Sometimes the solution to a problem is to reframe the issue itself. Rajshree Agarwal, PhD is the Rudolph P. Lamone Chair and Professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland and Director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, and on this episode of The TalentGrow Show she discusses how we can reframe key career development and leadership concepts in a way that will help us achieve greater success and career satisfaction for ourselves and our teams. She shares stories from her own journey to demonstrate the value of her unique perspective on ideas like upward mobility, risk tolerance, and work-life balance. Plus, Rajshree weighs in on the negative and positive aspects of ‘social comparison,’ and offers me advice on something I recently struggled with! Listen and be sure to share this episode with others.
ABOUT RAJSHREE AGARWAL:
Rajshree Agarwal, PhD is the Rudolph P. Lamone Chair and Professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland and Director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets. She conducts research on the evolution of industries, firms, and individual careers as fostered by the twin engines of innovation and enterprise. Her scholarship uses an interdisciplinary lens to provide insights on strategic innovation for new venture creation and for firm renewal for teaching and engagement in growth-oriented firms, help business professionals advance through personal leadership, develop win-win relationships and create a virtuous spiral between their aspirations and abilities.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:
Rajshree outlines her nonlinear definition of upward mobility, and how for her it applies to both intellectual and psychological growth as well as economic (5:37)
An example from Rajshree’s own career to demonstrate what upward mobility looks like to her (8:15)
Reframing our conception of risk aversion, and why Rajshree doesn’t like to think of innovators as necessarily risk tolerant (9:57)
Rajshree shares advice that she gives to people who feel stuck where they are but are scared to give up the security of their current situation (12:06)
Two ways to mitigate uncertainty: experimentation and sharing knowledge (4:10)
Halelly and Rajshree discuss the positive and negative aspects of social comparison (15:39)
Halelly shares something she has been struggling with since switching over to a new gym, and Rajshree weighs in with advice (20:11)
Rajshree talks about work-life balance and how she likes to reframe the issue (23:16)
What’s new and exciting on Rajshree’s horizon? (27:25)
One specific action you can take to upgrade your leadership skills (28:40)
Episode 157 Rajshree Agarwal
TEASER CLIP: Rajshree: Uncertainty fundamentally comes from incomplete knowledge about all of the things that can happen. But let’s face it – life itself is uncertain. And I think that the notion that innovators and enterprising people are actually risk-tolerant/risk-loving is missing the fact that they actually want to minimize any known risk but at the same time are very comfortable making decisions where the future is not fully known and determined.
[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.
Halelly: Welcome back TalentGrowers. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, the company that sponsors the TalentGrow Show so that you can receive great leadership advice and actionable ideas every Tuesday. This week’s episode is with a professor of leadership, of enterprise, of innovation. In this very wide-ranging conversation with Professor Rajshree Agarwal, we talk about some of the career decisions that have shaped her career and things you can learn from it. We talk about the idea of risk versus security, and experimentation. We talk about how to share and seek knowledge and look for mentors. We talk about social comparison versus envy, and we talk about how to be kind instead of nice. We cover a lot of ground in this 30-minute conversation, so I hope that you’ll enjoy it. Without further ado, let’s dig in.
Welcome back TalentGrowers. I have Rajshree Agarwal. She is the Director of the Ed Snyder Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland, which is my alma mater. She is now my third University of Maryland professor on the TalentGrow Show. First was Dr. Ed Locke on episode 95 and also Professor Michele Gelfand on episode 133, and Professor Agarwal conducts research on the evolution of industries, firms and individual careers, as fostered by the twin engines of innovation and enterprise. Her scholarship uses an interdisciplinary lens to provide insights on strategic innovation for new venture creation and for firm renewal. Her teaching and engagement in growth-oriented firms helps business professionals advance through personal leadership, develop win-win relationships and create a virtuous spiral between their aspirations and abilities. I love that. Welcome to the show Rajshree!
Rajshree: Good afternoon Halelly, and thank you so much for having me be part of your show.
