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  • John Chambers, PhD

Coming of Age, Recursive Adaptation

"Harvey was a very adaptable person, with a keen eye and ear for every face and tone about him."

Rudyard Kipling,

Captains Courageous

In the blurring fog and open water, as the novel goes, Harvey Cheyne Jr. was carried by a wave and swept off a transatlantic cruise ship. Till then, his fifteen years of age had been couched in security and wealth, isolated from harsher ways of life, and harsher ways of earning a living. From a world of buttoned-down shirts and silken pajamas he was “saved,” wrapped in skin-scraping burlap and towels, laid on a bed of hard planks. He was in his “new found” home -- a Newfoundland fishing schooner. Its name was the “We’re Here.”

Kipling’s tale of growth through uncertainty is timeless, and growth is nourishment, no matter where we are in our careers, ages, and existence.

When Harvey recovered from his fall, he faced a new environment, forced to carry his own weight, crashing nightly to bed in exhaustion. Nevertheless, he learned the fishing trade. Aboard the schooner his own wealth was unknown, and then disbelieved by the crew. It didn’t matter what life he had before. Now he was here.

The fishermen, unlike Harvey’s Dad, were of scant means but hardened skills, men whose origins were defined by nation state boundaries – but whose boundaries were nearly irrelevant in the brutish weather and unforgiving seas.

The fishing market was competitive. It was one thing to mind your sea space among a multitude of competing, fishing vessels. It was another to do this in an ocean of constant shift, toothy storms, or blinding fog.

Yet the boy adapted, and his own talent of reading emotions helped him become a young shipmate.

Harvey was coming of age.

As leaders of companies or technology, our own "coming of age" is like recursive code in our machine learning applications. We never finish proving our firm's success; every victory is faced with the strain of sustaining the edge, maintaining the leadership, guarding the success, and retaining the customers. Once we figure things out in our domain, there’s another shift -- a stronger competitor, a new trend.

Will it be a flash in the pan or a seismic shift in our sector?

It’s not enough to have matured with the wisdom of years and diverse companies. Disruptive innovation, upstarts, new technologies are not simple obstacles. They also carry with them new suppliers who have their own biased assessment of market opportunity -- changes in regulatory oversight, macro economic forces, unpredictable customer preferences.

Only the most engaged teams welcome the face of change. Are opportunities seen as swirling currents before a storm, or are they schools of fish to take back to market? An approaching wave, a bank of fog, the absence of a shipmate might be devastating to a firm not prepared for adaptation.

In many firms, the value of “flexibility” is championed. Yet adaptation is better.

Flexibility is certainly a positive strength, but it has troubled me in some engagements and observations. Flexibility was becoming synonymous with reactive movement, like a sailor who can dart and shift in an instant; she can tack and jibe, managing against the wind’s force. In a ship (and you are in a metaphorical ship) the skill of the helmsman, no matter how well trained and experienced she might be, excels by her quick reaction and her keen ability to overcome what is thrown her way.

Flexibility is of the here and now, the imminent adjustment, the sudden switch. While the skill of flexibility is one that is applauded and necessary, it is a tactical skill.

For the team or firm who will manage the ebbs and flows of the market, who sees the horizon through a sometimes ambiguous spyglass, flexibility grows into a more strategic value – adaptation.

I was recently asked about the highest attribute for a technology executive. Always a difficult question, because the answer is situational. Depending on customer or goal, that attribute can be technical acumen or people skills; it could be strategic vision or tactical execution. The variability of our surroundings is everchanging; the rules of the game shift; the institutions and cultures around us require adaptive insight. Answering what’s the most important skill is like arguing who is the best athlete, across different sports! There are too many variables to pit one against another. But in developing our personal value and strength, as executives or professionals, preparing oneself for change is paramount.

You and your teams’ inner core is adaptation. For one’s firm or ones’ self, the onslaught of changes in the market, and changes in touchpoints, are presently unknown. But they are racing toward you. Adapting to these shifts is the lifeblood of the best teams and best leaders.

This is far deeper than flexibility. Adapting to the environment isn't reflexively jumping from one request to another. Adaptation is a leadership skill -- embedded into strategy. It is a mandate for preparation, for the long term. Be ready for change, and understand your marketplace, your competition. The entire company's outlook

may need to change.

Look to the horizon.

Constantly seek clues.

As he steered the “We’re Here,” the captain was always looking about, to manage what may come tomorrow.

But come what may, the more significant storms will be those to which you must adapt, and embrace. They will not be brief gnats to swat. They will, instead, impose new ways of doing business. Those changes will force your firm to consider transformation -- your brand, your culture, your operation -- into something it currently is not.

For survivability, there is no decision to be made. You must adapt.

As a leader and professional watching unrelenting change, your greatest skill is helping your teams recognize shifting winds. And embedding that value into each of their accountabilities.

You and your teams will need to "come of age" -- again and again.


Note on the “read”:

When I first went back to Kipling's “young person’s” novel, I faced a forgotten and unexpected frustration. It was his written dialog among the diverse, international crew. The author presented many spoken exchanges by penning the accents and language styles. The dialog is often written in “broken English” from those characters of non-English speaking regions. And reading it can be quite a slog – sometimes even difficult to comprehend.

But that is also another inspiration. We face many differences in communication as the world becomes smaller.

Adapting to those accents and styles is yet another competency we all embrace, for any and all positions, in our companies, and our planet.


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