Episode: How to Avoid Career Stagnation
Michael Hyatt: Most people think of Albert Einstein as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, but they’re unaware of the fatal flaw that ultimately undermined his achievements, and it can undermine yours too if you’re not careful. But let’s go back to the beginning. In 1905, while working in a German patent office, Einstein came up with a new explanation for how light traveled, a discovery that eventually landed him a Nobel Prize in physics.
That same year, he also published his theory of special relativity and his famous formula E=mc2. And that wasn’t all. In just several months, says science writer David Bodanis, the unknown Einstein had published several of the most significant papers in the history of science, and he was only 26 years old. So, yes, Einstein was one of the leading scientists of the twentieth century, but that’s not the full story.
In his book Einstein’s Greatest Mistake, Bodanis reminds us of his downfall. In his final decades, Einstein was largely ignored by fellow scientists. One colleague described him as a “landmark but not a beacon.” In other words, he was recognized for his past achievements, but he failed to attract new interest in his work. “I am generally regarded as a petrified object,” he wrote to a friend. In short, Einstein’s career had stagnated, and it happens to leaders all the time. What’s the solution?
Effective leadership involves a commitment to personal growth and development. Writing about this for Harvard Business Review, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche say leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode. Leaders that stay on top do so by being receptive and able to learn.
Well, what prevents us from learning? Thinking we know enough already. One person I know puts it this way: “Knowledge is the enemy of learning.” Listen to this statement from one of Einstein’s professors back when he was an undergrad in Zurich. “Einstein,” he said, “you have one great fault. You do not let yourself be told anything.” Well, that fault stayed with him.
Einstein’s self-certainty was an asset at first, but it eventually meant he was closed to new ideas, and as the field of quantum mechanics outpaced his theories, Einstein found himself pushed to the sidelines. As a leader, you can’t afford that happening to you. So how can you avoid the Einstein trap?
According to a Stanford study of nearly 200 CEOs, board directors, and senior executives, nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, and almost half of senior executives are not receiving any either. In the past, leaders used to refuse coaching because it seemed remedial. The good news, the researchers say, is that that perspective is fading.
Leaders look to coaches for insight on conflict management, team building, delegation, and other challenges. The truth is there’s always more to learn and leaders have to grow ahead of their teams. They need to develop into the leader required for the next place they’re going. Otherwise, their organization will outgrow them or, worse, their organization will get stuck behind them and stagnate at the same stage.
Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt, and this is Lead to Win, a podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re going to explore self-development, and I’m delighted to cover that topic today with my cohost, COO and eldest daughter Megan Hyatt Miller. Megan, thanks for joining me.
Megan Hyatt Miller: Hey, it’s great to be here with you.
Michael: I’m super excited about this topic of self-development because, honestly, this is something I really value and something I’ve tried to practice for my entire career.
Megan: Absolutely. Well, it’s one of the things I have learned from you. If I had to distill all of the lessons I’ve learned over the course of my life, obviously, as your daughter for 37 years, but now professionally, this commitment to ongoing growth and personal and professional development really is something that is distinctive for you.
I can just remember as a kid growing up when I would feel stumped about something or I wanted to learn something new or maybe felt intimidated, I always remember you saying things like, “Well, just get a book on it,” or later, as there was the Internet, “Go look it up on Google.”
There was basically no barrier to development that really existed except in your mind, and you had done it over and over again throughout your career. Anytime you needed to learn something, you were always reading a book or going to a conference or whatever it may be, and nothing stopped you.
Michael: Well, I don’t remember who said it, but I heard it recently. They said, “Everything is inherently figure-out-able.” I think that’s true. It’s kind of a funny story and a little bit embarrassing, but here I am 62 years old, and up until a few months ago I typed with three fingers. Now there’s actually a logical reason for that, so it’s not just that I’m inept, although I’m probably inept in certain areas.