Halelly: I really appreciate you taking the time and I look forward to talking with you about leadership and all of the things that you bring to the world from your perspective. Before we do, we always have our guests describe their professional journey very briefly. Where did you start and how did you end up where you are today?
Rajshree: I started off as an economist. Got my PhD in economics, and for the first seven or eight years of my research and teaching career, I was actually in an economics department. As you already read from my bio, I ended up studying the evolution of industries, but very quickly I realized it’s not industries that make decisions as they evolve and grow and even die. It’s really the firms and not even the firms within them, but the individuals who, through their own personal aspirations, because they are leveraging their knowledge, they are the ones that create new firms, grow them, renew them as the environment dictates and acquire, sometimes even create their own environment, and so those were the things that really fascinated me. So I often think of myself in my journey as starting off first as an economist, then transitioning into strategic management, then transitioning into strategic entrepreneurship, and by that I don’t just mean new firms and small firms. I also mean existing firms, and leaders within them that are looking to change and grow. And then finally at this stage of my career, to think about how enterprising people, whether they are high school students enrolled in our SELF program for instance, which is ongoing right now, all the way through the executive MBAs that I interact with – how can they leverage their own personal leadership for themselves, for the teams that they work with, and for the organizations that they choose to associate themselves with?
Halelly: And this is exactly the intersection between your interests and mine, which is why we get along so well and why I knew that once we spoke some more and got to know each other a little bit better and I read some more of your writing, I wanted to bring you onto the show and share your perspective, because you bring a lot of depth, but also breadth, as you describe, to leadership.
Rajshree: On that point, Halelly, as you said, Michele and Ed, two people that are scholars that have been affiliated with University of Maryland or still are and of course good friends of mine, a lot of the personal leadership aspect comes from the organizational behavior, industrial psychology perspective, which is exactly what Michele and Ed have focused on. In my own journey, I have gravitated more toward that, but I also retain the economic/strategic element. I like to think about it as bringing both psychological and economic lenses together, because I ultimately am fundamentally passionate about upward mobility, but I don’t define upward mobility just in economic terms, but also in psychological and intellectual growth.
Halelly: Okay, I want to talk more about that then! Upward mobility – so intellectual, psychological and economic growth. When you think about growth, do you think, and you said the word upward to me defines a very specific direction, obviously, and a lot of times I know you experience this probably and I talk to people all the time about career growth and direction. As a leader, also helping your employees create a path for development, and so often, people are very hyper-focused on the ladder, climbing the ladder, or in terms of a firm. As I struggle with my own firm’s vision and where I want to go, there is this sense that you’re supposed to just keep growing and growing and growing, and I believe that’s not the case. It’s not always just up or it’s not always just bigger is better. What do you think about that?
Rajshree: I agree! When I’m saying upward mobility, I don’t necessarily mean either linear or ladder climbing. In fact, that stresses me out just thinking about it. Honestly, when I’m thinking about upward mobility, it’s very simple. It is about knowing what your priorities are. Again, this is one of the reasons why the ladder-climbing, linear visualization of upward mobility, I think detracts from the richness of experiences that ultimately lead you toward the journey being the destination. And when I think about journeys, I don’t necessarily think of upward climbs as much as unfolding vistas. These vistas could be sometimes economic-focused, sometimes intellectual-focused, and sometimes psychological-focused. As you’re going on one direction, it may very well be that you take a backseat on other directions.
I’ll give you an example of my own career. I told you I was an economist and then I transitioned into strategic management. I had promotion and tenure the year I switched organizations, from University of Central Florida to University of Illinois. And I gave up both tenure and promotion to start off as an assistant professor in a brand new discipline. If you know anything about academia, you know that tenure is highly coveted, so many people would look at me and say, “Are you freaking crazy? You’re giving up tenure? You’re giving up security to start all the way fresh?” But for me, that was not downward movement. Yes, on the one rung you could say I gave up promotion. It’s not a career climb, a ladder rung. In fact, I’ve come down two steps. But for me, that was upward mobility. The reason why that was the case because I realized that my interests were more aligned in business and in management and not in economics. And I needed to be true to my aspirations. I needed to be true to my own personal growth mindset, if you will. And so then, and of course it was also an element of, yes, there’s an element of risk, there’s an element of uncertainty, but I was embracing that, given that I knew what was the potential achievement that I could make out there. So in the long run, it ended up being hugely upward mobile, even though in the short run, people would say that I took two steps back.
