My dad kept that Shakespeare quote next to his work phone for years, but it wasn’t until I was 10 that I suspected it wasn’t about boating.
When I asked my dad why he’d cut out the line he told me, “Ryan, true character and success are defined not by how you act when everything is going your way, rather it’s how you act when everything isn’t.”
That conversation stuck with me, and it was a lesson I lived through all over again back in early 2020 when I took on the job as CEO of LinkedIn. At the time, I never could have imagined the challenges we were about to encounter. I had a plan in mind and a general feel for how my leadership style would translate to the new role. It was important for us to provide a sense of consistency and stability, especially given our previous CEO had been in the seat for over a decade. No sudden or big changes all at once.
However, as with many of the best-laid plans, things took some unexpected turns that changed my entire outlook.
A global health crisis shook the world, halting business as usual and forcing major cities into lockdown. Entire sectors adopted remote and hybrid working in a matter of weeks. A supply chain crisis created bottlenecks in getting goods to millions of customers. And even today, an environment of economic uncertainty still looms large and presents major challenges for every business.
The tech sector has been hit particularly hard by these conditions, forcing all leaders to take a hard look at teams and talent and, in some instances, make the decision to make workforce reductions. While this is crucial in ensuring our companies are resilient and can emerge stronger from this dynamic environment, there is simply no harder decision to make as a leader.
We were undoubtedly in turbulent waters and the waters remain choppy still–but navigating these unpredictable tides has driven us to move faster and to think up new ways of doing things.
Facing negative headwinds, many businesses instinctively play to the lowest common denominator and see change as a tax or burden to be dealt with. Meanwhile, adaptive leaders are playing up, playing to win. This means seeing change as a growth opportunity and not shying away from making bold decisions, even when it goes against what others around you are doing.
In 2020, this all came to a head but instead of retrenching, we saw an opportunity to rise to the moment by adapting and trying new things. For us, this meant rolling out new features to help members who suddenly found themselves out of a job and in need of support, unveiling a new approach to hybrid work where our employees are empowered to work however is best for them and their teams, and even re-evaluating and enhancing our company values to ensure our culture truly reflects the current needs of employees.
How you adapt will look different for each business, but the key is to embrace this notion that the hard times are when you can test and learn fast. Many of the most successful business leaders I’ve encountered have already adopted this mindset of playing up and spotting the opportunity amidst turbulence.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently told me “leaders don’t wait for the perfect pitch or perfect weather to perform, you’ve got to take the hand you’ve dealt with, and deal with the constraints.”
And former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts gave me similar advice when I asked her about leading through challenging times: “I’ve learned more in the valleys than I have on the mountaintops.”
We’re all making decisions on a daily basis that no one in the role before us ever had to make. While this can seem daunting, there’s always an opportunity hiding in plain sight for those willing to look for it.
Cultivating a culture of constant iteration and learning is the new gold standard that will set your business apart in a world where disruption is the norm. This is the essence of adaptive leadership and it all starts with how you hire and grow your team and adopting what I’ve been calling a skills-first mentality. Companies that focus on skills and shift away from more antiquated signals like degree, pedigree, or where someone worked before, will be able to ensure they have the right people with the right skills, in the right roles, doing their best work. And it doesn’t stop there. Once you have those employees in the right roles with the right skills, it’s equally important to continue investing in their career progression and skills.
At LinkedIn, this was embedded in our culture well before I became CEO. Ever since our co-founder Reid Hoffman first introduced the concept of “tours of duty” (the opportunity for employees to take on rotational assignments that provide access to new skills, experiences, and connections), we have always embraced a growth mindset and empowered employees to explore different career paths.
I truly believe that your next top employee is most likely your current employee. And if you focus on skills and understand the skills of your existing workforce, and where you need to go as a company, there’s a huge opportunity to help your top talent find different roles inside of your company instead of learning and leaving. In fact, our data shows that at the two-year mark, an employee who has made an internal move has a 75% likelihood of staying as opposed to the 56% likelihood for an employee who hasn’t made an internal move.
It’s all part of that adaptive mindset that’s needed right now. While I learned the unexpected upsides that can come from navigating through hard times from my Dad, it took living through them as CEO to fully understand what it means to adapt and embrace change. Anyone can manage when the sea is calm, but a new level of thinking and potential is unlocked when you see choppy waters as unique opportunities to reinvent how you do things.
Ryan Roslansky is the CEO of LinkedIn.
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