In this particular case, I broke my arm when I was in the ninth grade playing football. My otherwise illustrious football career came to an abrupt end when I broke my elbow, but that was the year they taught us to type, so I sat there in a cast and never learned to type. So for my entire career I typed with three fingers. I was pretty fast, probably the fastest three-finger typist you’ve ever met in your life.
Megan: In fact, the only one I’ve ever met.
Michael: But before I went to Europe this summer I bought an iPad Pro, and I wanted to be able to type on it, not lug around my MacBook Pro, so I got the smart keyboard Apple makes, but I found that I couldn’t type with three fingers. I kept hitting the wrong keys, so I thought, “You know what? It’s high time I learn how to type with all 10 fingers.”
So I bought a little course online. I started teaching myself the lessons while I was on my sabbatical, and lo and behold, here I am eight weeks later typing with all 10 fingers. Now I’m not very fast. You’re not going to be impressed, but I’m using all 10 fingers.
Megan: I’m really impressed.
Michael: I thought you would be.
Megan: Well, as you mentioned, today we’re talking about how to develop as leaders and avoid stagnation. You’ve identified three behaviors of high-growth leaders we can use to maintain our own momentum. Are you ready to tackle those?
Michael: Let’s do it.
Megan: Okay. What’s number one?
Michael: Okay, the first behavior is high-growth leaders adopt a learning mindset. Two Australian researchers, Peter Heslin and Lauren Keating, were puzzled by why some leaders seem to learn on the job and why others don’t. Learning from experience, they say, is neither automatic nor assured. If leaders want to grow on the job, they need to approach learning intentionally in what they call learning mode, and that starts with the right mindset.
Megan: That’s right. Heslin and Keating found low-growth leaders adopt an anti-learning mindset. They say things like, “That’s how we’ve always done it,” or “I know what to do,” or “I’m too old for this,” or “It’s just too complicated for me.”
Michael: Yeah. I started learning about self-development kind of like you did. I learned it from my father, because my dad was one of those guys that whenever he wanted to take on a new hobby, and my dad has had more hobbies than any man I know.
Megan: It’s really true.
Michael: He goes from one to the next. He’s 83 years old at the time we’re recording this, and he’s had dozens of hobbies, but he always starts by buying a couple of books and then sitting down and actually figuring it out. It’s amazing what he has been able to learn. So I just kind of adopted that mindset. I think the key thing to note is that, for him, it was absolutely a mindset.
I faced this in a big way when I became a CEO, because I thought a CEO was all about leadership and management, and as it turns out, it’s somewhat about that, but it’s mostly about managing the financial side of the business. I was running a public company at Thomas Nelson Publishers, and we were traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and then we took the company private, and I had to get up to speed on finance very, very quickly.
I was a philosophy major, so it didn’t really equip me for this particular role, but I rolled up my sleeves, dug in, and learned the financial side of the business. Again, there are a lot of things I don’t do well, but this is something I learned to do pretty well…so well that I could stand up in front of a room of investment bankers, Wall Street analysts, and all the rest and feel like I could go toe to toe and hold my own with them.
It really comes back to a mindset. I didn’t ever say to myself, “Well, I can’t do that.” It doesn’t mean you’re intended to do everything, but it does mean that, again, everything is “figure-out-able” if you have the right mindset.
Megan: Absolutely. My story is kind of similar. One of the things I remember you telling me when I was growing up and then certainly in my professional life is that somebody somewhere knows how to do the thing you’re trying to figure out.
Michael: Good job learning.
Megan: That’s such an empowering thing to think, because that means all you have to do is find the right resource and you’re golden. For me, when I moved into my role as the chief operating officer of our company, I had no formal financial training. My background is primarily in marketing, in branding, so I had to learn a whole new part of the business that was not intuitive and certainly was not something I learned in school.
My major in college was aesthetics, so about as useful as your philosophy degree, although it makes for a really nice-looking office, but beyond that it’s not that helpful. But I just dug in, and I learned from you and from our CFO Justin, and I now have a pretty good mastery of all of our financial reporting and management of the business.