Halelly: And that risk aversion, I think, drives so many people. It’s interesting, you focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, and both of those disciplines or whatever you want to categorize them as, both of those require a certain tolerance of risk or maybe even an appetite for risk, because no innovation is possible and no entrepreneurship is possible if you want everything to be perfect and no failure to be a possibility.
Rajshree: And if I may reframe that, I actually think I’m highly risk-averse. Now, why am I saying that I’m highly risk-averse, and yet I’m doing all of these things about giving up promotion and tenure? Because I think the reframing of it is, you want to minimize everything that you can and mitigate all of the potential things that could go wrong, right? But you also want to be open to gaining and learning new knowledge. So for me, I don’t think in terms of risk as much as I’m very comfortable making decisions in uncertain environments. Which is different from risk. What do I mean by that? Uncertainty fundamentally comes from incomplete knowledge about all of the things that can happen. But let’s face it – life itself is uncertain. And I think that the notion that innovators and enterprising people are actually risk-tolerant/risk-loving is missing the fact that they actually want to minimize any known risk but at the same time are very comfortable making decisions where the future is not fully known and determined.
Halelly: So they just move toward a decision more willingly than some other people who are just waiting to have all the ducks in a row, which is technically impossible, before making any kind of a move?
Rajshree: Right. It is that comfort level that even if in some sense you fail, you’re still gaining a lot of knowledge. So failure in one dimension may still mean success in another level. Let me give you another example. I often tell particularly mid-level executives that feel like they’re being trapped in their current position or they feel like they’re not necessarily growing, but at the same time are a little scared about giving up the security of their current job to venture into a new position, because it’s also the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. All of those aspects that come into play. And I often tell them, you can think about all of the things that you don’t know that may go wrong, but you also know all of the things right now that you’re stymied by, frustrated by, not waking up with a spring in your step, so how much better off would you be to at least give yourself permission to explore? And even if it may be that you are in a job where you feel like you’re not being as successful as you can or even failing, then the question out there is, “What is a better fit for me?” So to be proactive about knowing what are your abilities, what are your aspirations, and then how do you go about identifying your priorities, given this, and then how do you seek win-win relationships with other people where you’re creating value and they’re creating value? All of that requires a lot of mental thought and energy and action, but none of them are being couched in risk terms.
Halelly: And action. I hear in your description, and I think I hear this and I agree with it, that it’s like an experiment, because there’s things you don’t know, but you know what you have now is not necessarily ideal. Then it’s better to take mitigated or thoughtful –
Halelly: Calculated action and try it as an experiment, recognizing that you’ll gain more input about, oh, that wasn’t right either for these reasons, and that just sort of calibrates you toward the right thing one step at a time.
Rajshree: And you know, Halelly, I really appreciated the fact that you used the word experimentation, because if I think about mitigating uncertainty and making decisions under uncertainty, as really either trying to resolve the missing gaps in your knowledge, you can really do it in two ways. I encourage people to do both. One is experiment yourself, but the other is share knowledge. Seek knowledge. So not everything has to be reinvented again and again. You can benefit, and this is where I see a huge amount of value add in relationships where you’re bringing together complimentary people, but also to the extent that I may not know the first thing that I should do again in the interests in mitigating time costs and going down paths that are going to lead to nowhere, is ask people. So, again, for this particular mid-level executive that feels like they’re stuck in a position, dream! What is it that you want to do? And then go ask the person that’s already successful in that area. Take them out for coffee. Say, “You know, blue sky thinking – what is it that you would do differently?” Gather information and experiment. These are the two actions through which you can make very good decisions in an uncertain environment.
