December 10, 2017

Adaptability is the #1 Success Factor Today

Adaptability is the #1 Success Factor Today

The discussion on the New York Yankees’ recent decision to hire Aaron Boone as their manager caused me to think about what it means to be “qualified” to do a job.

Historically, hiring managers sought an individual with the best credentials and job-specific experience and accomplishments.

However, leading edge organizations approach hiring differently.  This CBS News article succinctly summarizes a philosophy that values adaptability most highly.

Adaptability is far more important in talent evaluation than it was when I was promoted to be Pitney Bowes Chairman and CEO in 1996, because the Board prioritized adaptability to both known and unknown challenges over more traditional “qualifications.”

In From the Rough, the film I produced, the conflict between Coach Starks (Taraji P. Henson) and the Athletic Director, Paulsen (Henry Simmons) hinged on Paulsen’s desire not to hire Starks because she lacked prior golf or men’s coaching experience and hers and the Dean’s belief that she had earned the opportunity because she had demonstrated the requisite adaptability.

Adaptability is critical in baseball. The season is longer than any major sport season, which means that unpredictable events will occur: injuries, trades, disappointing or surprising performances, or unexpectedly strong performances by opponents.

Rosters change significantly within a single season. The starting pitcher, the most critical defensive player, rotates every game, and pitching changes within games are more frequent than ever. With no clock, outcome probabilities can change radically within a game.

Baseball also collects, analyzes, and reports more statistical data during and after every game from the Statcast system, which offers more insights on which managers and players can be criticized.  One credible concern about Aaron Boone and all other first-time managers is the speed and complexity of the game to which they must adapt.

Adaptability to new conditions in any field is difficult for human beings, as this article in the December 3, 2017 New York Times notes.  It is particularly difficult for highly successful people.

The most tragic 20th century example of previously successful individuals who failed to adapt to different conditions in new assignments was the team President John Kennedy recruited for foreign and defense policy positions.

In 1972, David Halberstam wrote a wonderful book about this team, called The Best and the Brightest. These distinguished individuals included Robert McNamara, a highly successful Ford Motor Company executive.  By failing to adapt to the Vietnam War challenges, they failed miserably and millions of people died as a result.

Exceptionally successful, highly “qualified” people often suffer from “hubris,” which is defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence.” Why do otherwise successful people fall prey to “hubris?”

The main reason “hubris” prevails is that we often fail to distinguish productive self-confidence from blind arrogance, and reward people who possess visible, but excessive, self-confidence.

We also overvalue unbroken records of success in one field and incorrectly assume that it is transferable to a different field.   We overvalue flashy rich celebrities.  The classic sequence in media stories is to build up a celebrity, showcase him or her, and then expose some human failing.

One of my friends described Southwestern Connecticut as a region in which people make more money knowing more about less.  The transferability of their knowhow does not work, just as it did not for the “best and the brightest” who ushered us into the Vietnam War.

Presidents Harry Truman and Abraham Lincoln were the opposites of “the best and brightest.” Both had experienced their share of failures and setbacks. Neither was flashy. Both were self-confident, but understood the limits of their capabilities.

In the late 1990’s, Jim Collins wrote From Good to Great, in which he asserted that successful companies were blessed with  “Level 5 leadership,” which he described as a “combination of humility and fierce resolve. “I would add “adaptability” as a critical leadership attribute, and it is more critical today than it was then, because more marketplaces are undergoing disruptive change today.

What qualities do adaptable leaders possess?

  • They gather a great deal of marketplace intelligence from multiple diverse sources. Humility increases the likelihood that front-line employees will tell them what they need to hear.
  • They are unafraid to change their minds if they discover new, inconsistent marketplace facts through continuous inquiry. In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove, Intel’s late, great leader, described his company’s need to abandon his its core business to take a shot at succeeding in a different business.

In this article in Strategy + Business, the author described the adaptability of Dick Harrington, the CEO of the Thomson Group, which migrated from being a newspaper publisher to a successful information services company.

  • They build teams unafraid to challenge one another, but who are mutually respectful. They do not rush to a premature consensus, although they move forward aggressively when they reach agreement.
  • They preserve options when outcomes are uncertain, which is increasingly the case in all marketplaces.
  • They recognize that one big qualification is adapting to 24x7x365 media, which have made every decision more public, more subject to scrutiny, and more susceptible to long-term impacts. There is so much competition for viewer, listener and reader attention that stories and narratives are created and tested faster and more rigorously than ever.
  • In the December 2, 2017, issue of The Economist, an article entitled “Chief Activist Officer” described how public and private CEOs are in the limelight on issues they could previously have ignored. The intersection with broader social, economic, and political issues is unavoidable today.

The requirement that companies become more engaged “corporate citizens” has pulled them far beyond the pure “shareholder value” goal required of them by the law.  Similarly, sports franchise owners, presidents and general managers, and managers and head coaches are expected to address much broader societal issues, beyond winning games in their sports.

  • The media, the public, their present and former employees, their customers, their opponents and competitors, and those who have to evaluate their performance have more data available at all times than has ever been the case before. There is more transparency about what happens in organizations, marketplaces, sporting events, and entertainment environments than ever before.

No leader receives deference for making apparently intuitive decisions that existed prior to when all this data became available.  This explosion of data has been fueled by better data collection, but it affects everything in sports and beyond.

  • Finally, as these prior observations imply, a leader, especially a baseball manager who faces the media after every game and many times during the offseason and between games, has to address issues with more limited control than used to be the case. In sports, collective bargaining agreements, sports agents, league rules, and litigation all constrain leaders in ways that were unimaginable years ago, and, as the Yankee managerial transition indicates, managers must win over both the players and the general management of their teams.
  • Even teaching assignments are more chaotic and complex than ever. I recently visited an outstanding school called the The Young Women’s Leadership School in the Bronx as a member of the PowerMyLearning Board.  I was astounded at the number and variety of software programs and curriculum challenges the teachers employed daily in a classroom.  The Common Core Standards Based Grading introduces a level of instructional customization and complexity that was unimaginable a decade ago.

Across all of America, the notion of a steady job with repetitive and predictable daily routines is rapidly disappearing at all levels.  It is a more exciting time to be a leader or an employee, but it is also more frightening.

We should be embracing and adapting to this change, not fighting it.

Finally, we should wish Aaron Boone the best of luck as he takes on one of the most challenging managerial assignments in all of sports!