That’s all under my leadership, and I actually enjoy it. It turns out I’m good at it and have an aptitude for it. It’s just not something I had done before. But my mindset enabled me to jump in without the resistance that it wasn’t something I could become good at.
Michael: Again, this is something we need to make explicit. Learning was possible because you realized you could. That’s where it started, even though you hadn’t done it before. Professor Barbara Oakley calls this a mind shift. This, honestly, is where Einstein got it wrong. One thing that’s really encouraging about that Stanford survey on coaching was that so many leaders were open to the possibility of coaching.
As you know, because I’ve said this to you probably your entire life, and as I’ve said to myself, you can always go further faster with coaching. Anything I want to do, I always try to get a coach involved to help me go fast, to help me learn it the best possible way. This whole thing of coaching is a little bit deceptive, because you think, “Gosh, that’s so expensive.”
I pay a lot of money to be part of Strategic Coach. People pay a lot of money to be part of our Activation workshops. But the truth is it’s much, much less expensive over the long term, because you avoid all of the mistakes and you can seize the opportunity. So many good things happen when you have a coach.
Megan: Absolutely. So we have the mindset. What’s the second behavior?
Michael: The second behavior is that high-growth leaders go on the hunt for new insights. Low-growth leaders are passive about their learning. In other words, maybe if something comes up they’ll learn about it. They might shrug their shoulders and walk away from it, but high-growth leaders actively pursue new ideas. They want to grow. They’re like sharks that are swimming in the water. They have to keep moving in order to stay alive.
Heslin and Keating talk about this as creating and capitalizing on learning opportunities. They say leaders who learn set challenging learning goals and even look for risky development opportunities. They look for situations or environments that’ll stretch their thinking and force new insights. Insulation is fine for the walls in your house, but not for leadership. There are a lot of ways to intentionally expose yourself to new ideas. We’ve already mentioned coaching, but let’s flesh that out a bit.
Megan: In my experience as a leader, one of the things I constantly come up against are situations I haven’t been in before, which I think is a good indication that I’m growing and all of that, but that means I’m outside of my comfort zone a lot. I have conversations with people on our team or our clients or business opportunities that I’m considering, and I often need an outside perspective so that I get the insights I need to really grow and develop in the ways I need to.
So, very often, I’ll call our friend Ian Cron, who’s an Enneagram expert and also a business coach, and just find out about the areas that I need to personally grow as a leader in this situation and where I am likely to get hung up, because I can’t see those for myself. My own ability to have insight into myself is limited by my perspective, but when someone on the outside is looking in, they can really help me to grow, and that’s what he has done for me on a pretty regular basis.
Michael: Again, it just helps us go further faster. Beyond coaching, there are a lot of other sources for great learning. I mean, podcasts, like this one or others. There are a lot of great podcasts. I listen to them all week long. Attending workshops and conferences, taking online courses, joining a mastermind group, or just reading. Speaking of that, let’s stick with this one for just a minute.
Megan: Polls say reading is in decline. According to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of Americans in 2014 read…wait for it…no books at all. Can you believe that?
Megan: A third read between just one and five books a year. Only 28 percent read 11 books or more a year. By comparison, in 1978 when Gallup polled Americans on their reading habits, 42 percent read 11 books or more and only 8 percent read no books at all.
Michael: So let me see if I understand this. The trend line is going in the wrong direction.
Megan: This is not good news, people.
Michael: Yeah, it’s not good. Let me tell you, as an author and a former publishing executive, this kind of makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth, but honestly, I’m really optimistic, and you should be too. Do you know why?
Megan: I don’t.
Michael: A readership crisis is really a leadership crisis, and for people who know how to respond, crisis is just another way of saying opportunity. I’ve been a serious reader for decades…business, personal development, history, the Bible, current events, theology, philosophy, even a little fiction here and there. I’m a content glutton.
Megan: It’s true.
