the opposite of boredom, the personal attribute that allows individuals to keep learning, growing, and changing, to escape their fixed attitudes and habits? “Not anything as narrow as ambition,” Gardner told the ambitious McKinsey strategists. “After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die.” He then offered a simple maxim to guide the accomplished leaders in the room. “Be interested,” he urged them. “Everyone wants to be interesting, but the vitalizing thing is to be interested…As the proverb says, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.’”

In these head-spinning times, even more so than when John Gardner offered his timeless advice, the challenge for leaders is not to out-hustle, out-muscle, or out-maneuver the competition. It is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future and get there before anyone else does. The best leaders I’ve gotten to know aren’t just the boldest thinkers; they are the most insatiable learners.

Roy Spence, perhaps the most interested (and interesting) advertising executive I’ve ever met, recently published a book called The 10 Essential Hugs of Life, a funny and moving take on the roots of success. Among his wise and folksy pieces of advice (“Hug your failures,” “Hug your fears,” “Hug yourself”) is a call to “Hug your firsts” — to seek out new sources of inspiration, to visit a lab whose work you don’t really understand, to attend a conference you shouldn’t be at. “When you’re a kid,” he says, “every day is full of firsts, full of new experiences. As you get older, your firsts become fewer and fewer. If you want to stay young, you have to work to keep trying new things.”

Spence cites as one of his inspirations management guru Jim Collins, who, as a young Stanford professor, sought advice and counsel from his learned colleague John Gardner. What did Spence learn from Collins? “You’re only as young as the new things you do,” he writes, “the number of ‘firsts’ in your days and weeks.” Ask any educator and they’ll agree: We learn the most when we encounter people who are the least like us. Then ask yourself: Don’t you spend most of your time with people who are exactly like you? Colleagues from the same company, peers from the same industry, friends from the same profession and neighborhood?

It takes a real sense of personal commitment, especially after you’ve arrived at a position of power and responsibility, to push yourself to grow and challenge conventional wisdom. Which is why two of the most important questions leaders face are as simple as they are profound: Are you learning, as an organization and as an individual, as fast as the world is changing? Are you as determined to stay interested as to be interesting? Remember, it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

by Heidi Grant Halvorson


Why have you been so successful in reaching some of your goals, but not others? If you aren't sure, you are far from alone in your confusion. It turns out that even brilliant, highly accomplished people are pretty lousy when it comes to understanding why they succeed or fail. The intuitive answer — that you are born predisposed to certain talents and lacking in others — is really just one small piece of the puzzle. In fact, decades of research on achievement suggests that successful people reach their goals not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do.

1. Get specific. When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. "Lose 5 pounds" is a better goal than "lose some weight," because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions that need to be taken to reach your goal. Just promising you'll "eat less" or "sleep more" is too vague — be clear and precise. "I'll be in bed by 10pm on weeknights" leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you've actually done it.

2. Seize the moment to act on your goals.
Given how busy most of us are, and how many goals we are juggling at once, it's not surprising that we routinely miss opportunities to act on a goal because we simply fail to notice them. Did you really have no time to work out today? No chance at any point to return that phone call? Achieving your goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers.

To seize the moment, decide when and where you will take each action you want to take, in advance. Again, be as specific as possible (e.g., "If it's Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I'll work out for 30 minutes before work.") Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity when it arises, increasing your chances of success by roughly 300%.

3. Know exactly how far you have left to go. Achieving any goal also requires honest and regular monitoring of your progress — if not by others, then by you yourself. If you don't know how well you are doing, you can't adjust your behavior or your strategies accordingly. Check your progress frequently — weekly, or even daily, depending on the goal.

4. Be a realistic optimist.
When you are setting a goal, by all means engage in lots of positive thinking about how likely you are to achieve it. Believing in your ability to succeed is enormously helpful for creating and sustaining your motivation. But whatever you do, don't underestimate how difficult it will be to reach your goal. Most goals worth achieving require time, planning, effort, and persistence. Studies show that thinking things will come to you easily and effortlessly leaves you ill-prepared for the journey ahead, and significantly increases the odds of failure.

5. Focus on getting better, rather than being good.
Believing you have the ability to reach your goals is important, but so is believing you can get the ability. Many of us believe that our intelligence, our personality, and our physical aptitudes are fixed — that no matter what we do, we won't improve. As a result, we focus on goals that are all about proving ourselves, rather than developing and acquiring new skills.

