The 2017 Clarendon Lectures in Management have focused on the themes of self-identity and career transition.
The lectures were delivered by Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Charles Handy. Chair in Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.
Two themes ran through all three lectures: the relationship between work and our sense of identity, and how this affects making transitions, either ‘sideways’ into different jobs or careers, or ‘upwards’ into leadership positions.
You are what you do
The days of people working for a single company throughout their careers are largely over. We are increasingly seeing people not just making career changes, but making them more frequently and making bigger changes.
Partly this is because our working lives are getting too long for the old model of learning, working, and then retiring. Ibarra said that the typical ‘mid-career “Aha moment”’ is now less about feeling ‘It’s now or never’ than about ‘I can’t stand doing this for another 30 years’. In addition, technology is changing not only how we do our jobs, but how we research, apply and interview for them.
Big companies, historically the setting for long, single-employer careers, are shrinking, consolidating key functions in small cores and outsourcing everything else – a process Ibarra refers to as ‘Nikefication’. This leaves people with less and less room to change and grow, which is showing in typically very low engagement figures, and a median length of time in any one job of only 4.2 years. So people want to leave, set up on their own, find a job with passion and purpose. They don’t want to do what their parents did or what the company has planned for them.
But, as Ibarra said, this is difficult: ‘In many ways you are on your own. There used to be paths, sequences, clear trajectories. We don’t do that any more. There are more transitions to navigate and you navigate them yourself.’
The key to how to manage those transitions lies in a deeper understanding of identity, networks, and storytelling.
We all have multiple identities, but our work identity is one of the most important. What we do is part of how other people relate to us; it is how we start a conversation; and it allows people to ‘categorise’ us. Also, because we spend so much time at work, we end up internalising that work identity as a sense of self, which is why losing that identity -- even if voluntarily -- is so painful.
One of the most difficult things is understanding who we are as we are changing. Our identity is partly how we describe ourselves, but it is also a product of how others describe us. And others end up ‘pigeonholing’ us, unable to recognise that we could be something different. As Ibarra said, ‘It is very difficult to be something if no one else thinks that is what you are … Whatever you identify as, if it is not confirmed and endorsed by those around you, it is very hard to hang on to that identity.’
In the workplace, networks very quickly close in, with almost everyone knowing everyone else. When people are working hard and perhaps also trying to bring up a family it is difficult to put the time in to maintaining and refreshing a wide network. The down side to this is that very close networks reinforce common behaviours and attitudes: they skew ideas of what ‘normal’ is and tie people to their identities within the network.
Ibarra said that this is why ‘One of the best things you can do when seeking to make a transition is to move out to the fringes of your networks. Find weaker ties and new relationships that will give you different perspectives on what is attractive and possible.’
‘We are natural born storytellers,’ said Ibarra, and ‘Identity is a crafted fiction’ based on our backgrounds, what we have done, and the defining moments that shaped us. ‘The more we tell these stories, the more they become us.’
But, as she explained with the story of Margaret Thatcher, who embodied her own vision of the UK’s Conservative Party as the party for hard-workers, whatever their background, and who probably revelled in Mikhail Gorbachev’s description of her as ‘the Iron Lady’. Thatcher, however, ‘became trapped in that persona way beyond the time when it was useful’. Becoming stuck in our own stories is limiting, and makes it difficult to change.
How to change the story
Looked at this way, identity can be an anchor – something that is safe, makes us feel coherent, whole, and authentic. But it is also something that stops us moving on when the time is right.
Ibarra said that a way to disengage this anchor can be to ‘Shift the tense of identity’. Identity is who we’ve been and who we are today, but can also include all the ideas in our heads about who we might become. She described these ‘possible selves’ as ‘a whole cast of characters clamouring for attention: some are what we would like to do, some are what other people expect from us, some are ideals, some fears – the person we hope we don’t become ...’
So if identity is a combination of what we do, the company we keep, and formative events in our lives, the way to create change is to change what we do – take on side projects, do some moonlighting, volunteer for activities that introduce us to new networks and give us the opportunity to practise other identities. Then we can use these new experiences as elements of the plot in a new story.
The discomforts of liminality
Even so, Ibarra warned that change remains difficult. Seldom is it achieved after a single Damascene moment of conversion. Career changes are not linear, they are messy and driven by things that are outside our control.
