The Hubs in Your Life

Hubs -- formal groups -- can make or break our careers and our lives. What hubs have you joined in your life, and what good or harm have they done you? This is not always the same as how much you've enjoyed or hated the experience.

For example, the fifth hub I joined in my adult life -- after university, two jobs, and business school -- was the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). When I think of BCG, my first emotion is pain and my main recollection is a sense of failure. It was my first major reversal in life, the first time something had gone seriously wrong. I worked 70-80 hours a week for four years, but I didn't succeed at BCG. Bruce Henderson's firm valued analytical skill above all else, and I am not a gifted analyst. Eventually I had to resign before they fired me. My last two years at BCG were thoroughly miserable, and I felt depressed and deflated.

But sometimes suffering is good. I learnt that I could not succeed at anything and everything. I learnt not to buck the system -- or at least to be very selective in doing so. I learnt to work out what an organization values above all else, and not to join it unless I fitted the profile.

And I learnt something else, even more valuable, that has stayed with me ever since. Bruce Henderson proved the power of ideas in business, ideas worked out from first principles. Success in business often comes from deep thought and insight. One really powerful insight can make your whole career and life. Since then, I have been looking for insight above everything else. Most people who make a great deal of money or who have lives rich in other ways, I believe, have done so largely through one simple insight, something that they came up with first, and acted on.

So -- with that pearl of great price that came from asking why Bruce had been so successful -- my time at BCG was not wasted. On the other hand, I'm not advocating management masochism. I should have left BCG after a couple of years, when it was already apparent it was not working. I'd still have had the insight, and could possibly have had two years of happiness and fulfillment instead of two of misery.


Have you been transformed?

All the people I know who've achieved a lot have been transformed at some stage in their life by one particular group experience. Their careers didn't take off until they were immersed in a hub that profoundly changed their outlook and capabilities. Typically when in their twenties, they came out different from how they went in.

"I met people I didn't know existed," says Chris Outram, "polyglot people who were ambitious, intellectually curious, and also attractive personalities." He's talking about his experiences at INSEAD, the business school near Paris. "It provided a mirror for me, allowing me to hone my skills. It also led to relationships which have lasted for decades." Chris went on to co-found OC&C Strategy Consultants, an elite firm full on extremely intelligent people, for many of whom that firm itself has been transformational.

Transformational hubs are often colleges, universities, or unusual firms, sometimes small start-ups, sometimes established industry leaders such as McKinsey or Goldman Sachs. My friend Alex accelerated his career no end when he joined the latter firm at the tender age of 22. "For me it was a huge springboard," he tells me. "Suddenly the idea of global business dawned on me. What changed me was not so much specific knowledge as the people. I learned how important attitude was and I worked alongside the brightest people I have ever met. Before, I was a provincial lad. Now I felt keyed into the whole world."

In the broader world, transformational hubs are often schools, colleges, churches, sports teams, voluntary groups, units in the armed forces, and cults of every kind. They are intense experiences where there is a high degree of commitment to a common goal and to the development of team members. Early experiences in such a group are often difficult -- a baptism of fire. The group is demanding, because in some way it is trying to change the world. Nobody in a transformational hub is bored, indifferent or unchallenged.

Transformation of this kind can only happen in a group. It's not something you can do for yourself. But the odd thing is that even the most directive hubs have the effect of liberating individuals, giving them confidence and allowing them to find their stride. It makes you do different things, and do things differently. It adds clarity to what you can do, and gives confidence that you can do it. You learn the magic of collaboration.

None of this implies that transformational hubs are necessarily a good thing for society. Some are; some very definitely are not. Nor are they necessarily a good thing for all participants in the hub. Sometimes they demand too much and ruin valuable personal relationships outside the hub. Sometimes they turn people into monsters. But most of the people who've experienced transformational hubs enjoyed them, at least for a time, and believe that they changed their lives for the better.

7 Rules for Hub Happiness

Last week we saw that modern life is strange and unprecedented in that we join far more hubs than our forbears did; and our choice of possible hubs to join is hugely greater than it used to be.

Yet I am always struck by how haphazardly we decide to enter hubs -- to join organizations.

So from introspection and observation, I've come up with 7 rules to help us all make better decisions about the hubs we join -- and leave.

1. If you haven't experienced a transformational hub, make finding one a top priority in your life.

2. Use the hub's growth rate as a way of identifying possible transformational hubs. Not all of these are fast growing, but very often they are. They transform because a high growth rate provides exceptional opportunity and a sense of excitement.

3. Demand of yourself that you gain one insight -- just one -- from every hub you work in. What does the hub tell you about the world around you -- about its business or the way it works -- or about yourself, whether the insight is welcome or not?

4. If you are not enjoying the hub, leave. Don't procrastinate. Don't hope for improvement. Just go.

5. If you are enjoying the hub, you should still leave before you want to. Every time you join a new hub, you gain, for sure, a new network of colleagues, some of whom could be crucial in your business or personal life. But when you leave a hub, you don't have to surrender contact with great friends there, or the insight you gained from being there.

6. Start a hub of your own. It doesn't have to be a formal organization. It might just be a group of friends or colleagues that hasn't been put together in the context or with the purpose that you endow the hub. Make the hub comprise people you like. But also ensure that people in the hub, including yourself are able to contribute ideas or learning of some kind to everyone else. The best hubs have a clear purpose -- enjoyment, learning, or something that will improve the world in some way.

7. Make your few really close friends think more seriously about the hubs they are in and they join. One definite way you can improve their lives -- perhaps immeasurably -- is to get them to leave an unsuitable hub and find or found a transformational one.