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True transformation is slow, and it’s hard

Mar 20, 2016 Success, Sunday Nation

The word ‘transformation’ mesmerises us these days. So many of us seek a change that is as dramatic as it is quick.

Individuals who feel trapped in a prison of low achievement imagine there is some formula out there for a personal makeover. They read the autobiographies of the rich and famous in order to pick up some clues. They attend motivational talks and watch shows about personal success. They want a few bullet points, a summary of what’s needed – as long as it’s easy, and it’s quick.

Corporations periodically go into transformation mode. Or rather, they go into ‘turnaround’ mode. A turnaround, Gary Hamel once observed sharply, is a transformation tragically delayed. Companies whose revenues are flagging and whose margins are shrinking invariably look for management consultants and advisors, or seek to ‘benchmark’ themselves against the best out there. They want to know how they can be more like Uber or Apple or Facebook.

Nations, especially emerging ones, are also seduced by the transformation bug. They believe they can use new technology to ‘leapfrog’ others in the development race. They believe they can accelerate economic advancement by building more roads and power stations and connecting more people to the internet. Their leaders travel the world to learn from the best, and then employ expensive advisors and set ambitious ten- or twenty-year targets to become ‘middle-income’ nations.

Do you notice a common thread? Whether it is persons, organizations or countries being considered, they all first rush to look ‘out there’ somewhere. Salvation is believed to lie in the external world. It’s a question of getting the best advice, of setting the best strategy, of learning from someone else.

Individuals enrol themselves in programmes and techniques designed by other individuals. Companies adopt the latest management method that has a long list of success stories behind it. Nations seek to recreate the magic of the Asian tiger economies.

I don’t have anything against anyone seeking advice. As a business advisor I make a living from providing it. But I do wish many more understood an essential fact of life: the only true transformation worth having comes from within, not without. If you want to make a big change in your life, it begins and ends with you.

Individuals who succeed undergo the hard grind of educating themselves, slowly developing distinctive skills, and creating uniquely compelling propositions for the world that generate an economic return. They do not themselves enrol in a simple 7-point programme; they do it the hard, long way.

Companies that get marked as stars learn their own lessons. They try things out, fail at them, change them, fail again, and then generate deep-seated insights about how to engage employees and captivate customers. Through repeated action, a pattern of good practice emerges. If that practice is strong and sustainable, it becomes adopted by others as an industry standard. Great companies do not follow the latest fad in the hot new bestseller.

Nations that elevate their people do not do it in one election cycle, or even five. The struggle to come out of poverty is a long, difficult one full of setbacks and reversals. Institutions have to be designed and built. Typically, they are then corrupted and have to re-emerge from the dust, stronger. A culture of lawful behaviour has to be cultivated over a long time, until it becomes an accepted, enforced norm. No matter how many people you connect to the mobile internet, you will not raise national productivity if those people cannot protect their property and ideas, or run their lives free from the shenanigans of overlords and masters.

True success comes from facing some inescapable truths, not from listening to a great talk or following the advice of a celebrity author. We are, of course, a connected race. We do indeed need to learn from others and share knowledge. Many insights come from connecting to the right people. We are part of a ‘hive mind’, and much success comes from collaboration and sharing.

But the key task is to be able to find the strength deep in yourself. Personal values and standards can be observed from the outside world, but the real work involved is personal. They must be developed from within. This is hard, and it takes time. If you don’t have the capacity for hard work and patience, then run to the nearest feel-good solution. But you’ll only run from one to the other until you face up to the fact that you’re only running away from yourself.

(Sunday Nation, 20 March 2016)

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