The transition process – exploring what you want, disengaging from anchoring identities, experimenting with possible selves – always takes longer than anyone anticipates and is hard on individuals and those close to them. An interviewee described is as ‘like living inside a hurricane’.
But Ibarra said it was important to ‘stay with it long enough not to jump to a conclusion and foreclose on something that you don’t really want.’ The important part of a career transition is not getting into a new role, but coming to an understanding of yourself and what is driving you.
What got you here won’t get you there
The second lecture looked at the process of becoming a leader, considering it as an identity transition.
‘Most of us don’t grow up in careers seeing ourselves as leaders from the start,’ said Ibarra. ‘Leadership is an identity that by and large we grow into’. But because it is an identity that we grow into, the process can be hampered by all the other identities that we have had a lot of success with. This she called the problem of ‘What got you here won’t get you there.’
What gets us into trouble as we try to move along with our careers are not our weaknesses but our strengths, she said. ‘Most of us are successful because we know stuff. We have specialist expertise.’ As we become more senior we start to influence others, but that influence is still based on our expertise and what we know, which means that it tends to be limited to people with same background and mindset.
Transitioning ‘upwards’ to a broader type of leadership requires a much larger range of softer people skills and an ability to join the dots. This is very hard to do, she said, ‘Because we try to go about it the wrong way’.
The need for ‘outsight’
The traditional model for self-development and learning new things is ‘think, then do’: use reflection and introspection to understand more about yourself and somehow use that understanding to act in different ways. And people are surprised that this does not work. The approach Ibarra recommends is to increase your ‘outsight’ instead, by marshalling external knowledge, new experiences and action. ‘We’ve over-weighted the self-reflective,’ she said. ‘We need to learn more from experience.’
She described three main approaches that make it easier to ‘do, then think’.
1. Use your job as a platform for learning
In a job, we spend most of our time exploiting what we already know how to do (or in meetings). This lands us in what Ibarra called ‘the competency trap’: ‘We like doing what we do well, so we do more of it, and tend to organise things around it. And the more we do it, the better we get,’ said Ibarra. ‘However, the more we do it and the better we get, the higher the opportunity cost of doing something else.’
If you are stuck in a competency trap, it is likely that you act in work like a ‘hub’, she said: you are at the centre of the action; all roads lead to you; you are at the heart of everything that needs to happen. But if you wish to transition into a broader leadership role, you need to act more as a ‘bridge’. This means that you have ‘one foot in your turf, in your department, and one outside’. You are making sure that you bring in the right resources, information, and talent from outside, but also that you ‘export’ those things at the same time, by helping people get good jobs and making other connections.
A key leadership competency is the ability to ‘see out and beyond’. By acting as a ‘bridge’ in your organisation you are actively opening your eyes to the bigger picture, and developing that competency through what you do.
2. Use your networks
There seems to be widespread understanding of the importance of networks. They are how we see the big picture, how we tap talent, avoid groupthink, generate creative ideas. But few people seem able to claim that they devote much time to cultivating their networks.
And typically, most of us have networks filled with people like ourselves (because those are the people we are automatically attracted to) or people nearby – those we work with regularly, for example. As Ibarra summarised, ‘Human beings are narcissistic and lazy,’ and if they are not careful, their networks become echo chambers.
Although the idea of deliberately managing networks may feel ‘sleazy’, Ibarra pointed out that it was the only way to move beyond the tight and limited networks we would naturally (or organically) develop.
The ideal network for leadership, she said, is:
Broad – In a broad network, people don’t all know each other. Members of the network act as doorways to other networks that you would not otherwise have access to.
Connected – Part of your network needs to be tightly connected, even ‘cosy’, ‘because that’s how you create trust and get things done,’ she said. But too tight a network means that you become redundant, because you are not bringing any value to the organisation.
Dynamic – If networks don’t change with us, it makes it hard to change ourselves. People who have known us for a long time like us to stay the same.
3. Be more playful with your sense of self
‘Authenticity’ has become the latest leadership buzzword, raising anxiety levels in all people who, like most of us, ‘feel a bit fake’ when trying something new.
However, Ibarra urged that a desire for ‘authenticity’ should not be used as ‘an excuse for staying in your comfort zone’, nor should it be a cover for rigidity. There is an authenticity paradox, in which we feel there is a clash between who we are and what it takes to be successful, but, given that we have multiple selves and possible selves, do we have to be true to only one?
