In our work as Professors at the Indian School of Business for MBA students, and consultants for young leader programs at companies like HUL, Airtel, Godrej, Aditya Birla, Teach for India, etc. we’ve noticed a number of repeated challenges that these managers face as they transition from academia into the professional world.
1. They think there is a right answer
Years of studying for Maths and Physics exams has convinced them that there is one right answer to every question. And there are areas of course where there are right answers and wrong answers. There is a right answer to 2+2=? or ‘the capital of India is ?’. But when you’re faced with a non-performing subordinate, should you sack them or give them six months more coaching, or a warning, or move them into another area that might be more suited to their strengths? Well there is no right answer here.
Thinking there is a right answer leads these young managers into two errors. One is that they lose confidence in their own judgement and become tentative because they’re not sure if they have the right answer. Or they become cynical when other people will not listen to their ‘right answer’ and assume it’s because they’re too dumb or dogmatic to understand. They need to learn, that in leadership, there are multiple legitimate perspectives but you make the decision that you’re willing to bet on. There is no one right answer.
2. They think that feedback is objective
Until the transition point, feedback that these managers have received has been almost completely objective. A score of 78% in your Statistics exam is about as objective as feedback gets. However when they enter the corporate world, they are shocked to find that their bosses have opinions about them that count. Getting feedback such as ‘you’re not a team player’ or ‘I think you were too passive in that meeting’ or ‘I don’t feel you’ve spent enough time thinking this project through’, leads to hurt defensiveness and justifications. They have a certain self definition of themselves and when they hear comments that contradict that image they don’t know how to handle it.
They need to learn that it’s irrelevant what your view of yourself is that you’ve constructed over 18 years with your friends and family that love you unconditionally. At this stage they need to acknowledge that ‘this is how I’m coming across to other people’. And that trying to argue your way out of the perception that has been created hardly ever succeeds. They need to get over it, and grow into new more effective behaviours if they want to be successful in their careers.
3. They think they should be rewarded for their hard work and individual contribution
Until this stage the link between their hard work and the results they have gotten has been fairly linearly correlated. You work 3hrs on your MBA assignment you get 60%. You work 4hrs you get 80%. You work 5hrs you get 100%. But you don’t get rewarded for hard work as an adult. Every building labourer works harder than Bill Gates in terms of the sheer amount of effort they put in. You don’t get rewarded for hard work, you get rewarded for results, and results depend on creativity and efficiency and relationships and a whole host of other factors. Young leaders don’t understand why they should be penalized in terms of rating if they sent a mail to a colleague who didn’t respond. They’re thinking ‘I submitted my assignment on time’.
What they need to realize is that their ‘work’ is to get others to do ‘their work’. The CEO of a company can’t tell the board that he sent an email to the employees telling them what to do and they didn’t do anything so it’s not his fault. Because young leaders are struggling to handle subjective feedback anyway, they feel wrongly victimized for what they see are other people’s failings. So they need to understand that the ratings they will get from here on will not depend on their individual hard work, but on their ability to work through other people using good relationships and superior influencing skills.
And that blaming others doesn’t build either.
4. They think they should be accepted for who they are
As a result of feeling wrongly judged on the basis of bosses they see as unempathetic and victimized by the non-responsiveness of other colleagues who impact their ratings, young leaders can withdraw into a defensive cynical shell or a self flagellating one. They feel that in order to survive they have to put on a fake corporate mask and this disillusionment with ‘corporate life’ can, and does, derail many sensitive young leaders and prevent them from bringing their best self to work and to life. They give up their hobbies and fitness routines and go through a tough time as they knuckle down and work long hours trying to survive their first year.
For some, the scars never heal, and they struggle to regain the idealism they had at college. The process of disillusionment can happen at a startling rate, taking place over a period of just a few months. At this stage they need to learn how to hear feedback appreciatively, be gentle with themselves, and slowly but with determination work themselves to a higher level of maturity, credibility, performance, and ultimately satisfaction, meaning, and happiness.
There are three ways that young leaders can leave the first year of corporate life. One is cynically hardened like an egg placed into boiling water. The second is squashed like an overboiled vegetable. But the third is to respond to the scalding water of the first year like a coffee bean… using it as an opportunity to inject the surroundings with their own flavour, aroma, and colour.
And that’s when the organization truly feels their presence and impact.