Leadership, it’s been said, is the capacity to translate vision into reality.
Of course that assumes a willingness to make decisions. Not just any decisions, but the kind that make a positive and lasting difference.
Leadership consultant and coach Julia Tang Peters has made a career of studying such decisions. Her clients range from global corporations to entrepreneurial companies. In her practice, she doesn’t focus only on “the management stuff,” although her degree from the Kellogg School of Management and decades in business certainly qualify her to do so. She focuses on what makes leaders “tick,” informed by her background in clinical psychology. In particular, she focuses on specific behaviors that produce successful leadership.
In May, Peters launches a new book. It’s called Pivot Points: Five Decisions Every Successful Leader Must Make. I was intrigued by her approach. So here’s an interview that should interest anyone who appreciates leadership and/or is looking for some solid tips on career advancement.
What led you to write this book on leadership and careers?
In my work with senior executives, I find that most executives want ideas for how they can be better leaders. But they don’t want trendy formulaic approaches that ignore nuances unique to each company, culture, situation, and personality. Seeing the need for a different approach to leadership, I sought out industry-changing leaders, proven but without the swagger of self-importance. Then I had probing conversations with them about how they did what they did.
What I’ve learned from these leaders is that leadership is about making decisions to change the story—changing the course of events from how it will likely go if you don’t take bold action, and having a vision for how you want the story to go if you took bold action. And, there are five pivot points on the leader’s journey. That means five opportunities where you make the story instead of the story making you.
You talk about “pivot points.” What are they?
Pivot points are the decision points when you can change your story. I don’t mean changing how you tell your story, I mean changing the actual story. The term “pivot points” has several meanings, and all apply to how you can change the course of events and your career.
First, pivot points is a term used in financial analysis that calculates levels of support and resistance that are often turning points for the direction of the price of a stock, up or down. These leaders instinctively assess levels of support and resistance and recognize a pivot point.
Second, in basketball, pivoting is the foot action when holding the ball that enables you to scan the court and decide your next move. In this sense, pivot points focus your attention on what’s going on and your next game-changing move.
Third, entrepreneurs talk about pivoting as experimenting to learn what works and doesn’t work. It’s about being flexible and agile in order to make course corrections. My book offers a roadmap for that evolutionary process that is a journey of learning about what works and what doesn’t for you, your leadership effectiveness, your career, and your business.
Ultimately, pivot points help you focus on the things that really matter.
Whether a leader is made or born, whichever you believe, we see how leaders evolve, one pivotal decision at a time. Five pivotal decisions, each building on the previous, together determine the career trajectory and define achievements.
How do we know when we’re at a pivot point?
At times in your career you realize, “This is not going the way I expect or want.” And sometimes the situation is in your favor and you say, “This is a good time to make this risky move while we have momentum.” Either way, you believe it’s time to do something that changes the status quo. You’re gripped by the need to change how the story goes from here.
Here are some examples. Bud Frankel turned his boss’s rejection of his idea into an industry-changing marketing company. Or, it can be a sea change in your market niche, like for John Rogers who heeded the wake-up call and built a leadership team that took Ariel Investments to new heights. Or, it can be a merger gone awry, like for Al Golin who turned a culture clash into a clear strategy for building a global communications and public relations firm. It can be a volatile stock market, like for Glen Tullman who turned a devastated business into a healthcare leader. Or, it can be a personal need for renewal, like for Dale Dawson who turned a loss of passion for his successful financial career into a personal renaissance.
You see the pattern here: successful leaders make pivotal decisions that change the story. Pivot points as triggering events can be career building or career stalling—it’s what you do with it, or more accurately, what decision you make and how you go about making your decision.
What are the five pivotal decisions every successful leader must make?
The five pivotal decisions are really about the five questions everyone should ask about their work and career. These decisions stand out because by making them, you are holding yourself accountable for what matters to you. Because of that, pivot point decisions can unleash a surprising reserve of energy and leadership potential and end up producing outcomes exceeding your goals.
- The launching decision makes a commitment to master a subject and do more than your job. So, every young person needs to ask, “What do I want to be great at that is worth the commitment of massive amounts of my time and energy?”
- The turning point decision acts on an important opportunity or problem that creates a bold new direction. The question here is, “What problem do you want to solve or condition do you want to improve that gives you the verve to pass this test?”
- The tipping point decision, involving significant risk, breaks through a fundamental barrier. Ask yourself, “What fundamental barrier stands between me and a tipping point, which I want to break through to get to the next level?”
- The re-commitment decision focuses on purpose-driven leadership and sharpens the vision, moving the goal posts further out. Everyone after about 20 or 25 years of work asks, “What’s next? Do I keep at this, and if so, what do I want to accomplish? If not, how do I need to recommit to myself?”
- The letting go decision facilitates new sustainable leadership, and moving on. There comes the time when we all need to ask, “How do I both leave a legacy and personally move on?”
In working with clients, I have found that this five-pivotal-decisions framework inspires a whole new perspective and offers hope—hope to thrive, rather than just survive, the inevitable ups and downs. It offers hope in the belief that you can change the story.
Is there any empirical basis for this five-pivot-points model?
Yes, I conducted a study of 500 college-educated people in professional careers. The study validates pivot points as a common experience. It also shows that certain decision-making behaviors make decisions that are leader building and other behaviors make decisions that are career stalling. My book identifies the decision-making behaviors that produced successful and unsuccessful experiences, and the career stages when people need the most help.
You write about five industry-changing leaders. Why did you pick the five in your book?
I handpicked people who are focused on getting the job done rather than on their own fame and fortune. They offer a great deal of insights about the leadership journey that cuts across all industries. At the same time, no matter which industry you are in, everyone will learn from Bud Frankel about marketing, Al Golin about public relations, John Rogers about stock investing, Dale Dawson about investment banking as well as nonprofits, and Glen Tullman about healthcare.
In your book, you say leaders continually recreate their jobs. What do you mean?
Pivotal decisions define what you hold yourself accountable for and what others should look to you for and what they should not look to you for. Ultimately, pivot points help us lead our career and life—whether it’s your business, career, or relationships. My book offers a framework to stimulate and inspire, and respects that it’s your life and your story to make and tell.
This interview by Dr. Duncan was originally published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.
Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan
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