Learning to Walk

[Reprinted with permission. This LinkedIn article, published August 7, 2017, was written by Sean O’Brien, UA EMBA Class of 2017. O’Brien is Platform Strategist at UPS.]

As I watch my one-year-old daughter begin her journey toward mobility, I am mesmerized by how she, as an infant, has so many lessons to offer an adult.

In the new global e-economy, companies and professionals find themselves frazzled when trying to respond to the emergence of this new commerce. From company boardrooms to collegiate classrooms, adults are confounded as to what they should do and how they should do it. I believe my fifth (and last!) child may provide some answers:

  1. Be Inquisitive

Childhood psychologists have suggested that cognitive and motor skill development could stimulate a child’s ability to start walking. Research revealed that a child’s investigation of her environment (and the verbalization of what is understood) could catapult these first few steps (Walle, E. A., & Campos, J. J.). For any professional or company to win in the e-economy, an inquisitive core is a prerequisite. Comprehending the global environment, customer pain points, opportunities for value creation, how to speak the lingo, and how to keep score; yields the clarity needed to launch forward into the market.

  1. Be Attentive

Anyone who has seen a child learning to walk knows that face – the look of being acutely fixated on the object of his or her short journey. Children succeed in taking those first steps because their focus is unwavering. Many of us are familiar with the child who stumbles and wobbles, but succeeds while repeatedly saying “mama” and reaching out for her hand.

For many companies pursuing digital transformations and winnable strategies, less is often more. If a strategy requires 250 PowerPoint slides and lacks an end goal, companies will fall hard from stumbling and wobbling across the e-economy. Clear messaging is often overlooked as a minor and generally inconsequential piece of the organization. However without it, a company will be unclear about what success looks like and why they should keep pressing forward in the midst of disruption.

  1. Be Positive

Have you ever heard an adult scold a child for attempting those first few steps? Have you ever seen a child learning to walk pessimistically with self-criticism? Have you ever seen a parent grade a child’s walking based upon a set of older rules such as how they should be sitting? A child and the rightful bliss that surrounds them is oftentimes a motivator for their continuation in this new venture.

Too often companies attempt to apply the old rules and scoring systems toward the brand new model of the e-economy. This has always been puzzling to me given the way in which the market (institutional and retail investors) have “scored” and rewarded those playing aggressively to win. Applying old standards to the new order of commerce will always lead to skepticism – but transforming a company to view competitiveness so that it aligns with the e-economy, can lead to a realistic set of criteria and an infectious positivism that motivates the firm to create success. Companies and professionals should not be blindly positive nor positive for positive’s sake, but should offer encouragement through words, incentives, and outward persuasion. They should create an atmosphere that facilitates continual optimism toward digital victory.

  1. Be Active

The number of times a child attempts to take his or her first steps increases exponentially until “walking” is actually realized. Reaching the walking phase demands ever-increasing activity, which is followed by additional activity once one foot has been successfully placed in front of the other. We are probably all familiar with the saying: “Oh, you want that baby to walk now, but once that starts, you will never be able to contain her!”

There have been times in my career when I was asked to “slow down”. Such direction is rarely the correct move, given the fruits of the decision. When someone suggests that professionals or companies slow down, they are often saying – “I can’t contain you!” In the e-economy, companies and professionals have the responsibility and the opportunity to be continuously active – and anyone who orates otherwise should signal a red flag.

One additional point is called for within this idea of being active – there will be some who will recognize the need for activity and the perception of it. They will oftentimes be misguided and become overly active in the wrong areas. Anyone can be active just to proclaim they are active, but being active in the right things means being attentive and positive with the right things.

  1. Be Adaptive

Learning to walk is somewhat easy on a flat, non-slippery surface; however, as a child continues to grow in their mobility, new terrains and circumstances arise. Challenges such as walking on uneven surfaces, turning corners, and avoiding obstacles create the need to learn how to adjust. A child learns how to walk by being adaptive!

In my Executive MBA Program at the University of Alabama, my cohort had many opportunities to engage and participate in (both real and situational) executive committee and boardroom scenarios while being critiqued by our instructors. I will never forget the one group that presented the future outlook of a firm that was greatly challenged by the circumstances of the e-economy. After essentially stating there was nothing to be worried about regarding the company’s future given the past performance of the firm, our professors jumped into action and directly challenged this approach. We were then trained on the essentiality of “Second-Level Thinking” as provided by Howard Marks in his book The Most Important Thing Illuminated: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor:

“First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority). All the first-level thinker needs is an opinion about the future, as in ‘The outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up.’ Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.” (Marks)

Wife Hannah and family enjoying the UA campus before Sean’s EMBA class.

I will never forget to discount those who claim they are qualified to lead based on a history of unchallenged, non-adaptive behavior. Anyone is capable of claiming success based on an easy road of mitigating risk – but the leaders needed in the e-economy are those who are second-level thinkers with a track record of recognizing risks, studying them, planning around them, experimenting with them, and adapting to the future – I will follow those leaders into battle every time!

To learn more about the UA EMBA Program and how you can become a part of the next incoming class, contact Cheryl Altemara at caltemara@cba.ua.edu or call 205.348.4501.

To request information now, click here.

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