Halelly: That’s awesome. So you get mentors, rather than trying to go it alone. One of the things I read, you write a great column for Forbes and I was reading some of your back articles – it was very hard for me to choose ones I wanted to talk with you about, there are so many good ones – but one that seems relevant here, a little bit relevant here, is this idea of social comparison. Because we are each on a different path, and it’s very hard to compare ourselves truly apples to apples when we look at someone else. But there is some value in comparing ourselves to others, and also some detriment and envy comes up and you wrote an article about this, how it’s really important for people and leaders especially to recognize that there are potential positive and negative emotions that get triggered when we compare ourselves, so what’s important for leaders to know about this difference between envy and social comparison?
Rajshree: Social comparison, as you just said Halelly, is you and I are socially together in our network, and so it’s very natural for you and I to look at each other and say, “You know, Halelly, you’ve got this great podcast on TalentGrow and you’re doing so well,” and there can be a part of me, I’m very, very established in the academic realm. One of the things I do want to do is reach out to people that are actually doing the things that I research and talk about, which is enterprising people. You’re already talking to them. Wow, how great is that? I can also be envious. “Hey, Halelly, you’ve got this great successful podcast. How can I do that?” Or on the other hand, you may feel the same about me, that you’ve got this Forbes column that you’re writing regularly on, you’re a faculty member. We can both compare. There can be areas that I feel like I would learn from you. You have envy or hope and inspiration are emotions that get triggered when someone has something that you aspire to or desire having yourself. But you personally don’t have. Envy is really a negative emotion. It’s about feeling resentment. You have it, I don’t.
But the same social comparison can cause me to feel hope and inspiration. “Wow, Halelly, you’ve done this. What can I learn from you? Can you share with me what’s successful about it?” And of course your benevolence to what is this downward social comparison. I have something that Rajshree doesn’t have, so you could either feel jealousy – you know the word jealous lover comes from the fact that I don’t want to lose something that I have to someone else.
Halelly: Like a scarcity mentality.
Rajshree: Right. So this downward comparison can either trigger jealousy and fear on your part, or it can trigger gratitude and benevolence and innovative spirit that, “Wow, I really value what I have, so how do I make sure that I continue to keep it and maintain it, rather than create barriers?” So social comparison is natural. Whether you allow it to create envy and jealousy in you or hope and inspiration or benevolence and gratitude is your choice. And then based on these emotions that you can reframe more toward the positive direction, you can also then choose to follow through with strategies that allow you to grow, regardless of where you are, so that at the end of the day, the issue is not social comparison as in are you better than me or am I better than you? But it is that we each go on our own paths, seeking to do whatever it is that we do best, so it’s an absolute level growth for each and every one of us and then you and I don’t become competitors, we’re collaborators.
Halelly: Or just at least I like your use of the word benevolence. Just have a benevolent demeanor to others, rather than being stingy or nasty to them.
Rajshree: And Halelly, isn’t it so much more fun? Being around people that are positive and benevolent as opposed to worry about people? And yourself too. I would be so much more uncomfortable in my skin, and I am on the times that I feel threatened and envious and so on, and of course I’ll admit to having those emotions. They make me first and foremost uncomfortable about myself. I don’t like feeling those feelings.
Halelly: No. It’s interesting, and we can’t go too far into it and maybe I need to get some therapy about this, but I’m actually, these days, it’s so top of mind for me in a totally different realm which is I’ve switched gyms. Unfortunately it was because I loved my gym and it got bought out by another organization that completely changed the culture of it. So similar to what organizations go through, with culture change and it was not a good fit for me. What I loved about it was that I always felt very welcomed and challenged. There was a positive benevolent social comparison available to me. There were people that were role models that were better than me, and there were people to whom I was a role model, and I really enjoyed kind of being in the middle. I wasn’t exactly in the middle, but I really liked that range. What I’m finding at my new gym, it’s hyper-competitive. It doesn’t have a negative feeling, but it doesn’t have as much of that virtuous benevolent feeling. Like I feel kind of like everybody is just there to take care of themselves but not too interested in the others. And, almost everyone seems to be way better than me. I’m really struggling because I don’t want to feel badly about myself, and I also don’t want to compare myself, but I can’t help it. I’ve been thinking about it. I really liked having that range around me.
