Article by Dr Cath Bishop
If you’re interested in exploring your potential, reaching sustainable levels of high performance and thriving in your career, then the concept of ‘returning to normal’ over the next few months is unlikely to help much.
The idea of going backwards in time is rarely useful to our development. And the belief that a ‘past normality’ offers all that we need to fulfil our potential in a fast-changing world makes no sense. That’s before we stop to consider the multiple flaws that were part of any previous definitions of ‘normal’. So, as we start to go back to workplaces, reconfigure what working life looks like and reconsider our own careers, it’s an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective from what we have learnt over the last year: namely, that we live in an uncertain world. That meaning comes from the purpose behind our jobs, the way we go about them and who we work with, not from simply achieving short-term goals and salary bonuses. Finally, in an unpredictable world, adaptability is key. To that end, a constant learning mindset is our biggest asset to take with us into whatever workplaces await us.
For too long, we have been trapped into thinking that those who led a business and sat at the top of the hierarchy were the ones to copy and emulate. That the things that made them successful would surely make us successful. But if there’s one phrase that I am hearing from leaders of businesses big and small that I work with, ‘what got us here, won’t get us there’. The world is changing fast, and trying to work faster and harder is driving us all to sacrifice long-term gains for the sake of the short-term, and to risk burnout rather than create conditions where we can thrive.
As we reset our working lives as lockdown eases, there are three themes that I recommend keeping in mind, the 3Cs of ‘The Long Win’: clarity, constant learning and connection. These should guard against giving into short-termism, superficiality and getting stuck in our careers. They will help us to maximise the things that we can choose to invest in, our mindset, behaviours and relationships, and set us up to consider wider perspectives, possibilities and potential.
Clarifying what matters is a constant form of questioning to apply to our careers, our ambitions and our work: clarify not just what you do, but why you do it and how you do it. Adding purpose and a focus on the quality of what you do will bring greater meaning to your work. Connecting each day to the longer-term ‘why’ you do what you do, will help you to prioritise and make good decisions, as well as help you work about what shifts you might need to make in how you work or even whether it’s time for a career change.
A constant learning mindset enables us to keep challenging how we think, to listen to other’s perspectives, to seek feedback and reflect on what’s working well and what we need to improve. Elite athletes focus ruthlessly on continuous improvement in order to keep pushing the boundaries of performance. They don’t think about winning all the time; they focus on learning, experimenting and exploring what’s possible, physically and mentally. Too often, in the workplace we are narrow in our learning, tied to the text of job descriptions and other constraints. This can lead to us feeling stuck, unable to connect our work across organisations, to collaborate and increase added value, and struggling to adapt to the enormous change around us. Make sure that your prime focus each day is to use every meeting, interaction and piece of work as an opportunity to learn – it’ll bring an energy and motivation, creativity and innovation to what you do.
Finally, this last year has taught us the value of human connections to our lives. Whether we are returning to the workplace, staying at home or taking on a hybrid approach, we cannot succeed alone. Relationships sit at the heart of the experiences we have at work and the collective performance that we are part of. Don’t let tasks, deadlines and targets run your work life – think about who you are connecting with each day and how you can learn more about those you engage with beyond the immediate transaction. Be intentional about developing your personal and professional network which will be in an investment in your ongoing resilience.
So let’s try out some more ‘long-win thinking’: let’s think less about returning and more about resetting; less about ‘what’ and more about ‘why’ and ‘how’; less about ‘a past normality’ and more about constant learning and innovation for the future; and less about how things used to be done, and more about exploring possibilities, together.
About the author
Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat and business coach. She competed in rowing at 3 Olympic Games, winning World Championships gold in 2003 and Olympic silver in Athens 2004. As a diplomat for the British Foreign Office for 12 years, Cath specialized in policy and negotiations on conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq. Cath now works as a business consultant, leadership coach and author, and teaches on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at Surrey Business School. Cath speaks at events globally on topics of leadership, high performing teams and cultural change. Her first book ‘The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed’, published October 2020, was described by the Financial Times as ‘a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives.’
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