Michael: It’s part of who I am. It has also enabled me to become the leader that I am, and I’m not alone. I know very, very few leaders who are uninterested in reading. Some of the most effective entrepreneurs and executives are or have been major readers. Think of Bill Gates, Phil Knight, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and many, many others.
Megan: That’s true for leaders of all kinds. Books shaped the careers of Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln, and others too. According to historian Kevin Hayes, George Washington built an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and that significantly influenced his thoughts and actions.
Amazingly, reading has been shown in numerous studies to improve our judgment, make us more emotionally intelligent, expand our vocabulary, relieve stress, and keep us mentally sharp as we age. That is quite a list of compelling reasons to read.
Michael: That’s an awesome list. That should be motivational to anyone. One of the things I’ve noticed is that high-growth leaders prioritize their learning. In other words, they bake it into their schedules. One of the best ways I’ve found and something I’ve practiced for maybe four decades now is to integrate reading into my morning routine. I always start with the Bible, and I’ve read through the Bible dozens of times.
The reason I do it is because it connects me to a bigger story and to transcendent values, so I feel like my life has meaning and purpose. In addition to that, I also do dedicated reading of business, personal development, and history books every single day, and I’m really focused on the takeaways and how I can apply what I’m learning to my business, my personal life, my marriage, whatever it is. That, for me, has been a real secret of personal development.
Megan: I love that. Before we move off this behavior, I want to go back to what Heslin and Keating said about setting learning goals. Our good friend Ray Edwards is an excellent example of the benefits available to leaders who invest the time to read. Listen to his reflection on the value of his reading this past year.
Ray Edwards: I have always been a big reader, and a couple of years ago I got very intentional about reading more books. I set a goal to read 52 books in a year, and I actually ended up reading 76. A lot of people reacted by asking, “Why so many books?” I’m very clear about why I’m doing this. I think it makes me a better leader and a better person.
Charlie “Tremendous” Jones said, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read,” and I think that is so true. I took it to heart, and I’ve been very serious and intentional about my reading ever since. There are actually five reasons I continue to read a book at least every week.
First, to challenge my own thinking as a leader. If I get stuck in the same pathways of thinking, if I get hung up on only reading things that confirm my same ideas, then I become stale. I’m not growing, and that’s not good for a leader. There’s an aphorism I love that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Well, if you’re not going to do that, if you’re not going to challenge your thoughts, how are you going to do it? You do it by reading different ideas.
The second reason it’s important for me as a leader to read so many books is to expand my worldview with new ideas, things I haven’t even thought of. I like to read outside my own disciplines and interests from time to time.
The third reason is to spark new ideas of my own. I believe I get my best ideas when I’ve taken in a lot of ideas from other people, and there’s a confluence. There are connections my brain makes in the background, and I have these bursts of creativity, and I believe it comes from reading so many books.
The fourth reason it’s important is it allows me to learn new practical tools for living and leading. A great example is a book I’m reading for the second time right now, which is called Profit First, and it has given me a whole new paradigm for thinking about how we become profitable and remain profitable in my company.
The fifth reason is, for me, the most astonishing reason of all, and that is it gives us the opportunity to think the thoughts of the author along with them. I recently read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and it occurred to me as I was reading it, “I’m reading the thoughts, thinking the thoughts the author wrote thousands of years ago, the emperor of Rome.” Astonishing. So those are the reasons I believe it’s important for me, as a leader, to read.
Megan: Let’s pause for just a minute to talk about a new resource you’ve created to help build regular reading habits into our daily schedule. Can you talk about that?
Michael: Yeah. I’m excited about this new product called Leader Box. It’s a monthly curated reading experience designed to maximize your time, grow your leadership, and accelerate your results. It delivers personal and professional development to your door, helping you get through two books a month in just 30 minutes a day.
Megan: Great. I hope you’ll go check it out.
Now let’s dive back into our discussion on self-development. We left off with the second behavior: leaders seek out new insights. What about the third behavior?