Rajshree: It does sound that the first gym definitely had a great culture. I feel what you’re saying. I mean, I hear what you’re saying. One thing you may want to do is even within them, who are the people that are the least competitive? This is one of the reasons why when we talk in terms of strategy, just to shift a little bit but also to relate to it, I don’t like to use the word competitive advantage, honestly, as a strategy professor. I only talk about creating and capturing value as the more immediate concept. So it’s really not about whether I’m better than you or I’m winning and you’re losing. That may happen, but it’s a secondary consequence. What I want to figure out is how am I creating value for myself and for others, and then of course, part of capturing the value that you create is making sure that you are getting the joy, the monetary compensation, the psychological satisfaction, the sociological status – these are all nice references to have. And how do you make sure that you’re doing that and growing along the way? Focus on those aspects both at work and at home, I think, or at the gym. More so than this competitive culture. That kind of makes me shudder, and it almost creates this us vs. them mentality. Me vs. you, and at least I know that isn’t a good fit for me, and I’d walk away. And do some things all by myself before I would get that culture.
Halelly: Well, food for thought. And speaking of things you do at home and things you do at work, there was an article you wrote about how work/life balance is something that a lot of people are focusing on the wrong way. You were saying that people are trying to think about work/life balance in terms of sort of adding up hours and counting hours and making sure you have a balance in that amount of time you’re spending on your personal endeavors, versus professional endeavors. You’re saying that’s wrong, we should focus on something else. Say more.
Rajshree: It’s not that it’s wrong, because actually if you were to think about it, our life is on a 24-hour clock, and we’re either professionally engaged or we’re personally engaged. That’s really the two things. So at one level, of course it’s natural to start off with counting hours. How many hours do I work? How many hours do I go to the gym? How many hours do I spend having quality time with my kids or my husband or my friends? How often do I want to get a massage? All of these are hours in a day that you have to spend. And in fact, I started off, this article I ended up writing, it’s one of the articles I’m really fond of it because it started off with my then-16-year-old challenging me by saying I have more stress and responsibility in my life than you. And it was like, “Huh?”
Halelly: Talk about social comparison!
Rajshree: That’s right! And so I very naturally fell into exactly this issue of, well, let’s count the hours in your day when you have stress and responsibilities and jobs that you need to do as opposed to fun time, and let’s count mine. Hands down I’m going to win. But you know, one of the things that I realized is my daughter switched the conversation on me in a very meaningful way. Because her point was not about what was I doing in terms of work-work versus homework versus work fun versus home fun. She says, “You love your job. So you can’t say that’s work. That’s fun. And when you’re taking us for volleyball matches, how dare you say that’s a chore like washing dishes. You’re demeaning the quality time that we’re spending with each other.” Then she’s talking about the fact that she has to do the homework, she has to do this, and I realized that the bigger picture that we were both missing and in fact most of us miss when we count hours for work/life balance is the fact that I had autonomy. I had choices. She didn’t. As a high school kid, she had her parents telling her what she should be doing, her teachers telling her that she needed a hall pass to even go to the bathroom, so she had no autonomy and of course stress and this lack of balance of mind comes when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelmed is an emotional reaction to feeling like you’re being pulled in different directions. But if you have your priorities, that you have yourself created, like I love my work, I love my family – either of them, not having them, would leave an intolerable void in my life. So now I am taking ownership, I am having that autonomy and I’m assigning meaning. Then that becomes the more important issue. Then of course there’s 24 hours in everybody’s day.
Halelly: Yeah, time is the great equalizer. It’s the only thing, the only resource we all have equal amounts of.
Rajshree: But how we use it, and the choices we exercise make it uniquely ours. That’s the part of work/life balance.
Halelly: I like that. I think that one of the key themes in our conversation has been the active, proactive reframing. Choosing how we look at things and what lens we use in order to minimize the negatives and maximize the value.
