The Adventurer Mindset
"I take on risks and embrace uncertainty, having faith in my ability to overcome the challenges that come with unpredictability. I am adaptable, opportunistic, and resilient."
The Adventurer Mindset
"Life intervenes in a way that is often unpredictable, so try to make conscious choices about what gets in and what gets out of your life. But, be ready to change on a moment's notice because tomorrow the dog gets sick, the next day your sister-in-law broke her wrist, and the day after that, you mother has gone to the hospital," explains Katie Taylor.
Many of the women we met shared this attitude that they see life as an adventure. "Leadership and love are gutsy", one said. It is important to be open to change and take risks. Try something different. Believe that regardless of the outcome, you will figure it out. Many of the women made bold moves in their careers and their lives from moving countries to taking a job based on a gut feeling or short interaction to leaving high-level and celebrated roles because they were not happy. When asked what skills the next generation of leaders need, many of the interviewees spoke to adventurer traits such as risk taking, not fearing failure, adaptability, opportunism, resilience, and flexibility.
"Future leaders have to be adaptable. I always tell my team that they have to love the color gray. Embrace the gray," says Kristen Robinson, Senior Vice President Digital Experience, Fidelity. Nothing is black and white.
adventurer Approaches & Actions for Aspiring Leaders
Throw Away the Script.
Many of the women leaders we interviewed mentioned that their career paths had taken twists and turns. Often, these diversions turned out to be some of the most rewarding and valuable experiences of their work and personal lives. "Life is not a movie script that you write and then have everybody else act in it," explains Margie Yang, Chairman of Esquel Group, the world's largest woven shirt maker.
"Don't be a control freak. You cannot always optimize to your plan. Sometimes you are given opportunities that are different than what you expected. Don't write them off just because they differ from your original plan. They could turn out to be wonderful surprises that you never expected. As my Indian yoga teacher says, 'Go with the flow.' That is a very important philosophy of living. You have to go with the karma."
- Margie Yang
Yang, who is based in Hong Kong, has embraced this philosophy in her own life and has enjoyed the plot twists along her journey. For example, when her father was unexpectedly ill, she took time off to care for him. Now, she spends time traveling with her 92-year-old mother. "I am grateful for the opportunity to still have a mother who is 92 and can travel with me. I have learned to appreciate that because that is something I never put into the original script for my career and life," she says.
Yang explains that this can be a challenge for driven women, who have an alpha dog mentality. She says high-potentials often have the view that 'I could have been even better had I just given everything.' "This is where you have to be mature. At my age, I congratulate myself for having balance and making the right choices," she says.
The women we met emphasized the importance of building a life outside of work. "It is really important not to build a life in the context of a career, but to build a career in the context of a life," Su-Mei Thompson, CEO, Media Trust, explains. Many of the women we met shared a similar sentiment. For some, this means a deep commitment to family. For others, the notion of building a life involves pursuing outside interests, such as sports, hobbies, religion, or charities. They have people and interests that help them maintain perspective and provide them with support and consolation when things are not going well at work.
For some, building a life means taking a break from their careers. When taking a pause, one common lesson these executives shared is the need for senior women to advertise that their careers have not been linear.
"Do not airbrush out a career break from your resume or from your conversations with others. It is so important for women to know that they can take a break and still come back to a successful career."
- Su-Mei Thompson
Many of life's greatest opportunities and rewarding moments are the plot twists in your journey. Be open to the unexpected even if it does not follow the original plan you had in mind. Life does not always happen the way you think it is going to, so the more flexible you can be – the better. For these executives, agility and adaptability in the face of new opportunities and priority shifting has been critical to their ability to embrace adventure and thrive.
Take the Leap. Push the Envelope.
"As women, we often feel like we have to be 100% ready in order to move forward. But, if you are 50% or 75% there, jump. Just do it. Chances are, you will figure the rest of it out," says Megan Costello. Many of the women we met shared a willingness to go beyond their comfort zones, try new things, and take a risk.
This risk-taking mindset is typical of top female executives. Think of Esquel Group's Jenny Cui, who is based in Hong Kong. For more than two decades, Cui had been a successful sales executive at Esquel. Then, she had the opportunity to become the Managing Director of Esquel Accessories and Packaging and Esquel Paper Products. When she assumed the role, the division had 3000 vendors, 2000 employees, and 250 global customers. Cui explains that the new opportunity was a stretch because it was out of her area of proven expertise. "I was hesitant when management told me that I had this opportunity. My comfort zone is in sales and the new role was in operations. As the MD of the whole operation, I needed to manage an entire channel and many more people than I had in my prior role. I had to come out of my comfort zone to take on this challenge," she says. In essence, Cui had to build her confidence that she could rise to the occasion. "The first thing I had to overcome was myself. I had to gain back my confidence. Only then could I have an impact, work with my team, and move on. 'What do I know about operations?' I thought. What I have is my common sense. Common sense is business sense. I realized I had the business sense to run this operation," she explains.
We heard many stories like Cui's of women who had stepped outside of their comfort zone to take a risk and it paid dividends. Consider Baker McKenzie's Kate Stonestreet. There are two defining moments in Stonestreet's life when she took chances that paid off for her personally and for Baker McKenzie. After attending University in the United Kingdom, she took a chance and moved to Hong Kong. The move was where she joined Baker McKenzie and truly found herself.
