Adapting to Your New World

Prof. Kevin Sharer

In his monthly column for the Harbus, Professor Kevin W. Sharer shares his thoughts on the issues facing HBS students.

May comes again as we celebrate, encourage, and recognize another 900 or so new HBS graduates. This is a singular honor, privilege, and accomplishment that will always reflect credit upon you and set you apart. Congratulations! You deserve to celebrate, give thanks, and be joyfully optimistic about what the future could hold for you. It also for most of you marks entry into a world where those things that got you here will not alone remotely get you where you would like to go. This is worth real reflection.

Peter Chernin, a guest at the Dean’s Life and Role of the CEO course, put it clearly in the case about talent development. Peter should know. He is, perhaps with Bob Iger of Disney, the most successful and respected executive in the world of media and entertainment, who, among other things, was President of News Corporation for many years at its zenith, as well as head of Twentieth Century Fox.

After recognizing the talent, potential, and accomplishment of the students in the room, he made the profound point that getting into and succeeding at HBS involved a challenging but fairly straightforward path that required working the system and pleasing adults. The rules were clear. Expectations were clear. Adults were in charge and expected and usually needed to be pleased. You were responsible mostly for yourself.

This could be described as a well-defined system with clear rules, easy to identify scorekeepers, and little ambiguity. That does not mean it was easy. Far from it. The point is that now the environment will change in dramatic ways.

Your context is going to be much more ambiguous; you will need to be creative and take real risks, be willing to advance new and perhaps unpopular or radical ideas, decipher a fluid relationship environment where how the score is kept and who is keeping score are not always clear. You also cannot depend only upon yourself.

Let’s think about how best to understand, adapt to, and thrive in this new world. There are at least three categories worth exploring in some depth. These categories involve understanding the rules and scorekeeping, how to intelligently take risks, and how to build allies and get support from above. To do these tasks well, a fourth area needs focus, too, which is self-awareness and a growth mindset.

The place to start is the rules. Once Harvard was described as “a place with a lot of rules, and if we have to tell you what they are, you are not smart enough to be here.” The point is that all places have written and unwritten rules. The rules around integrity, legality, and personal conduct are usually very clear and are broken at your peril. The other rules are murkier and involve how we handle conflict or disagreement, how transparent we are, how much of a team are we really, do we really treat each other with respect, how is bad news handled, what is the expected time constant of communication, and the list goes on. The best approach is to observe, listen, ask, and learn. You are now in the jungle. Not all the animals are friendly, and being nimble counts.

Scorekeeping norms and patterns are next. What exactly will good look like in the eyes of my boss, and how and where will it be judged? This is the sine qua non of scorekeeping. If you do not know this answer, be sure to find out. Be sure you and the boss are clear and every three months, or at least at the beginning, do a self-assessment and show it to the boss. Notice who gets ahead, is in favor, and gets promoted. Scorekeeping is revealed there too. You have entered a new, exciting, complicated, and fun game. It is not inherently bad or good but just more ambiguous and complex than you have previously seen, I bet.

Risk taking and creativity are necessary but should not be impetuous or ill considered. It is usually easy to agree with the boss and take the party line. Having a new point of view or disagreeing takes courage. The trick is how you do it, when you do it, and what is the basis of your point of view. Disagreeing because “my experience or judgement says” is thin ice. Disagreeing on analysis, directly observed and relevant facts, or success of others is stronger. Personal, frontal ­­disagreement usually just raises the temperature. Sincere respect and acknowledgement of the opposing view and then, with facts and logic, making your point is best.

Risks come in other forms—for example, a new job or place that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, taking a job with clear and unambiguous performance measures, working for a very demanding but high performing boss, etc.

Creativity means seeing things a new way. Creativity should be tested with others as you decide what to do. If you think you are creative and no one agrees, you should pause and, in the extreme, perhaps leave the company to give the idea a chance elsewhere. Pleasers who always try to read the wind and be safe will have little chance of real accomplishment, advancement, impact, or reward.

No one is an island, and vanishingly few people start as the boss, succeed, and grow with the startup. Given these facts, we need allies and the support of people in the power structure.

A word about mentors. They pick you, and not the other way around. Doing a good job, embracing the company’s values, and showing promise will work every time. Allies are developed by being available, respectful, helpful, responsive, honest, and trustworthy. These traits may sound like they are lifted from the scout handbook, but trust me, they are real and, as a consistent package, more rare than you think.

How do bosses notice you? Being prepared, confident, and forthright is a good start, and being someone who consistently delivers and is respected by peers and subordinates usually does the trick. Arrogance, treating others poorly, making excuses, or giving less than fully forthright answers will derail you.

The last point is the criticality of how your boss sees you. That is another column, but within the bounds of ethics and legality, earning the boss’s trust, confidence, and support is vital in whatever level job you have, all the way up to and including CEO.

This all could sound daunting. Another way to look at the world of work is as a wonderful game where all your skills will be called upon to achieve great things that really matter to your fellow citizens. Hopefully you also will do it with people you genuinely like and are proud to be with on the same team.

One last thing. The view is definitely worth the climb!

Professor Kevin W. Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for 12 years and, before that, Amgen’s president for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.