Rajshree: That would be a good way of saying it, yes.
Halelly: I love it. Rajshree, it’s been fun to talk to you and I would love to do it for a lot more, but we are almost out of time. We always have one specific actionable tip, but before that, what’s new and exciting on your horizon?
Rajshree: Oh, wow. On what dimensions and how much time do you have?
Halelly: A short amount of time, give us the highlights!
Rajshree: At this moment, what’s really new and exciting and that I’m living in the moment on is every year we have a high school program where we get aspiring, rising juniors and seniors in high school that are getting college ready, are thinking about the ascension into adulthood, and making the autonomous decisions and of cutting the umbilical cord with their families, because once they go to college, once they start life after 18, they’re going to be making their own decisions. So we get them for two weeks. You’re in the south program, the Snyder Enterprise and Leadership Program, and that for me is a two-week period that I gain immense inspiration from. Because here are people that are just so bright-eyed and bushytailed, oh my gosh. They’ve got their life ahead of them and how inspiring to be part of that and help them create their own personal leadership plan. That’s what’s new and exciting for me and I am relishing every moment.
Halelly: Oh lovely, nice! Good, I love that. So, one specific action that listeners can take today, tomorrow, this week, that can help them upgrade their leadership skills or their career, whichever angle you want to take on it?
Rajshree: In terms of leadership skills, I will say – and this also relates to their own career too, because personal leadership is the self oriented leadership aspect and then leadership as we usually talk about is of course oriented to others that you choose to have in your life. For me, it is really about being kind to yourself and to the people around you. Which is different than being nice to the people around you or nice to yourself. Nice means I want to be liked. Either by other people or by myself. But being liked is not the same as giving people, including yourself, the feedback that you need in order to grow. So often, catch yourself when you’re being nice to someone because you’re stopping yourself from giving them positive, constructive feedback that will definitely help them, because you’re fearful of their reaction to your feedback. Now, don’t be a jerk about the way you give feedback. Don’t be critical and don’t be negative. Don’t bring them down. And don’t bring yourself down in the self-critic in your head, if you will. But be kind as in thinking about what are the areas that need to be focused on, to be worked on, so that at the end of the day you’re going on this journey which is your destination.
Halelly: So kind is constructive and future-focused, whereas nice is just focused on minimizing tension in the moment?
Rajshree: Yes. And in fact, it’s constructive, future-focused, and it’s also about sometimes giving feedback that you know or you take, again, going back and forth to where we were, fearing the uncertainty of the reaction is stopping you from doing what you believe is right. You don’t feel good because now you feel like you’re being a hypocrite, and the other person can certainly see through the fact that what you’re saying is not jiving with your other non-spoken actions.
Halelly: Yes, you seem like you’re out of congruence. Very good, I love it. Well, Rajshree, we are out of time. I know people are going to want to hear more from you, learn more from you. What are the best ways for them to follow and get in touch with you on the web, on social?
Rajshree: Usually on my own personal website, and Halelly, I can provide that for you so you can put it on your resources page. I usually have a whole list of not just my research articles but also my Forbes columns, my podcasts such as the one I just did with you, other appearances, and I would love – my email is on there too – please, I would love to hear from your readers in ways that I can learn and grow based on what resonated with them about our conversation.
Halelly: Fantastic. We will link to that and hopefully the new conversations will start. I would love to hear about it too. Rajshree, thank you so much for spending some of your time on the TalentGrow Show. We appreciate you.
Rajshree: Thank you Halelly.
Halelly: What did I tell you TalentGrowers? So much to talk about in such a little amount of time. I hope that you enjoyed it. I would love to hear what you thought. I always seek your feedback and input and also of course what would you like me to cover next on the TalentGrow Show? What guests, what topics, what solo episodes would you like to hear about? So, this is it for this week’s episode. I hope that you will take action and I would love to hear what you did, what your biggest takeaway was, what you took action on and how it went. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and this is the TalentGrow Show. Thanks for listening and until the next time, make today great.
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