Need a quick refresher on who Jimmy Iovine is? Jimmy’s career is legendary. He is a renowned record producer and co-founder of Interscope Records and Beats Electronics, currently serving as a co-creator of Apple Music. Iovine’s career started in the early 1970s when he, then in his late teens, became a recording engineer, working with John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen, among others. He came to prominence via his work with Patti Smith, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stevie Nicks and U2. Jimmy is perhaps best known for his partnership with Dr. Dre, who became hip-hop’s first billionaire after selling Beats to Apple, as well as his role in signing Tupac Shakur, Eminem, No Doubt, Lady Gaga and other now-mega-famous artists.
In the first episode of HBO’s recent documentary series “The Defiant Ones,” Bruce Springsteen offered a clue behind Jimmy’s successful career: “People become successful and they get locked into the behaviors that lead them to be a success. Jimmy was very, very good at letting go of the things that might have made him a success to this point … he is willing to shed that … and go for something completely else … and he was not afraid to partner with other very visionary people. Jimmy’s entire career is based on a tremendous lack of fear of moving forward.”
In the past 10 years, I have noticed a similar characteristic within the highest performing executives across industries, especially given the rapidly accelerating pace of technology advancement. These high-performing leaders are the ones who are successfully leading business transformations today or the ones who are leading hyper-growth tech companies through major pivots. One of the attributes they have in common is exactly what Springsteen describes above: They seem to crave discomfort.
They go first, even when they have to solve a problem they’ve never seen before or take over a new role. They recognize that someone has to build a new service model, redesign and lead an organizational change or figure out a new client message and partnering model, so they don’t wait for a peer to do it — they jump in themselves. They spend time with their team on the frontlines to understand how work is currently getting done, where the tension points are, what their people are passionate about and what customers are asking for. They drive experiments and try new things, even if it forces them to be a “rookie” again. They can operate with what many refer to as a “beginner’s mind.” And they don’t tend to just do this once, they tend to crave discomfort and deliberately put themselves in uncomfortable situations time and time again.
Most people are hesitant to act this way. Perhaps because it’s inherently hard or because the perceived risk is too high and a fear of low performance is too great. You don’t want to try a new conversation with the customer because you think you’re likely to fail and lose the deal. Or maybe you don’t want to run a new function because you don’t even really know what it is and you’re not close to the content and business model. Or maybe you just think you won’t be at your best.
However, the research from Liz Wiseman’s book, Rookie Smarts, reminds us that two things happen when we put ourselves in new, uncomfortable roles.
First, driven by the size of the gap and the desire to succeed (or merely to close the gap), we kick into overdrive, working with speed and intensity. Second, we operate with humility, which leads to hyper-curiosity, which in turn leads us to reach out to our network to get advice from the best experts within the new domain.
When hunger combines with humility and the advice of experts, people tend to do the best work of their lives. Going back to Jimmy Iovine, here’s another quote from him which talks about the benefits of learning from the best: “Get in the room with the best people you can and open your heart, ears, and mind. Open up and learn. Be of service. Because if you’re of service, they will teach you.”
I think this “rookie” mindset may, in the past, have been what separated change leaders from all leaders. But given the current pace of technological advancement, basically all companies are forced to shift their services and business models and become more agile in order to stay competitive. This new reality makes having a rookie mindset and wanting to go first a new requirement. It needs to be the new normal, as hard as it is.
This idea is reinforced by New York Times columnist Adam Bryant in his recent Corner Office article “How to be a CEO, from a Decade’s Worth of Them.” Adam has interviewed 525 CEOs through his years of writing the Corner Office column, and from his learnings, he shared one of three reoccurring themes on why these people get the top jobs: “CEOs seem to love a challenge. Discomfort is their comfort zone.” As Arkadi Kuhlmann, a veteran banking chief, said, “Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire. Some people have a desire for that, I’ve noticed, and some people don’t. I just naturally gravitate to the fire. So I think that’s a characteristic that you have, that’s in your DNA.”
So, want to be a great leader? Start by being uncomfortable.