"Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention." This week I came across this rather large claim, made by Harold Bloom of Yale in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Bloom's argument is that Shakespeare was the first writer to describe the development - as opposed to the mere unfolding - of personality. In Shakespeare, Bloom says, characters such as Cleopatra change their personality, "and they develop because they reconceive themselves. Sometimes this comes about because they overhear themselves talking ... Self-overhearing is the royal road to individuation."
Well, this got me thinking about how individuals I know well - myself and close friends - actually have developed in our lives. Introspection and self-overhearing are indeed part of the answer. But another way we reconceive ourselves has perhaps been largely overlooked, and it is that way of changing our personality which I want to write about here. My idea is that one powerful way of changing ourselves - perhaps the most powerful way - is by becoming part of an unusual organization - a transforming organization.
What do I mean by this? I mean that you - or I - go into an organization as one person, and come out of it as another. You come out different than how you went in. Just possibly you change the organization a little bit, but it changes you a lot. And I think that if Shakespeare was alive today, he might also report how certain organization manage this feat.
If I look back, I think there were four entities that transformed me. The first was Wadham College, Oxford, which taught me to think critically. Even more important it socialized me, and gave me confidence generally, to interact happily in large and small groups of people.
Business school had relatively little impact on me. But when I left Wharton to work at the Boston Consulting Group, the latter taught me about business strategy, and also the importance and excitement of being in a fast-growing company. BCG also convinced me that learning about "strategy" was not primarily a matter of learning, but rather of thinking and discovery - truth remained to be discovered. Even though I was not successful at BCG, this lesson has stayed with me ever since and greatly enriched my life. Just like my college, I came out of BCG a different person to how I went in - I'd acquired a skill and a curiosity that have directed my life.
Before I got fired, I jumped ship to Bain & Company, then a small offshoot from BCG. Bain taught me the discipline of playing the political game, as well as how consultants could have enormous impact on their clients. But I think the impact on the consultants was just as great or greater.
Then I was lucky enough to hook up with two ex-Bain colleagues to start our own spinoff, LEK. This taught me that I could be a prime mover, as well as the enormous satisfaction from teaching and developing raw talent, to the stage where many such careers have eclipsed my own. But I too was a new person at the end of six years at LEK. For the first time, I had the mentality and independence to become a serial entrepreneur and investor.
Each time, then, with all four of these organizations, I was changed in a vital way. This strikes me as miraculous. You can read excellent self-help books but the impact is often marginal. You may know how you want to change, but it's hard work and lonely, like a solitary ant climbing Everest. Joining a transformational organization is a hell of a lot easier - and when they actually pay you for the privilege it is an extraordinary bargain.
How to identify transformational organizations
There are three catches.
One is that you only know after the event whether an organization has transformed you.
Another is that the vast majority of organizations - particularly business firms - are not transformational.
The third is that certain organizations - I think automatically of investment banks - may transform you, but not for the better. With many such outfits, indeed, "money costs too much". Your bank balance may fatten fantastically; but your joie de vivre, your relationships, and your whole curiosity may shrivel and die.
So - how do you find a good transformational ship in an ocean of more conventional or malign boats?
Here are three clues I have picked up:
First, go for high growth companies - growing at least 20 percent a year in revenues, profits (if any), and headcount. In most companies the supply of talent exceeds the demand. In high growth companies, demand exceeds supply. There is always the need for someone to open up a new front - a new geography, a new product, or deal with an important new customer. That someone might as well be you. Growth spawns opportunity. And it is so much more fun to be part of a rapidly expanding empire.
Second, ask yourself, do I really like the people? Do they appear to like you? Most likely, you can only be changed for the better within a secure and comfortable nest. Forget all the old guff about leaving comfort zones. That can work, but it's much more frequent that people thrive and blossom in a supportive environment, where they feel appreciated, can learn a lot, and feel an integral part of the team. And again, not only does it work, but it makes you happy as well. Being happy at work should be part of a civilized life.
Third, try to anticipate and articulate to yourself how the institution might transform you. What would you like to be that you are not yet? Is it realistic to imagine that three years at the new organization will leave an indelible and joyful imprint on your character and your life?
If you can say YES! to all three questions, hesitate not. Carpe diem!
- Join a transformational institution. Make a plan to do this within six months from today - or as soon as you find an organization that fits the three criteria above.