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Women in Leadership| Leadership Moments

Be Prepared to Pivot, and Your Plan B Can Be Even Better Than Your Plan A

April 24, 2019

Be Prepared to Pivot, and Your Plan B Can Be Even Better Than Your Plan A

Deborah Lee James has had a remarkably varied career – 17 years in the private sector, 20 years in government, and she served as Secretary of the Air Force under President Obama, overseeing a $140 billion organization with 660,000 employees. I’m proud to call her a colleague now, as she is one of our mentors at The ExCo Group, a senior leadership development and mentoring firm. I sat down with her recently for a conversation about her key leadership lessons, many of which you can learn more about in her compelling new book, “Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success,” to be published next week.

Q. What have been the key lessons you’ve learned?

A. I always tell people that no matter where you are in life, you need to have a plan of where you want to go. But as you are proceeding down that road, you have to be prepared to turn left or turn right. You may even reach your goal and decide it’s not actually for you, after all. Or maybe, if you’re like me, your dream early on in life goes up in smoke. But life can’t stop. You have to bounce back and you have to figure out your Plan B. So have a plan, but know that your Plan B can be even better than Plan A. So be prepared to pivot.

I also talk about the importance of mentorship and building a network. I’ve always sought out my own mentors. I’ve never been in an organization that gave me a mentor or assigned me a mentor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have one. You can simply ask someone to have a cup of coffee with you and ask them to tell you their story. A good mentoring relationship might grow out of that.

“Having a positive outlook is very important as you rise higher and higher through the leadership ranks.”

The last one is the importance of always having a positive attitude. When obstacles present themselves, and this can be hard to do, you have to try your very best to see what the opportunity is within that obstacle, because there is always an opportunity. Having a positive outlook is very important as you rise higher and higher through the leadership ranks. There’s always a silver lining.

Q. How did you learn that lesson?

A. The hard way. When I was in high school and college and graduate school, I had a singular dream. I was very focused. I wanted to be in the State Department. I wanted to be a diplomat. I was an exchange student overseas in high school, and when I got to college, I majored in international affairs, and did that in graduate school, as well. I had top grades, I went to terrific schools. When I was in graduate school, I even had an internship, which was very difficult to obtain, with an embassy in Peru. I thought I had everything, as good a resume as any young person could possibly have.

I then moved to Washington out of grad school and applied to the Foreign Service, and I sat back and waited for them to send me an acceptance letter. But instead they sent me a rejection letter, and at the age of 23, I thought my life was over. I remember going to bed and crying for probably five days because, after all this preparation, my dream just went bust.

But on the sixth day, I realized I can’t keep crying. I had to get out and find a job. I sent my resume around and ended up getting hired by the Department of the Army. What did I know about the military? And in those days, what did I care about the military? The answer was nothing and nothing. My dad had been in World War II, but like so many of his generation, he really never spoke to me about it, and I had zero exposure to the military.

But at least it was a job, and I was grateful for that. I threw myself into the work, did my very best, and after about four months, remarkable things started happening for me. The work they had assigned me was really interesting and purposeful. I also fell in with a great group of people, they took me under their wing, and there was a lot of camaraderie. The third thing that happened was that my boss was my first great mentor. He spent time with me, gave me advice, and opened a couple of doors for me that otherwise would never have been opened.

Looking back on that first disappointment 37 years ago, I zig-zagged to Plan B, which turned out to be a military-defense focus, but it turned out to be every bit as good, if not better, than my Plan A. There is that old saying that one door closes but another door opens, and you have to be prepared to walk through it because you don’t know what’s going to jazz you until you try it.

Q. Now you’re mentoring senior executives in this new chapter of your career. What are the themes that come up most often?

A. Many times, it comes down to relationship management. People are not spending enough time building relationships with their peers, their bosses or their direct reports. That’s a key issue. And communications is a big part of that, and not just to broader groups of employees. It’s so important that a leader have good eye contact, and that they say, “Good morning, how are you today?” If the person says they’re dealing with some problem in their personal life, like a sick relative, you have to take a few minutes with them.

The third theme that comes up over and over is time management. People can be so wedded to doing their e-mails at a certain time of the day that the e-mails overtake everything else, and they haven’t set aside enough time to do strategic planning.

Q. In all your roles, you’ve worked with a lot of leadership teams. What are the qualities of a high-performing team?

A. The best teams that I’ve seen tend to have certain properties. They tend to be smaller, with five to ten people. You also have to know each other as people, which is easier if the team is smaller. You have to be invested in each other, caring about the success of each person individually. On the best teams I’ve seen, there really is this camaraderie where they know and care about one another and look after one another.

“On the best teams I’ve seen, there really is this camaraderie where they know and care about one another and look after one another.”

The third property is a very clear shared vision and set of goals, so that everybody is rowing the boat in the same direction and trying to get to the same destination. When there are too many goals, and many confusing visions, that’s bad for effective teamwork.

When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, with a missed goal or a vision that’s not realized, the leader of the team really needs to stand up and take responsibility, and shelter the other members of the team. Alternatively, when things go well, that leader needs to really share the limelight.

Q. Where does your drive come from?

A. I always wanted to control my own destiny. I grew up in a difficult environment. Looking back, my mother probably had an undiagnosed mental illness. My parents divorced, but there was constant bickering over money, and the children were put in the middle of it. Everything in her life was a crisis, including the small things, like running out of a certain brand of soup.

In later years, my mother was always very dependent – on my father, and then on me, ultimately. I always wanted my own money. I needed to have a career, make my own money, control my destiny. I might not have had the same drive if I’d had a different experience growing up, because it really was a driver for me. Nobody was going to hold me back.

The other thing I learned from those experiences is that it’s important to try to peel back the onion on these relationships, get beyond the anger to try to understand why the person acts the way they do. To the extent you can diagnose it a little bit, it helps you to not take it so personally. That’s true for colleagues at work, as well, not just families.