By: Sydney Finkelstein Posted: May 11th, 2016

One of my primary goals for this column is to bring interesting people to my readers, not just because they are interesting but also because they have a particular way of thinking that is worth sharing and learning from. So much of my own work over the years has been in helping others be better leaders, thinkers, and people. When we help other people look at their world differently, we open their eyes to new ideas and new possibilities. Everyone has problems, but why can’t everyone have access to more, and better, solutions?

When I first joined the Tuck School at Dartmouth College some 22 years ago, I met Vijay Govindarajan (“VG”). He is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. He is also the author of Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, HBR Press. VG was already a well-known academic and a legendary teacher, but in my time at Tuck I watched as his impact on how people think about their world grew ever more prominently. I am fortunate to count him not just as a colleague, but as a friend as well.

When you read our exchange below, think about your own life, and how you would answer these very same questions (or at least most of these questions… unless you also wrote a book on selective forgetting Q2 might be a tough one!). Who was your superboss? What opportunities did you have in your life that you chose not to follow? What advice would you give others on what they could do differently in their lives so they will be happier and more fulfilled? Let me know what you think.

Associate Dean of Tuck Executive Education Sydney Finkelstein comments on how the funny idiosyncracies of human behavior can get leaders into troubleDr. Syd:  Superbosses are leaders who help other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible. Who was your superboss, and what did he or she do that you’ll never forget?

VG:  My superboss is my grandfather. He had so much ambition for me that I could never let him down. He spent millions of hours on my education. The most important thing I remember are his words: “You can do better”. As soon as I returned from school everyday, he will ask me: What did I get in the Math Exam? If I got 100, I was fine. Otherwise, he will immediately put me to work. That relentless focus on perfection is the foundation for drawing out the best in people.

Dr. Syd:  Your new book is about forgetting the past and envisioning a better future. I know you’ve been working with this idea for decades, and have helped numerous leaders think about change in a more constructive manner. Where did this idea come from?

VG:  In 1980, I incurred a substantial financial liability as a result of my decision to join Harvard Business School (HBS) to teach accounting as a junior faculty member. The Ford Foundation had underwritten my education at HBS, in exchange for which I signed a contract to return to India for two years. The job at HBS began a week before the end of my two-year commitment. I faced a dilemma: Should I forgo the HBS offer or incur the financial penalty for not fulfilling the two-year contract? In my view, the huge financial burden was more than offset by the life-changing opportunity to teach at HBS. I took the risk of incurring the debt.

As you might imagine, a new, untenured faculty member, even at Harvard Business School, was not paid very much money. So I actively sought consulting to supplement my income. Soon I had my first client: B.F. Goodrich, the tire manufacturer. Now, it was clear to me that I could not go to the company’s CEO and talk about accounting principles. Whatever message I delivered would have to come through the lens of strategy, since that is how CEOs understand the world. Accordingly, I created two boxes. One was labeled Present and the other Future. I developed a presentation that explained how performance in these near- and long-term time horizons needed to be governed by dramatically different metrics.

B.F. Goodrich saw the logic of my Present and Future boxes. Over time, I realized there was a missing third box. The more companies I worked with, the clearer it became that in making the leap from present to future they stumbled over the past. Successful innovationfor the future required a middle box, where you applied the tool of “selective forgetting.” I labeled these boxes, Box 1 (Present), Box 2 (Past), and Box 3 (Future).

Dr. Syd:  You’ve had a very successful career, and indeed it is far from done! But what do you wish you could have done differently in your career, and why?

VG:  A large multinational conglomerate asked me to join as a full-time chief strategy officer, with a large financial reward. More importantly, the company is one of the most innovative in the world and I was excited to imagine myself leading strategy there. However, this offer meant leaving academia. I was too comfortable as an academic. The fading benefits of the present tend to cloud the potential of the future. I decided not to pursue the job offer from the conglomerate. I wish I had the courage to take the plunge.

Dr. Syd:  If there’s one thing you’d like people to do differently in their lives, what would it be?

“Finding creative ways to move up in life requires innovative thinking. The only way to succeed is innovation.” - Professor Vijay Govindarajan

VG:  Consider the remarkable transformation of a single individual, the late Nelson Mandela, who went from embodying black South Africans’ armed resistance to apartheid to becoming a dominant force for racial reconciliation and national unification. He was able to achieve this only by letting go of his own past built on anger and recrimination.

Given the rate of change in the world, every individual must ask three questions almost on a daily basis: What particular factors does one’s current success depend on? Which of these factors are changing, thus putting current success at risk? How can one begin to forget the very roots of past success? 

Originally posted on Psychology Today; May 9, 2016

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