Carlos is a young Finance Director for a global Fortune-500 manufacturing company based in Colombia. Identified as a top-talent and high achiever, he has been promoted 4 times in 10 years, including a recent 3-year expatriate assignment in a
Middle Eastern country. While happily married to Sofia, with two young children, and completely satisfied and engaged at work, Carlos realizes that a recent global organizational restructuring in the Company could significantly slow down his career progression toward the Finance Vice President job he has been tirelessly working for. To prepare himself for the organizational restructuring, Carlos decides to start taking
One Saturday morning, he answers his cellphone to a headhunter in search of an Eastern Europe Vice President of Finance for a top global American multinational in the industrial commodities sector, based in Krakow, Poland. This is a newly created position covering 5 Eastern European countries, including Russia. After deep soul searching, long conversations with Sofia, a short trip to Krakow, and several weeks of
stress and insomnia, they decide to accept the job offer, which involves the difficult touchpoint of Sofia quitting her job. Then, they sell the house, the cars, pack their household belongings, say goodbye to family and friends, and embark on a life-
changing, one-way ticket move. Life was great, though. Carlos could finally say he was a VP of Finance with regional scope of responsibility in a large multinational corporation.
Two months into the new role, Carlos and his family are still living in a small apart-hotel room in Krakow, have not been able to secure a credit card, personal cell-phones, nor have they been able to enroll the children in an international school, since some critical documents have not been issued by the local government. The new office is small, dark, and crowded. Carlos has no support team to delegate even the most basic administrative tasks to. Quickly, he feels as though he is an army of one, responsible for an entire region. Moreover, the global headquarters office decides that the Russian operation is going to report directly to the global headquarters office, and not to the Eastern European region office as originally promised. Overnight, Carlos’ scope of responsibility is reduced by more than half. He can’t help asking himself: What went wrong?
Can early-career setbacks set you up for success?
Often, when asked to define what made them successful, seasoned leaders mostly describe a list of upward career moves, achievements, and feats, as if reciting their resumes out loud. They seldom mention the gaps between what their companies promised to motivate them to accept new career challenges, and the role they ended up performing. Like in Carlos’ case, these shortcomings, or unkept promises, are sometimes significant, and occur after the leaders have accepted the challenge, moved to the new job, their replacements hired, and are unable to dial the clock back. However, we rarely include these professional setbacks on the list of circumstances that propelled us to success. Why is that? As a good friend of mine once told me, our brains like to play tricks on us. They are wired for us to remember and cherish positive past experiences, and to hide unpleasant or painful ones, since it registers them as threats and dangers to move away from. Nevertheless, most of these imperfect career moves bring a wealth of unexpected opportunities to create, experiment, learn, and grow.
In a recent New York Times (NTY) article, Tim Herrera, refers to a paper published by Dr. Dashun Wang in the journal Nature Communications, which concluded that people who undergo failing experiences early in their careers may bounce back strengthen compared to those who never stumbled.This finding resonates with my own career experience since several of my most developmental assignments started as imperfect transitions. However, it is also true that not everybody who experiences failure succeeds, so what makes the positive difference?
Is learning-agility the key?
Research conducted over the past 40 years suggests that leaders who are highly learning-agile are more likely to succeed in the long run when confronted with new and increasingly complex challenges. Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger defined Learning Agility as the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.1 Their research suggests that, when confronted to challenging (failing)circumstances, learning-agile leaders learn the “right lessons” from experience and apply those lessons to the new situations. Yet, research also shows that learning-agile leaders may fail if they become defensive when facing adverse situations (setbacks).
In the end, Learning Agility is a combination of skills, behaviors, and experiences multiplied by a growth mindset. To growth mindset leaders, failure can be a painful experience, but it doesn’t define them. It is a problem to be faced, dealt with, experiment, learn, create meaning and grow.2 It is a chance to apply Jiu-Jitsu to adverse circumstances and to come out strengthened from the challenge. In a nutshell, it is an opportunity to fail productively, to fail forward.3
After a short period of internal personal struggle full of doubts, regrets, self-sabotaging, and lengthy conversations, Carlos and Sofia decided to tackle the situationhead-on. First, they focused on the positive aspects for their family to experience aninternational life: learning one or two additional languages, traveling in Poland andacross Europe, and making new friends. They will miss family and friends, for sure, butthey would also be removed from tiring family conflict for a while. Carlos then came toterms with the decision of excluding Russia from the regional scope. He understood it was a corporate top leadership business decision he had no control of. Instead, hedecided to open a communication channel with his Russian counterpart for exploringopportunities for collaboration. Afterwards, Carlos realized that him being in Krakow, hewas going to enjoy a great deal of autonomy in the new role. Much more autonomy thanif he were to be in the London regional headquarters office. What a great opportunity toinnovate, experiment and learn. All in all, Carlos was the Regional Finance VP of a globalmultinational and his resume would reflect that now and in the future. For Sofia, theprocess of coming to grips with the decision of interrupting her career and leaving herextended family took longer and was bumpier than she expected. Yet, she persevered,and decided to focus on what she could control. Within few months, she startedvolunteering work in a non-profit organization against child abuse, and, by the end ofthe first year, she got enrolled in an international MBA program, a decision she hadpostponed for years.
Life gave lemons to Carlos and Sofia, and they used them to make the fresherand most delicious lemonade ever.
1. De Meuse, Kenneth P., Dai, Guangrong., and Hallenbeck, George. “Learning Agility: A Construct Whose Time has Come.”Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol.62, No. 2, 2010, pp. 119-130.
2. Dweck, Carol, Ph.D. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books., 2008, pp. 33-34.
3. Babur, Boset. “Talking About Failure Is Crucial for Growth. Here’s How to Do It Right.” The New York Times. 17 Aug. 2018.