Michael: The third behavior is that leaders embody what they learn.
Megan: This one is really important.
Michael: It’s really important, and very few people practice it. I had this sales job in college, and our trainer taught us everything we needed to know, but get this. When it came time to hit the street and try out what we learned, he wouldn’t join his students. Why? Well, it turned out he had never sold a thing in his life. He was a trainer, but he wasn’t practicing what he preached.
High-growth leaders are not like that. They live the lessons they learn, and in their research, Heslin and Keating found that high-growth leaders not only seek feedback but take time to internalize their learning so they can act on it.
Megan: That is so fascinating. The simplest way to think about this process is what the US military calls an after-action review. Can you walk us through that process?
Michael: Totally. Leaders should reflect on what they thought they knew or felt about a topic or a challenge. That’s the first step in the whole process in the after-action review. Second, they should then consider what they subsequently learned. It could be from an experience, a book, a counseling session, whatever. The point is to compare the old way of thinking to the new way of thinking. Then, third, they should revise their thinking and put the new ideas into action.
Megan: Those are such important points. We do this all the time in our business, especially when there has been a failure, whether it’s a hiring failure and we’ve had to fire somebody, whether it’s a product failure where we tried something that totally didn’t work, or even something that wasn’t a total failure but something that maybe didn’t quite work as well as we wanted.
We go through this after-action review every time with our team, and the purpose of that is we don’t want to miss the lessons. We really want to glean all the learning and insights we can from every experience we have, positive or negative, not just kind of rush on and hope it doesn’t happen again and then be doomed to repeat the same lessons over and over.
Michael: I saw this in my journal this morning as I was reviewing what I had written a few years ago when we were doing a Platform University launch, our membership site. It didn’t go so well initially, and I kind of panicked a little bit.
Megan: I remember those days.
Michael: It would drive the team crazy, and it would make me stressed out. One of the things I did was in my journal I did, essentially, an after-action review. I looked at what happened, and then I decided what my old way of thinking was and what my new way of thinking was, because I found that inevitably it worked out. It was kind of like panicking for no reason at all, because I learned to gain confidence in the team and trust the team, and we would eventually find a solution. That’s what we mean about this after-action review, reflection, and change.
Megan: We’ve experienced the value of this process on our team so many times. Listen to what Suzie Barbour, our director of operations, had to say about the results of a recent after-action review she conducted.
Suzie Barbour: Here at Michael Hyatt & Company we are really passionate about after-action reviews. I know that might sound silly, but as a company, we really want to create a culture where we are continually improving, where we are continually looking for ways to elevate our brand and to elevate every experience we create.
One of my favorite examples of a time when we did an after-action review is actually one of my favorite things about working here at Michael Hyatt & Company, and that is that every year Michael and Megan take our entire team and spouses on a cruise to the Caribbean. You might be asking, “Okay, what is there to improve upon when you’re cruising around the Caribbean?” Honestly, not much, but we did sit down last year after our cruise and did an after-action review.
The first thing we asked ourselves was, “What did we think was going to happen on this trip?” The thing we were really hoping for was a lot of personal connection. We were hoping our team would really get to know one another personally and just have a lot of time together.
Then, secondly, we asked ourselves what actually happened. While it was fun and we created amazing memories, we realized the cruise ship environment is actually really limiting for connection. It’s hard to find one another, the technology is a little difficult, so we just weren’t spending a lot of time together if we weren’t at an organized group activity.
We also had a few people who got seasick, which is not the vision, and we had a few families that couldn’t join us because either their infants were too young and were not allowed to come on the cruise ship or if you’re too far along in a pregnancy you can’t cruise. So we realized it’s not as inclusive as we would want for our team trips.
So we asked ourselves, which is our third point in an after-action review, “What are we going to do differently? How are we going to implement this feedback?” We decided that this year we’re going to go to a luxury mountain resort and take our team, and it’s going to be an amazing experience. It’s going to be a fun environment.
