Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Success: Gold Medal v. Happy Heart

There's quite an uproar in Canada right now. A lot of Canadians disagree with their country’s Olympic motto: “Own the podium.” Behind the slogan is a stated desire to win more medals at the 2010 Games than any other country. Many Canadians – including former Olympians – find the approach too aggressive. This is not surprising in a country where “doing your best” has been the historical measure of success. Other Canadians, however, believe the slogan’s more aggressive tone is precisely why it’s effective. These are likely the Canadians who can’t stand the fact that their country is the only one in the history of the Games to never have won a Gold while hosting (Ottawa ’76 and Calgary ’88).

On the surface, the controversy appears to be nothing more than fodder for inconsequential chat around the Canadian water-cooler. But below the surface lies a fundamental question – for Canada as a country and for us as individuals:

What kind of success do we value? Put another way: What should success look like – A Gold medal? Or being content with doing our best?

Kevin Hall, in his recent book Aspire, recalls the story of Henry Marsh. In 1984, Henry Marsh was poised to win Gold in the 3,000-meter Steeplechase. Heading into the Olympics, he was ranked #1. For the previous seven years, he finished first at the US Championships. He was the hands-down favorite in the event. Nobody questioned it. Then, everything changed. Days before the race, he contracted a serious virus. He didn’t take medication for fear of failing Olympic drug testing. In bed is where he spent the days leading up to the race. He was in no shape to compete. Nevertheless, he willed himself onto the track on race day. In breathless anticipation, people watched the race begin. Henry was doing fine. He and another competitor led the pack… until the final stretch of the race, when his competitor pulled away, and two others passed him. Henry finished fourth – no medal.

This year’s Canadian slogan does not shed a winner’s light on Henry Marsh. But when you talk to Henry, a different story emerges. As Kevin Hall tells it: “Henry had a talk with himself before the (race) and promised that if he gave the race everything he had, then he wouldn’t be hard on himself, no matter where he placed…. (After the race,) he received thousands of sympathy cards and letters … for what (people) saw as colossal bad luck. But to Henry it was a triumph…. He had entered a race and given it everything he could give…. He saw it as a personal victory.”

Olympic Gold eluded Henry Marsh. So did Silver and Bronze. But he seemed to be at peace with the outcome. His mind was strong. And his heart was happy.

It just so happens that the following year was the best of his career. He won another US Championship and set a Steeplechase record that would not be broken for another 20 years. Today, he’s reached enviable levels of business success as a speaker, trainer, and marketer.

So, what kind of success do you value: a Gold medal regardless of circumstance or a happy heart regardless of outcome?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nature v. Nurture

One thing we often ponder – and that our conversation with Dominic Barton surfaced yet again – is the question of nature vs. nurture. These luminaries – Are they born with "it"? Or is "it" learned? Our hunch is a bit of both. But to what degree is each at play?

Here’s the thing – it might not matter. What if success is simply a conscious choice? What if being born with “it” doesn’t matter, but choosing to believe that you can attain “it” does?

We plan to explore this further in subsequent posts. For now, it's an emerging thought born of meaningful conversations with captains of industry who have reached heights of success that many of us aspire to.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Conversation with Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Company

We recently sat down with Dominic Barton, the Worldwide Managing Director of consulting firm McKinsey & Company (that’s the firm’s de facto title for CEO). We spoke to him on topics ranging from the 2010 World Economic Forum to what he does first thing every morning to his personal experiences with success and failure.

The complete interview is embedded below. Before we get to it, we wanted to highlight some things from our conversation that we found particularly striking.

It boils down to one question: How did a small-town Canadian farm boy grow up to lead the world's most influential consulting firm?

There’s a “special sauce” to Dominic’s success. And while we don’t have the complete recipe (nobody does), we did uncover a few key ingredients. First, let’s set the context – Where did Dominic come from?

Growing Up
Dominic was one of only six people in his high school (of 200 students) to attend college. Early on, almost as if by natural selection, he was part of an elite group. It was a small group of driven individuals who “helped push each other.”

There was also that one teacher who saw potential in Dominic and told him so. She was one of what would become many mentors in Dominic’s life. She convinced him to join the debate team, where Dominic honed his communication and analytical skills. It was also his first real opportunity travel, exposing him to different people and places – it really “opened up [his] aperture.”

He must have done something right because he eventually received a coveted Rhodes Scholarship, which “made a big difference in terms of where [he] went to university (and) the path [he] took.” He attributes some of it to luck. But he also believes “you can make your own luck.” With characteristic Canadian humility, he quickly added, “[It’s] a strange thing to say.”

While he didn’t say much more on making your own luck, there seems to be a common belief, among the luminaries we speak with, that luck can be made. As Oprah put it, luck is simply “preparation meeting opportunity.” What Oprah’s quote does not include though is an important pre-requisite: knowing what you want. Having a clear sense of what you want allows you to prepare with focus and recognize an opportunity when it arises.

Dominic’s father, a clergyman, was influential in clarifying for Dominic what he wanted to do (or not do, in this particular case). Dominic considers his father to be one of his most important mentors and “the smartest person” he’d ever met. But Dominic didn’t want to be like him – a man offering brilliant perspective on the sidelines. No, Dominic wanted “to get stuff done, not talk about what other people [were] doing.” Something in Dominic’s DNA, ironically, rejected his father’s approach to life. Dominic, unlike his father, wanted to “get into the arena.”

