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  • John Chambers, PhD

Carpetbags of Versatility

"Times and conditions change so rapidly we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future."

Walt Disney

When you assume your leading role, be certain that you are you. The role or the position or the engagement is now yours, not simply because of some previous experiences that reflected the job posting. It better not be. You were chosen as a leader, manager, professional…. because of uniqueness, your versatility and flexibility. That is the magic within you. What is the most disruptive factor in the internet of things?


If your predecessor was a towering, rock star CEO, or (more probably) if you’re strapping on the boots of a previous manager who departed for her next pioneering adventure, leverage the predecessor’s teachings and legacy. But while imitation is flattery, cloning is unwelcome. Depend on your identity. You’ve spent decades crafting it, the identity you know more than anyone else in the world, now or ever. When I watched Tim Cook navigate the complexities of Apple’s heightened competition, some of which were extensively more challenging that those encountered by Steve Jobs, I was not diminishing any previous success of the co-founder. But I was reminded how much things changed, and so quickly. The ubiquitous forces of social media and geo-political pressures in nation-states have been layered on top of technological worries.

The lesson – your firm’s continuity, growth and survival can be shepherded by different skins, different faces, experiences, talents. Cook’s talents in operations are different than Jobs’ were in strategy. But arguing who was a better corporate symbol, leader, executive, engineer, is a lot like arguing about the best quarterback; we often forget that “passing yardage” is very much a team statistic. Jobs was Jobs, with Apple’s great strides and missteps, and Cook is Cook with new successes and pitfalls.

In the entertainment avenue, with the holidays behind us, with “resolution-ary” diets and back-to-the-grind discipline on tap, Mary Poppins is still meandering through clouds and cinemas. But for this generation, she’s not the iconic Julie Andrews. Emily Blount has taken a turn at the umbrella. She made the character her own, just as you make your new role your own -- in the studio set of industry, organizations and offices. There’s no doubt Blount studied Andrews’ interpretation, and well she should have! But then she immersed herself into the role, and leveraged her unique approach, unique talents. Now Emily is floating on air just as effectively as the magnificent vocalist of 1964. Of course, the new Mary Poppins has the advantage of 50+ years of special effect breakthroughs, innovation in film, and latest maturations of the acting craft. Innovation through time has been bequeathed to her. As it is to you.

You have the advantage of newer tools, analytics, more insights, and the machinations of a market that promote new ideas constantly. You borrow those ideas and then you change them through enhancement. The newness becomes your own. Your advantage, like Blount’s, is inspiration. It is only 18-inches from your eyes, whenever you want, at the click of a mouse. The disadvantage is that competitors are inspired too, just as rapidly.

Remember Mary Poppins’ bottomless carpet bag, magically holding everything from a lamp post to some liquor, medicinal of course? She seemed to summon any tool whatsoever -- for nanny or neurologist, for all we knew. Her bag was endless, varied, crafty. When we met Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, entertaining passersby on the London sidewalk, he proved his own versatility with a Swiss Army Knife version of band instruments. You have your own sets of tools at your disposal, born of experience as much as training. Whether mental or material, your toolset of versatility is your instrument for managing competitive uncertainties. For the smart firm, it’s why you were hired. Leadership and an innovative, operationally focused mind, depend on fast learning and versatility. You can always learn the latest regulation, or software language, or platform compatibility. But it’s more trying to adapt and respond to mutating competitive pressures-- upheavals in supply chains, regulatory trends gone wild.

A perceptive consultant I had known moderated an executive team gathered for a corporate offsite. He observed that some leaders in the room had characteristics of quiet intellectualism -- introverted, scientific, studied. Others were gregarious, assertive, driving; and some were incisive, perceptive, recognizing personalities more astutely than a shrouded tarot reader. The CEO himself also had his own style and skill. All capabilities and personalities were valued, and each individual had varying combinations of the groups’ abilities. Practically every one of them had similar potential for leadership, but dissimilar personalities. Rely on your toolbox and the skills that make you who you are. Rely on your differentiated self. In moderate to large firms, personality tests have become a norm. Done properly, the tests are a tool for resource improvement, not for filtering people out. Some include Myers-Briggs analyses, or the Enneagram assessment, which I encountered when a superior coach challenged managers to recognize their own styles. Self-realization is not about finding liabilities in others but in understanding our own capabilities.

Whatever strands of Jungian psychology inspire you, then use them. Self-reflections are not hokum; you ignore them at your peril. In whatever sector you operate, compartmentalize uncertainties, using your unique experience in analyzing competitive challenges in the industry. Your unique talents are needed to combat the innovation predator called competition; so structure and categorize. Compartmentalize and develop strategy according to a manageable set of factors. I prefer the Michael Porter Five Forces model. Just because it’s been around a generation or two, doesn’t mean it’s behind the times. In your discipline and your market, can you categorize the uncertainties and pressures according to his five forces?

  • Competitive Rivalry in the Industry

  • Bargaining Power of Suppliers

  • Bargaining Power of Buyers

  • Threat of Substitute Products

  • Threat of New Entrants.

Innovation is written all over every one of those. A transactional leader will run through hallways, trying to correct every mistake and transaction – a Sisyphean eternity, fixing a never-ending laundry list of bugs and bugaboos. The mature leader, experienced and versatile, will ascertain the dynamics and industry trends across the Porter model. As you do this, leverage your carpetbag of capabilities.

Your talents, leadership, intellect will not be a mirror of who came before you. The challenges of your predecessor are already morphing into new dilemmas and issues, under a changing environment and a dynamic future. We all reiterate that change is constant, yet our behaviors indicate otherwise. We seem to forget we are creatures of evolution, just like our firms. We mistakenly tend toward comfort in sameness, unchanging offerings and static services. As valuable as is expertise in regulatory mandates, or cloud-based technologies, or web-services appliances, your greatest strength is quickness of learning and adaptation. What is today, is not what was yesterday. Your firm should have chosen you because you can adapt and learn.

Technologies come and go. Macro trends in demand, new vehicles for transacting business, preferred apps for banking, clinical breakthroughs -- all will evolve, change, disappear. Technical skills, software languages, enterprise systems, all change. Your value is the ability to quickly learn and understand the new ones, forecast the impact of change across the five forces of competition. Use your differentiated uniqueness to stand on the shoulders of the giant who preceded you.

Mary Poppins thought she was “practically perfect in every way.” In the 1964 film, the poignant, closing scenes witness her disquiet, her uneasiness with emotion -- her own heart-break having to leave Michael and Jane. She didn’t want to face it. In a sense, she closed her eyes to a part of who she was.

Understand every trait that is inside you, and how those strengths and weaknesses can be harnessed, shaped, appreciated.

In a sky of uncertainty, clouded by unforgiving market change, lean on your inner self to adapt. Perceive and embrace the strengths of your teams, comprised of unique individuals whose value influence each corner of the firm and environment. Recognize and appreciate the strengths of the competition, because their inspiration is your motivation. And heighten one ability above others – versatility.

Innovation is our fate.

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