It’s going to allow for a lot of connection that’s going to be much easier to do than when we were on the cruise, and it’s super inclusive, super family friendly, so it doesn’t matter if you’re super pregnant, it doesn’t matter if you have a newborn, you can still join us, which is going to be awesome. So an after-action review is a great way to look at even an amazing experience and see how you can elevate it, how you can do it better in the future.
Michael: Another part of embodying what we learn is generosity. At the top of the show we heard from Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche and their idea of leaders staying in perpetual beta mode. I love that phrase. In part, that looks like sharing. As they say, “exchanging resources, ideas, and experiences with our networks as well as collaborating with our colleagues.”
“Sharing is a contributing process where we pass our knowledge forward, work alongside others, go through iterations, and collectively learn from important insights and reflections.” Leaders go first, but they bring others along, and by embodying the lessons they learn and intentionally raising awareness to new ideas in their businesses they develop it even further.
Megan: That’s such an important point. One of the things that happens all the time for us in our company is that one of the two of us will read a book, and then it starts to spread, kind of like the flu, but in a good way, and all of a sudden everybody is reading that book.
Then the next thing that happens is we usually share it with our executive team, and then from there it goes out to many other people on our team, and before we know it, it has transformed the way we do business or our culture or something. Our people love that. When they get on something, they really apply it, and it’s almost like the benefits become exponential the more people that are included.
Michael: Yeah, and I think this whole idea of sharing is not just that we’re getting this head knowledge and passing that on, but we’re letting it sift through the filter of our lives so that we begin to live it and begin to express it. As a leader, I see that as one of my number-one roles, not just to learn stuff but to be transformed by what I’m learning and reading.
That’s, by the way, one of the great things about the books that are part of Leader Box. These are books that are not just best sellers. They’re not just books we’ve picked off the shelf. These are books that have had a transformative effect on us, and that’s why we like to recommend them to other people.
Megan: Absolutely. Well, this has been a great conversation. Today we’ve covered three behaviors of high-growth leaders. First, high-growth leaders adopt a learning mindset. Second, high-growth leaders go on a hunt for new insights. Finally, high-growth leaders embody what they learn. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes and a full transcript at leadto.win.
As we come in for a landing, there’s a question we need to consider that was raised earlier in this episode…Was Einstein a success or not? Well, of course. His name and his life’s work have endured and are synonymous with genius today. More than anyone before, he revolutionized the way we understand the physical world.
Michael: That’s true, but I think the better question is…Did Einstein contribute everything he could? There, perhaps, the answer is no. We have to wonder how much greater his legacy might have been had he continued learning and pursuing new horizons.
Megan: I think you’re right. The lesson for us as leaders is simple. If you want to ensure that the peak of your contribution is ahead of you instead of behind you, you must continue growing. Michael, any final thoughts you want to share with us today?
Michael: Yeah. I think this lifelong-learning thing, this self-development thing, begins with a fundamental commitment, a commitment that you’re going to be curious, that you’re going to seek out information, that you’re going to continue to grow as an individual. Those who have that kind of mindset will grow.
You’ll find the right podcasts. The right books will show up when you need them, the right conferences to attend, all of that, but it begins with a commitment. So I hope, for those of you who are listening, you’ll make this commitment, because it will make a difference not only in your leadership but in your career trajectory.
Megan: Absolutely. Before we close, I want to remind you about Leader Box. It’s automated personal development in a box. Check it out at leaderbox.com.
Michael: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. If you like the show, please tell your friends and colleagues about it, and also please leave a review of the show wherever you listen to podcasts.
Megan: Our producer is Nick Jaworski.
Michael: Our writers are Joel Miller and Mandi Rivieccio.
Megan: Our recording engineer is Matt Price.
Michael: Our production assistants are Mike Burns and Aleshia Curry.
Megan: And our intern is Winston.
Michael: We invite you to join us for our next episode, where we’ll be discussing the surprising link between success and self-denial. Until then, lead to win.