He is very much there now; and he likes it. It wasn’t a linear path, and there have been bumps along the way. How he’s dealt with those bumps is particularly telling. Whether innate or nurtured, he’s demonstrated particular characteristics that have largely contributed to his success.

These characteristics become clear when we ask him how he found his way to Asia more than a decade ago – in retrospect, a defining moment in Dominic’s career (many consider his Asian experience to be chief among the reasons he was elected to the top post of McKinsey in 2009).

Defining Moment
In the late 90’s, Dominic was a partner in McKinsey’s Toronto office and was doing well, but he was in a rut (albeit “a comfortable rut,” as he acknowledges). He thought his growth had reached a plateau. He felt the need “to change it up and push it.” An opportunity came up in Korea – the office there was in desperate need of partners and it was a real chance to build something, do something new.

Sounds like nothing special really, but here’s what’s telling about Dominic and sets him apart.

His mentors told him not to do it! They “thought it was a stupid idea.” They said, “You’re going to kill your career.” “It’s a difficult place.” “Why are you doing this?” “Why would you ever want to think about (this)?”

That only made Dominic “more excited” to go.

Dominic told himself, “I’m going to go. I’m going to be tested like I’ve never been tested. I’ll learn some things. And if it doesn’t work out at McKinsey, I can live with that. But I know I’m going to grow.”

If not for this move, Dominic would not be running McKinsey & Company today.

Key Lessons
Here we have a few key ingredients to Dominic’s success. In addition to personal drive and a passion to grow, on clear display is Dominic’s strong gut feel, comfort with the unknown, and acceptance of potential failure. It sounds trite on the surface. But upon deeper inspection, it’s not.

Dominic needed not only a strong gut feel, but also one that he could consciously tap into and trust. In this case, he knew, or rather he felt, that he needed a change. The Korea opportunity spoke to him louder than any of his mentors – and he listened.

He needed not just a comfort with the unknown, but to be OK with not having all the answers before acting. That is, he couldn’t quite put his finger on why he had to go, but that didn’t stop him from going.

Finally, he needed not just an acceptance of potential failure, but a certain faith that things would work out, even if Korea didn’t. That is, he was OK with the possibility of things not ultimately panning out at McKinsey – he had accepted the potential negative consequences of his decision.

Where did these characteristics come from? What gave him the strength to make such a jump, in the face of strong discouragement, with no apparent upside?

In going against his mentors, Dominic said, “I’ve always had mentors. They’ve been extremely important to me even before McKinsey…. (But) just because you get advice (doesn’t mean) you … have to listen to it.”

He said that two things, in particular, made him more comfortable with the entire situation.

First, he referenced advice that he received from a mentor in the Indonesia office, who told him, “There’s a sixth muscle we all have, and that’s instinct. We don’t play it up enough, but it’s actually a very important piece of our thinking arsenal. ‘What’s your feel? What’s your visceral reaction to something?’”

Dominic continued, “He would literally try to train me on this. He’d say, ‘I don’t want you doing an analysis. I want you to go away and think about this and come back with what’s your feeling about this.’”

Dominic’s initial reaction was “What the hell is this?” He seriously questioned whether clients would appreciate his “feeling” on an issue. He thought clients would look at him and say, “You don’t get it.”

Imitating his mentor, Dominic went on, “‘What’s your feeling? It’s going to be very important, as you get more senior – you’re not going to have time to analyze everything. You’re going to have to have an instinct towards it.’”

Dominic makes clear, “Instinct is something I (started to) consciously (think) about.”

That was the first thing.

“The second one was failure.” Dominic started talking about his experience with failure at McKinsey and how it actually helped him – as a person and as an executive. “It took me three times before I was elected a partner at McKinsey. And it was a very painful process.... I hadn’t experienced a lot of failure. I had worked hard and you know, if you work hard, you do well. Here I was. I was working hard and I was rejected…. ‘You’ve got some serious issues you’ve got to deal with.’ One of them was very painful. It was ‘We’re not sure about your problem solving skills’…. That’s like telling an astronomer they [sic] can’t do math… it was a bit of a slap in the head.

“I got angry. I thought it was unfair.”

But the whole experience had a profound effect on Dominic. In his words, “It gave me the strength to say ‘You know what? I’m not going to define myself by someone else’s standards… or by what other people think.’”

Dominic started seeking value internally rather than externally. He’d ask himself, “What do I want to accomplish in my life, if not in the world?” Then he’d convince himself, “That’s what I should focus on…. There’s going to be times where it works and there’s going to be times when it doesn’t. But I’m going to be comfortable with that.”

The more we talked to Dominic, the more we realized it’s not just his knowledge of Asia that helped him get elected to McKinsey's highest post, but also his zen-like knowledge from there.

Listen to the interview in full to find out more about Dominic, including:
*How he handles bad luck
*What he looks for when recruiting new talent
*What he thinks is just as good as five hours of sleep

Interview, Part 1 of 7

Interview, Part 2 of 7

Interview, Part 3 of 7

Interview, Part 4 of 7

Interview, Part 5 of 7

Interview, Part 6 of 7

Interview, Part 7 of 7