• Dec 15 2022

Leading Through Turbulent Times

With ExecOnline’s mission–to connect all leaders to their future potential–at the core of all we do, Entrepreneur Editor in Chief Jason Feifer’s new book, “Build for Tomorrow,” caught our attention. We asked Jason to share his thoughts about leading through turbulent times, and how to change your mindset to find the opportunities hiding in plain sight. 

In your new book, you offer a perspective on how to interpret the events in our lives differently from how we’ve traditionally viewed them. In light of the turbulence many leaders are experiencing right now, this seems like vital information for this moment. Can you share a few thoughts about how to make this adjustment and what happens when you do?

Let’s put it starkly: We spend a lot of energy debating whether something should happen… after it has already happened. What a waste! If change has come, we cannot debate it. The best we can do is find ways to make it useful. After all, that’s where competitive advantages lie. We are not the only ones being disrupted; other people now have new problems and new needs. Those who adapt fastest, and solve new problems, are the ones that win.

With change oftentimes comes a sense of loss–even the idea of change can trigger a fear of loss. How is this impacting our ability to transform and potentially thrive?

There’s a long-established theory in psychology called “loss aversion.” In short: We focus more on protecting against loss than we do seeking gain. This can lead to some very irrational, counterproductive decisions.

Look, it’s natural — change feels like loss. We’ll immediately identify the things we’re going to lose, or at least lose full control of, and that will feel like a subtraction in our lives. But we must train ourselves to seek gain instead. We must start to ask things like, “What new habits or skills are we learning, and how can that be put to good use?” Once we start to hypothesize about the potential gain from a change, we can start to test our hypotheses, and identify new potential opportunities. Not all of them will work out. But some will define the next chapter of our businesses and lives.

In your own journey, you had an epiphany about how to reframe your identity to move from your “what” into your “why.” Can you explain that a bit?

I stuck around in some jobs I really didn’t like. Later, I realized it was because I was identifying myself by those jobs. My identity was as a magazine editor, and I could not imagine leaving my magazine job… and then being, well, not a magazine editor!? I came to realize that I needed an identity that was deeper than simply the thing I do every day, and that I should be able to express it in a single sentence, with every word carefully selected because it was not anchored to things that are easily changeable. Today, I like to think of myself this way: “I tell stories in my own voice.”

A common work practice is goal setting. You suggest moving toward goals while preparing to abandon them. What are the benefits of goals, and what are the traps to avoid? And why, for heaven’s sake, would you want to prepare to abandon them?

To me, goals have one purpose: They are something to move towards. We must have momentum in our lives, and we must be moving towards something. If you’re stuck in the woods, you don’t wander aimlessly. You pick a direction and go.

But goals, if applied too narrowly, can actually limit our growth. That’s because we’ll stay so focused on the goal that we turn down all the other amazing opportunities that arise along the way — some of which are actually much better than our original goal! That’s why I like to say: Have a plan, and also have a plan to abandon the plan.

Your take on the New Normal is well aligned with what we’ve been calling the New Learning Economy, where the leaders and organizations that thrive are those that learn faster than the pace of change. One of your insights is on treating failure as data. How does this work?

Simple: When something goes wrong, do not treat it as if you went wrong. When something fails, do not treat it as if you failed. Because you did not. You learned. The greatest companies were born out of failed companies. When we reframe failure as data, we treat everything as part of the growth process.

You’ve spoken with many leaders and innovators who made counterintuitive decisions when faced with important moments in their organization’s journey. What story stands out the most for you? 

Oh boy, so many! In the book, I tell the story of a brewery owner who had a hit beer — and then decided to limit sales of it. This wasn’t to create some kind of false scarcity, but rather because he did not want his company to be defined by a single product. He understood that this would ultimately hurt the company, because although his one product was popular now, it couldn’t possibly be popular forever — which meant he could not allow this one product to define the company. I love telling this story to entrepreneurs, and I always attach this lesson to it: Change before you must.

What advice do you have for HR and Learning & Development leaders navigating today’s challenging environment? 

I was recently talking with a professor who studies leadership techniques, and I asked him: What should leaders keep in mind as they lead their teams through a major change? His answer: Remember that you, as the leader, have likely had more time to adjust to the change than anyone else. You saw it coming, you were involved in earlier conversations about it, and you were able to emotionally adapt to it. Now you’re going to introduce it to your team, and you must remember that, for them, it’s brand new. They need time to adjust, mentally and emotionally. And you need to give them that time. 

I loved that answer. Whenever we’re leading people through change, we must remember what their starting point is. What are they comfortable and familiar with? And how can we clearly draw the path between what they already know, and what they will do next?

About Jason Feifer

Jason Feifer is the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, author of the book Build For Tomorrow, a startup advisor, and host of the podcasts Build For Tomorrow and Problem Solvers. LinkedIn named him a “Top Voice in Entrepreneurship” for 2022. Prior to Entrepreneur, Jason has worked as an editor at Men’s Health, Fast Company, Maxim, and Boston magazine, and has written about business and technology for the Washington Post, Slate, New York magazine, and others.

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