Fortunately, decades of research suggest that the belief in fixed ability is completely wrong — abilities of all kinds are profoundly malleable. Embracing the fact that you can change will allow you to make better choices, and reach your fullest potential. People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

6. Have grit.
Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals, and to persist in the face of difficulty. Studies show that gritty people obtain more education in their lifetime, and earn higher college GPAs. Grit predicts which cadets will stick out their first grueling year at West Point. In fact, grit even predicts which round contestants will make it to at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The good news is, if you aren't particularly gritty now, there is something you can do about it. People who lack grit more often than not believe that they just don't have the innate abilities successful people have. If that describes your own thinking .... well, there's no way to put this nicely: you are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, effort, planning, persistence, and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed. Embracing this knowledge will not only help you see yourself and your goals more accurately, but also do wonders for your grit.

7. Build your willpower muscle. Your self-control "muscle" is just like the other muscles in your body — when it doesn't get much exercise, it becomes weaker over time. But when you give it regular workouts by putting it to good use, it will grow stronger and stronger, and better able to help you successfully reach your goals.

To build willpower, take on a challenge that requires you to do something you'd honestly rather not do. Give up high-fat snacks, do 100 sit-ups a day, stand up straight when you catch yourself slouching, try to learn a new skill. When you find yourself wanting to give in, give up, or just not bother — don't. Start with just one activity, and make a plan for how you will deal with troubles when they occur ("If I have a craving for a snack, I will eat one piece of fresh or three pieces of dried fruit.") It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier, and that's the whole point. As your strength grows, you can take on more challenges and step-up your self-control workout.

8. Don't tempt fate. No matter how strong your willpower muscle becomes, it's important to always respect the fact that it is limited, and if you overtax it you will temporarily run out of steam. Don't try to take on two challenging tasks at once, if you can help it (like quitting smoking and dieting at the same time). And don't put yourself in harm's way — many people are overly-confident in their ability to resist temptation, and as a result they put themselves in situations where temptations abound. Successful people know not to make reaching a goal harder than it already is.

9. Focus on what you will do, not what you won't do. Do you want to successfully lose weight, quit smoking, or put a lid on your bad temper? Then plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves. Research on thought suppression (e.g., "Don't think about white bears!") has shown that trying to avoid a thought makes it even more active in your mind. The same holds true when it comes to behavior — by trying not to engage in a bad habit, our habits get strengthened rather than broken.

If you want to change your ways, ask yourself, What will I do instead? For example, if you are trying to gain control of your temper and stop flying off the handle, you might make a plan like "If I am starting to feel angry, then I will take three deep breaths to calm down." By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your bad habit will get worn away over time until it disappears completely.

It is my hope that, after reading about the nine things successful people do differently, you have gained some insight into all the things you have been doing right all along. Even more important, I hope are able to identify the mistakes that have derailed you, and use that knowledge to your advantage from now on. Remember, you don't need to become a different person to become a more successful one. It's never what you are, but what you do.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is a motivational psychologist, and author of the new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press, 2011). She is also an expert blogger on motivation and leadership for Fast Company and Psychology Today. Her personal blog, The Science of Success, can be found at

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Why Your Company Should Partner with Rivals

by Eric Lowitt


There's a flawed belief that your only 'friends' in business are the enemies of your enemy. At one time, this axiom held true. But in today's interdependent world, this flawed belief is proving a thorn in the balloon that would otherwise raise many companies' future commercial success. Indeed, the true paradox that smart, trailblazing companies are solving is how to outperform their competition by collaborating with their competition. Here's how and why this matters to you.

Recently the CEO of a very well known consumer brand nearly scared the wits out of me. His company is quite respected in the sustainability community both for its progressive social equity policies and for green technology that limits the environmental impacts of his company's manufacturing activities. So I asked: Do you foresee a time when you'd willingly provide access to your leading green technology to your competitors? His blunt response: No.

