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“This is the voyage of your life”

Erica Ariel Fox is shaking things up in the field of senior leadership development. She believes strongly that one of the main keys to successful management is the ability of top managers and CEOs to practice self-discovery. Egon Zehnder consultants Jill Ader and Kati-Najipoor-Schutte met with Fox in Berlin, where she discussed her experiences with corporate leaders on the “voyage of their lives”.

On what makes for the ideal corporate leader ...

Erica Ariel Fox: Ideal leaders today realize they need to understand and direct more than their company, more than their market segment, and more than their P & L. For anyone with authority, their capacity for extraordinary leadership now comes from a passion to understand themselves, combined with a commitment to lifelong development as a leader and as a human being. They also appreciate that the days are over when results-orientation and hitting performance targets were enough. Employees, customers, clients, and corporate boards all want leaders who know who they are, who value relationships, and who inspire people with a sense of purpose.

On management in the past and expectations of managers in the future ...

Erica Ariel Fox: In the past, executives were judged on their expertise and their results. What mattered? Strategy. Finance. Operations. Marketing. Compliance. Business schools prepared future corporate leaders to manage these areas of a company. In some cases, they gave a nod to »soft skills«, like requiring a class in negotiation or communication. But the preparation they gave for entering the world of work focused more on financial transactions and business strategy. It encouraged competitive drive as the fuel of success.

Over time, this kind of expertise created incredible value along many important dimensions. But that model can’t thrive anymore. The human dimension of leadership has taken center stage. Ideal leaders today blend traditional business strengths with more human qualities, like authenticity and compassion for others. Most importantly, they have curiosity about what drives them. Self-awareness is now a central driver of success. A self-aware leader helps an organization be more self-aware, so there’s a huge multiplier effect.

On the factors driving progress ...

Erica Ariel Fox: The pace of change and level of complexity in the world today is extraordinary. Our lives are shaped by things that didn’t exist ten years ago, even five years ago. Big data. Social media. Disruptive technologies. With this mind-boggling complexity and speed of innovation came the loss of basic stability.

In other turbulent times, people turned to institutions they trusted. But today, many people have lost that faith. We have unprecedented distrust of government, the media, the church. Because the more typical institutions don’t appeal to them, many people are looking to company heads to help them make sense of things, to give them a sense of place. An ideal leader today feels that existential need in their people, and rises to meet it. The best CEOs and corporate leaders still achieve extraordinary results. At the same time, they genuinely connect with this unease in people. They communicate, in ways big and small, »it’s all going to be okay.«

On a widespread misconception among managers ...

Erica Ariel Fox: When leaders don’t like their results, they have a tendency to look at everyone around them, not noticing that actually, those results came from their own actions, and their actions came from their mindset. The ability and the willingness to say, »My mindset has been so helpful to getting me to this senior role, but now that I am at the helm, I actually need to unpack it and create it anew« takes a lot of strength and is a road to greatness. Self-awareness is fundamental, and then there’s more. It takes courage to admit to yourself where you really are. The key to genuine self-awareness is to recognize there are many different parts that make up your self, not just one.

On the need to reinvent yourself ...

Erica Ariel Fox: As the world reinvents itself, the only way to win is to reinvent yourself, too. The number one imperative in business today is to learn the inner path of leadership, what I’ve called »winning from within«. In fact, that means that as the world transforms all around you, you need to change, too. Think about it. Uber is upending taxis. Hotels lose ground daily to Airbnb. Google threatens to replace everyone, even automakers if they scale the self-driving car. What happens to industries that fail to innovate in these times? To stay competitive and thrive in today’s world, companies need to release expectations from the past. To open themselves to entirely new mindsets about what their brand means. To let their very identity evolve. The same is true for individuals. At the core of my work with people is helping them to ask »who am I?« and »who can I become?«

On the voyage that is life ...

The »voyage« is a timeless motif for self-discovery and fulfilling your potential, both as a person and as a leader. As Voyagers we live in a state of paradox. We need audacity and humility. The hunger to grow and acceptance of where we are now. The urgency to act and the patience to let things ripen. The Voyager in us keeps us moving, rolling with the punches, falling down and picking ourselves back up. We adapt to new circumstances. Your Voyager stands for the idea that you have choices, and that ultimately, you create your life.

Erica Ariel Fox: Can people really, really change their inner self? Yes, they can. At every age, in whatever stage of life they’re in. The good news is that although historically social scientists have been saying for a long time that you can change and you can grow, the blessing we have now is neuroscience. We have brain researchers telling us about neuroplasticity; telling us that, even at a neurochemical level, the brain expands over time throughout all the decades of your life. So even if you want a purely scientific, research-based answer: Yes, people can really change their inner self. I personally have seen the process thousands of times. Everything I know, 25 years of experience, three decades of research tell me: yes, yes, yes.

Erica Ariel Fox

Erica Ariel Fox teaches business leaders the art and science of leading yourself. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Winning from Within, which is published in 10 languages. As an Influencer on LinkedIn, Erica has over 150,000 followers. She teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School and, together with her partners at Mobius Executive Leadership, she is a senior advisor to CEOs and top teams.

 

Interview: Egon Zehnder ∙ Photography: Freunde von Freunden/FvF Productions

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