We hear a lot about growth. So much that perhaps you just tune out the message as part of the background noise. Growth? We need jobs, money to live on and pay back loans, life partners, children, friends, and a little (very little) time for ourselves. Check with me later. Besides, have we not been for twenty months at HBS hopefully growing multi-dimensionally anyway? Enough!
This growth later perspective is understandable, but consider your potential and life goals. Hopefully your goals are aspirational and worthy. Aspirational means distant and challenging to achieve but feasible. Worthy means honorable, doing something bigger than yourself and making a positive difference in the world. If not, why did you come to HBS? I am confident the overwhelming majority of you carry inside you a burning desire to achieve honorably, meaningfully, and beyond yourself. You may be hesitant to say so, but when you listen to your heart, the message is loud and clear. How about your potential? Despite understandable feelings of optimism and confidence, most HBS recent grads like your generational pe
ers do not fully appreciate their potential to grow. It is so, so early. You have half a century or more of productive, vital life ahead and maybe more. You will also need to grow very substantially to compete and achieve at the level of your aspiration.
My experience over a long period of observing, leading, coaching, and teaching aspiring or current leaders is that there are consistent patterns of need. These needs are different than your past experience. The academic, educational experience is mostly about understanding, remembering, and demonstrating your recollections and comprehension. You have been expected to do this and recognized and rewarded for doing so. Sure, there are other considerations like leadership, service, and non-academic accomplishment. But, we all know it was grades and standardized test scores that were absolutely necessary in the overwhelming majority of cases. No more. Growth must happen in ways that your test taking skills of the past will be of little use. The needs of the future will require picking and leading leaders, making sense of ambiguous, dynamic situations then having the courage and judgement to act decisively; being adaptive and resilient even when you experience failure; and finally knowing yourself deeply and how others view you, and where you need to grow. Growth is a lifelong process and need. This is not a threatening statement, but one of extreme optimism and faith in the human spirit.
So, how do we start? It may sound daunting, but progress is not as difficult as you may think. The easiest and most important element is attitude and orientation. In attitude be optimistic and humble. Be optimistic in your potential and humble in your current state. Next, decide you are committed to grow no matter how challenging. If it were easy, anyone could do it, and growth would not be a competitive differentiator. The big idea is to get at least to threshold on the vital dimensions. Many have the mistaken belief that great strength in one area obviates the need for being at or above threshold in others. This attitude can be a fatal career mistake at worst and severely limiting at best. The most common arrogance is that being intelligent in some way overcomes the need to be a god listener, decisive, able to deal with ambiguity, be an excellent communicator, and the list goes on. A good personal developmental proper start is to decide for your circumstance and aspiration what are the threshold elements? They must include communication, leadership, cultural fit and embrace, work with others, hiring and firing skill and nuance, maze brightness, ability to deal with ambiguity, resilience, ability to deliver the right results in the right way, technical knowhow, industry knowledge, etc. Then decide where you are on each vital dimension and decide which gaps you want to close.
Ok, now for the more advanced work. Know yourself in as many ways as you can. Watch the “game films” and be objective. Decide on three things you want to make big strides towards. Determine a process for you that works. Self-reflection? Practice? Coach? Colleagues? HR? Mentor (by the way, they choose you not the other way around)? Some of these or all of these? You can read endless books, articles, or frameworks. You can do classroom work or simulations. All of these approaches have merit; but nothing happens without conviction, effort, help, and experience in the heat of the real world. When I was at your stage, my imagination could not remotely conjure what was to be. You will lead industries that do not today exist. You will lead teams that invent products that improve lives for millions. You will establish or help revitalize important cultural institutions. You will serve in government with enormous responsibility. You will experience life’s great gift of children and find sometimes being a parent makes professional life look easy. Approach all this with optimism, confidence, and joy. Grow to be ready and worthy.
Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve 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.