What scared me was not the answer itself — it's indicative of conventional logic. If you have a competitive advantage, you generally don't share it with rivals. Rather it was the forcefulness with which the answer came forth. While the answer was simply 'no', the manner it was delivered said 'There is no way my answer will ever change.' That's unfortunate for this company's shareholders. This company is investing in bio-fuel facilities that turn the waste culled from the materials it consumes into useable (and thus 'free') material that it then feeds to its bio-fuel facility via its green manufacturing technology.

If the company did share access to its revolutionary technology with its competition, the company would gain financially in at least two or three ways.

First, the company would increase the amount of free source material for its bio-fuel facility, which would lead to lower per-unit cost of bio-fuel energy, expediting a positive return on its investment.

Second, the company could decide to charge its competition for access to its proprietary green technology, leading to a new revenue stream. That strategy could be especially effective if the company priced access at the point just below the competitions' 'go/no-go' price for developing similar technology.

Third, the company could earn goodwill from the local communities in which it manufactures its products.

There's a fundamental belief about competition that is becoming obsolete. The basic goal of competition — companies need to out-compete in order to out-perform — is now holding back companies from financial success, such as the protected one described above. It is true that this axiom has long enriched companies that showed they were different from their competition in ways that matter to consumers and then consistently delivered this differentiation. But it also over-emphasized the importance to companies of 'going it alone'.

The thinking behind this axiom began to be challenged in the mid-1990s, with the publication of smart, highly-regarded competitive strategy books, such as Co-opetition by Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger. By translating game theory into pragmatic business strategy, Co-opetition cleverly showed companies a new path to revenue growth: It's better to own 20 percent share of a $10 billion market than it is to own 75 percent share of a $2 billion market. This insight shaped and informed venerable brands' efforts to collectively develop new geographic markets while maintaining their competitive differences.

Stakeholders are scrutinizing the ways companies deliver value to consumers. Their voice, and therefore impact, is amplified by critical mass adoption of social media as a shaping influence over individuals' decisions. As a result, companies are being held accountable for the ways they manufacture their products. Therefore it's time to extend the concept of game theory to upstream activities too.

Consider Nestle Waters North America (NWNA), the owner of bottled water brands such as Poland Springs. The company's financial success is in part dependent on collecting and re-using as much recycled plastic as possible. But in the US less than 30 percent of used plastic bottles are collected from consumers. The other 70 percent winds up in landfills. If the industry can collect and process enough post-consumer plastic, it can drive the cost of manufacturing recycled plastic bottles below virgin plastic bottles, reducing costs for all involved. So NWNA is building a consortium of rivals to develop an alternative to the current fragmented and overall ineffective packaging recycling system.

NWNA will benefit from lower manufacturing costs while also reducing its environmental footprint by collaborating with rivals. Companies within industries ranging from energy to food to pharmaceuticals to shipping are similarly beginning to reshape their industries' models of competition.

So what is the lesson we should learn from the efforts of NWNA and other trailblazing companies? Your company needs to either evolve its competitive strategy to embrace selective collaboration with rivals downstream and upstream, or prepare to become obsolete.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Choosing Between Making Money and Doing What You Love

by Leonard A. Schlesinger, Charles F. Kiefer, and Paul B. Brown

"If you're really passionate about what you do, but it's not going to make you a lot of money, should you still do it?"

What a great question! It seems like just about everyone who has ever addressed a graduating class of high school or college seniors has said "Do what you love, the money will follow."

Inspiring. But it is true? Couldn't you do what you truly care about and very well go broke, as the question above (recently sent from one of our readers) implies?

Based on the research we did for our book, we're convinced that when you're heading into the unknown, desire is all-important. You simply want to be doing something that you love, or something that is logically going to lead to something you love, in order to do your best work. That desire will make you more creative and more resourceful, and will help you get further faster.

And, it will help you persist. When you're trying something that's never been attempted before — beginning an unusual project at work, or trying to get a new business off the ground — you're going to face a lot of obstacles. You don't want to be giving up the first time you encounter one.

But, let's be real. None of this guarantees wealth, or even financial success.

A friend of ours was hanging out at a bar with a few fellow professional musicians after a recording session, talking admiringly about another musician they all know. One of them commented on how fortunate it was for this musician that his music was commercial. In those four words, you will find an enormous truth. We all have our music and there is no guarantee that anyone will buy it. Absolutely none. These are two entirely separate things.