Ibarra advised imagining being playful and experimenting with different selves, saying ‘We are more likely to act our way into a new way of thinking than think ourselves into a new way of acting.’
Women and leadership
Ibarra used the third lecture to turn an identity and transition lens to the apparently intractable problem of ensuring a better gender balance at the top of organisations.
She said that we are bombarded with images that suggest that women do not look like leaders. There is even a ‘bronze ceiling’ – a survey of commemorative statues in the UK revealed that women are only featured in statues if they are naked muses, royalty (mainly Queen Victoria), or the mother of God. ‘Wherever we look, we are confronted with the issue that women are not the prototypes of leaders. In business, even though women are entering most industries in large numbers, often 50-50, there is still a big drop-off in the middle.’
Ibarra said that the three approaches for making transitions into more senior roles – redefining work to be more strategic, managing networks, and being more playful with a sense of self – correspond almost exactly to the elements that come together to form second generation bias against women. This is not explicit discrimination – but that ‘something in the water that you can’t quite put your finger on’.
This means that the process of both doing leadership work and being recognised for it by the people around you is simply much more difficult for women.
1. Use your job as a platform for learning
This is the single biggest barrier for women: redefining work to be more strategic, getting the right experience, getting the big projects so that your CV is sending out ‘leadership’ messages.
Even though companies know that people develop leadership skills on the job through stretch assignments and doing things, and even though they typically want to promote more women to leadership positions, they seem unable to put the two together in practice.
Companies run special women’s training programmes and mentoring programmes, and set up women’s groups. But these achieve nothing if, earlier in their careers, women have already moved into the support functions, such as HR, that do not lead to the top. In numerical terms there are increasing numbers of women at the mid-senior management level, but this is not the same as a leadership pipeline.
Projects are another way for people to develop their leadership skills. But Ibarra’s research shows that men’s projects simply had bigger budgets, more staff, and more international scope. The difference seemed to be, she said, in assignments to powerful people early in their careers. By working with powerful people, they got access to better assignments.
As she explained in the second lecture, what you do affects quality of your network: that is who you get to know and how they get to know you.
The biggest principle of network formation is ‘like attracts like’, which currently gives men easier access to networks of power. Research on networks also shows that women’s networks are more bifurcated, with one set of contacts for work and one for social. Men, on the other hand, are likely to have a much greater overlap between their work and social networks.
What does this mean? Practically, women are the last to hear work news and have fewer opportunities to pitch ideas informally. But mostly it is in social interactions that people really get to know and trust each other. If women are not part of the social networks they have to work much harder at creating high-trust relationships. On the plus side, though, women’s external networks can be helpful to current performance and advancement as they can bring in new ideas. They are also more portable.
Mentoring relationships are different too. Women’s mentors are more likely to be female – and they are therefore less senior. They tend to get lots of talk, lots of advice, and lots of extra-curricular tasks, such as speaking engagements and conferences. Men more often had ‘sponsors’ – people with power who actively used it.
3. Sense of self
These biases and stereotypes have a powerful negative effect on what we believe is possible.
Ibarra quoted a non-academic analysis of performance reviews in which it was clear that women got more critical, subjective feedback, and more negative personality assessments than men do. The same behaviours and attributes can be described in entirely different ways – a woman being labelled ‘inexperienced’ while a man is more positively said to have ‘potential’. These biases, she reminded us, are ‘embedded in the heart of talent management systems, including all hiring protocols, assessments, and leadership planning. They are all designed to fit together.’
While performance appraisal systems are now coming under review, in general there is even more bias in assessing potential. Women are simply thought not to be good at the ‘vision thing’ – sensing opportunities, setting strategic objectives.
Ibarra believes that this comes back to the issues of identity and authenticity. Developing a leadership identity involves moving from an area of expertise (‘what got you here’) to embracing communication and vision more broadly. And the problem with making that transition is that it can feel fake. Even ‘stealing’ from other leaders in order to ‘do, then think’ is hard because the other leaders are often men – the role models don’t fit.
So women will often say simply ‘that’s not me’, claiming to be authentic while really revealing what Ibarra described as the ‘Rigid, scared self, not a self in full power. In trying to be authentic, they are keeping themselves from growing and developing into next authentic version of themselves.’
Watch videos from the lectures below.