"I stepped out of my comfort zone and moved to the other side of the world to see what would happen. Hong Kong is where I became 'Kate' as opposed to being 'Malcolm's daughter' or 'Emma's sister'."
- Kate Stonestreet
The second defining moment in her career was the flipside of the first – her decision to leave Hong Kong after 15 years. She was successful in her job at Baker McKenzie and had a great group of friends in Hong Kong but everything changed when she returned to the United Kingdom to attend her best friend's wedding. At the wedding, she met the man that would eventually become her husband and the father of her twins. After a 14-month long-distance relationship, she decided to give up the security and life she had in Hong Kong to find her future in Birmingham. The risk paid off as she was able to remain with Baker McKenzie and has now been with the firm for 25 years. She has assumed greater responsibility over time and has risen to the role of Global Director of Operations, while building a life with her husband, and now eight-year-old children.
The women we met have a few philosophies they follow when taking a risk. First, they always have a plan B. They have a back-up plan in mind – for example switching companies or going back to their previous position or status quo – if the risk does not work out. Second, they don't go-it alone, particularly when proposing initiatives that others may view as out-of-the-box. "When you want to push the envelope, bring people along and help them understand the issue you are trying to push forward. If you have a collaborative mindset, then you are going to find people who are interested, want to support you, and want to learn more about the way you are thinking," says Baker McKenzie's Anna Maloney. So, when in doubt, go for it, just keep a plan B in mind and don't be a stand-alone platform.
Redefine Risk. Redefine Failure.
A poster that reads 'risk is where you least expect it' hangs in Professor Linda Hill's office at Harvard Business School. Many of the women we met explained that they have innovative perspectives on risk and failure. For example, consider Katie Taylor's viewpoint on the subject: "Where other people might see risk, I have always also seen opportunity inside the risk. When faced with a new challenge consider, 'what can I learn, what experience can I gain?'" she advises.
As Nelson Mandela said, "I never lose. I either win or learn." Many of these executives shared the view that if they took a risk and failed, then the upside is that they learned something. "Risk is where all the learning takes place. This is how you grow into the person you can be," says Betsy Myers, Former Senior Advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. We heard countless stories of women who had been turned down for opportunities. But, it did not bother them. As a result, they had the chance to apply that learning to the next challenge and move on. They recognize that they can only progress if they are prepared to fail. Many mentioned that they asked themselves one central question before taking a risk: 'what's the worst thing that could happen?' If they could live with it, they went for it.
"People tend to think when they see women and men in successful positions that they have never failed. Reality is otherwise. You fail a number of times. But you just succeed a little more often than you fail. When you fail, tell yourself, 'this is a moment of misery. What will it take for me to make this a moment of delight?' The moment you embrace failure you become capable of greatness you never imagined."
- Leena Nair
For example, Nair led the charge to reinvent Unilever's recruitment process for graduates. Recruitment is now entirely digitized. To apply to work for the company, applicants play twelve games for two minutes each, upload a selfie video, and go through a discovery center, all assessed digitally. Thus far, the initiative has been a success. More than 250,000 people have applied, 3500 applicants have been interviewed, and 800 people have been selected to work at Unilever under the graduate scheme. "Disrupting the recruitment process was a risk. But, because I am ready to embrace failure, more people applied to work at Unilever. Learn to pilot, experiment, and do early tests. What's the worst that can happen? It can flop and we can go back to doing three interviews per applicant. If you don't take risks, you don't move forward," says Nair.
The women we met also viewed risk taking as a daily activity. Consider Su-Mei Thompson, CEO, Media Trust's viewpoint on the subject:
"It is not just about taking a few big risks but about pushing yourself each day to get outside of your comfort zone. If you go from A to D, that could be a big leap that's just too scary and too risky. But, if you break it down and make it your goal to go from A to B, and then from B to C, and so on, and you have people behind you, then I think more women will end up in top leadership roles."
- Su-Mei Thompson
Several of the women we met faced significant challenges in their work and personal lives. For example, one leader explained that within a 24-hour period, she lost her job, top consulting client, and her husband told her he wanted a divorce. Another interviewee lost a child. Another lost her sister and took on a supportive role for her sister's children. Others faced infertility. Several noted cultural conflicts within their families. Know that if you face similar challenges you are certainly not alone. These remarkable women did not wallow in sadness. Rather, they held the optimistic viewpoint that there is always a better tomorrow. This mindset was the only way that they could propel themselves forward.
In addition, what helps many of our executives have risk appetites and the ability to bounce back from challenges, setbacks, and failures, is that they have thick skins. "If you are not thick skinned, then you are always worried about how you will fail. You are too busy dealing with yesterday that you are not moving on to tomorrow," Margie Yang says.
Our executives encourage you to look at risk-taking and failure with a new perspective. Taking a risk may increase the chance that you may be set back. However, a setback or challenge is only a failure if you do not capitalize upon the opportunity to learn. Do not let falters or missteps hurt your confidence. Move on to the next challenge. Only by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will you have the opportunity to rise to new heights.