So this reader question attacks us straight on and says, in essence, "I have the desire, but I am pretty certain it's not going to lead anywhere that's monetarily profitable. Now what? Should I still go ahead?"

Of course you should.

Now let's qualify the answer a bit:

If you can't afford to do the thing you're passionate about — for example, if you do it, you won't be able to feed your family, or it would keep you from graduating college (which is something you think is more important than whatever you're passionate about) — then no, you'd better not bet your economic life on it. A basic principle concerning how you should deal with an unknown future is that every small smart step you take should leave you alive to take the next step. So, make sure you attend to your lower order Maslow needs of food and shelter and the like.

But even this doesn't mean you can't work on your passion a little — even if it's just for 15 minutes a day.

And you should!


Research (such as The Power of Small Wins that ran in Harvard Business Review May, 2011) shows that people who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled.

We're in favor of people being happy. And we're also in favor of provoking people into pursuing happiness. The nice thing about this reader's question is that it might get people who have — by any objective standard — more than enough money to reconsider whether they want to continue to do things that are not making them happy, just because it'll make them more money. More often than not, these people say, "Once I get enough money, I'll do what I really want to do. I won't worry about the money." But somehow, they never get to that point. Time is finite. The question might be enough to get you to reconsider how you're spending it.

And of course, the assumption embedded in the question could be wrong. You might, indeed, end up making money if you engage in your passion, even though you currently think you won't. Remember, the future is unknown. Who knows what people will buy, or what you might invent after your very next act. At any moment in time, you are only one thought away from an insight — an insight that can change everything.

As we said in our previous post, when you are facing the unknown, they only way to know anything for sure is to act. When you are dealing with uncertainty — and whether you are going to make any money from your passion at this point is definitely an uncertainty — you act. You don't think about what might happen, or try to predict the outcome, or plan for every contingency. You take a small step toward making it a reality, and you see what happens.

Who knows? Even the smallest step can change everything.

So take those small steps. You might discover that your passion does, in fact, make you money. After all, who knew you could make huge amounts of money figuring out a way to connect all your friends (Facebook) or make a better map (pick your favorite GPS tool).

Even if you don't, you want to spend part of your day doing at least one thing that's making you happy. Otherwise, something is terribly wrong.


My Simplest Innovation Advice
By Scott Anthony

Innovation is not simple, but there are simple ways to get better at it. One of my favorite techniques is to remember a game that many of you probably played in your childhood — musical chairs.

For the uninitiated, it's pretty simple. A group of kids gather around a group of one fewer chairs. The teacher plays music. When the music stops everyone scrambles to sit in a chair. Since the number of people exceeds the number of chairs, each round features at least one loser. The game continues until the last two kids vie for the final chair.

I hope you're still with me, even if you're a bit confused about where I'm going.

The connection between musical chairs and innovation came to me when I recently attended a two-day corporate offsite. The meeting was in an unfamiliar hotel. There were no assigned seats, so in the first day the 15 or so people semi-randomly spread themselves across four tables. Some people sat with friends, some with people they had never sat with before.

Then, the next day I watched as people returned into the room. To a person, they sought out the seat they had occupied yesterday. They didn't think about it at all — it just felt like a natural behavior to them.

There's nothing wrong with routines or the familiar. But innovation requires taking a fresh perspective. After all, you're unlikely to get breakthrough insight by asking a loyal customer the same question you've been asking them for years. Nor should you expect a group of the "usual suspects" to produce blinding insight without some kind of new stimuli.

When you sit in a new seat, you notice all sorts of different things. You can see non-verbal cues from colleagues that might have been out of your direct line of sight. If you have sidebar conversations, they are with different people. You might be able to see out a window or door that was previously blocked.

Whenever I get stuck on a particular problem, I forcibly move myself to a different environment to see if the change in perspective can unlock my brain. These same subtle changes can influence a group's discussion and train your brain to try new ways to solve old problems.

So play some musical chairs — and I don't mean that you should set your team members against one another. The next time you are in a meeting in your company avoid taking your usual seat. If you lead the meeting, ask everyone to shift around midway through. Take everyone with you to an unfamiliar location. Hold a standing meeting if you usually sit.

While it's unlikely that you'll suddenly have a blinding insight that spits out the next Groupon, these simple routine breakers will help you look at things in a new way. And that, after all, is what innovation is all about.

Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.