“People Who are Resilient, Who are Survivors, Don’t Easily Ask for Help.”
March 10, 2020
Jacqueline de Rojas, one of our mentors at Merryck & Co., has deep leadership experience as a turnaround expert for technology companies. In our conversation, she shared smart insights about why leaders need to create time in their schedules for creativity, and why resilience, born of adversity early in life, comes with a cost.
Q. What is the most common theme that comes up when you’re advising senior executives?
A. Having spent my entire career in technology, the difference between this sector and other businesses is that the scale and pace of change are so great. The biggest question that comes up most often is, “How do I operate under the pressure of this pace and scale of change?” It’s very, very hard.
Q. And how did you learn to operate in that kind of environment?
A. I used to define leadership as having to know all the answers but I soon discovered for myself how limiting that was. I remember landing my biggest leadership role as the managing director of a tech company when I was 37. I was sitting behind an enormous oak desk in a ridiculously oversized office, and I thought, “I have no idea how to be a managing director.” And I suffered a severe bout of imposter syndrome.
If I was only ever going to draw from my experience and certain knowledge, I knew I’d be in trouble, so I literally switched overnight from trying to know all the answers to reaching out and asking questions. Rather than being in a command-and-control role, I wanted to create space for other people to unlock their potential. It really helped because asking questions also enabled me to be more accessible. I honestly believe that vulnerability can be your fortress.
The culture demands that they put on this “alpha gear.”
It’s a big challenge I see in many executives. The culture demands that they put on their “alpha gear,” but it’s hard to maintain credibility when they’re limiting everyone to their answers and their way of leadership. Changing my approach almost immediately enabled me to ask simple questions like, “What outcome are you hoping for from this meeting?” Interestingly, so many people have trouble answering that question. And by doing that, I found that my meetings got much shorter, more effective and less frequent.
Q. So what advice do you give people on how to navigate all the disruptive changes in their industry?
A. It can be hard to break out of the short-term focus on quarterly earnings. Unless you lift your eyes towards a longer-term outcome or perspective, it can be difficult to do anything other than keep panicking inside that hamster wheel of the 90-day cycle.
For me it is about perspective. When everything’s going crazy around me, I create some space to think and cut out all the noise. It’s about scheduling time for critical thinking. We schedule time for lots of things, but we don’t actually schedule time for that kind of creativity and objectivity.
Q. Shifting gears, a big challenge for leaders is getting their executive team to operate like a team. Your thoughts on the best strategy for doing that?
A. My role has always been as a trouble-shooter for tech companies – shifting companies that are flat or declining into a growth mindset. The first thing I focus on is getting clarity on where we’re going and creating a joint mission with the team. To move at pace, I needed to create a cultural dynamic where everyone would be willing to metaphorically “crawl over broken glass” for the mission and for each other. The key ingredient at the center of that culture is trust. We need to find space for meaningful conversations to build trust with each other. I can tell you that trouble-shooting a business with people who don’t trust each other is never going to work.
Q. But some people can’t seem to help themselves, and they look for ways to undermine their colleagues rather than help them.
A. In trouble-shooting a company, we work at warp speed, so if there are snakes on the team, they’re not there for very long, because either they shed their skin and become a better human or they move on. The question for me is, how much time do you decide up front that you’re going to give someone to take steps on the journey to redemption? Not everyone is capable of getting there, but mostly it is about putting people in the right role and ensuring that servant-leadership is in play.
Q. In all the hiring you’ve done over the years, what are the X factors you’re looking for?
A. Diversity is my X-factor, and it really matters because diverse teams make better business decisions. Great leaders usually have bucket-loads of kindness and tolerance. That doesn’t mean to say that they won’t skin a snake if they need to. But what it does mean is that their instinct, when they are interviewing someone who is not like them, is to be curious and embrace differences. That’s a behavior I would look for in a leader, because inclusion is a big part of how you create a growth mindset.
Q. What questions would you ask to find out if the person had that mindset?
A. Can you give me some examples of how you put a team together and what characteristics you look for? How do you operate with someone who is the polar opposite of you or your point of view? How do you reconcile that on the team? Have you built diverse teams in the past? Is diversity something you do or something that you are?
Q. What were early influences in your life?
A. My mother is English, my father Chinese, and I grew up in a violent home. My mother had a black eye every week and she tolerated that until I was about eight years old. That was a dark time for me, my mum especially, and my brother. The Catholic priest gave her money to run away. And during my childhood, I became an invisible child by design because I didn’t want to feel the wrath of my father.
School was where I found my safety and structure, and I worked hard there. My mother remarried but my stepfather was arguably worse than my father. It was a tough, tough time, but one of the things that happens when you face things like that is you become quite resilient.
So at age 16, my exam results arrived in the post and my stepfather, who was not an educated man, snatched the results out of my hand and said, “What are these?” He ripped them open, and realized I had done rather well. He said, “Are you trying to show me up?” And I thought, that’s a great question, and having thought about it for not very long, I actually did think, “Maybe I am.” The alternative was to remain under his control and in his shadow. It was a fork in the road.
“I know exactly what it’s like to be in a very dark place.”
I decided to go as far away as I could for college and to university. Fast-forward, once I became known as a trouble-shooter in the world of tech, I never had to look for another job again. My skill set was sought after and my resilience gave me an edge. Put me in a difficult corner and I’m at my absolute best because I’ve been there with my back to the wall so many times. I know exactly what it’s like to be in a very dark place. I think you probably hear these sorts of stories from a lot of CEOs and other leaders who have faced adversity in their lives.
Q. You’re right. Across the roughly 600 interviews I’ve done with leaders, a remarkable percentage of them faced tremendous adversity in their lives, particularly in families with deep dysfunction caused by alcoholism. But they all decided that they weren’t going to be a victim and went on to achieve success in their careers. Something made them get up off the mat, whereas others who experienced the same challenges may have stayed down.
A. For me, it was that I just didn’t want to be down there. It was a dark and lonely place. But there is a cost, of course; one side of the coin is that I am highly, highly resilient but the other side of it is that I have had to learn to reach out for help, and that I find extremely difficult. People who are resilient, who are survivors, don’t easily ask for help.
I have found that the other side of resilience is my desperate need to retain my independence to such a degree that I can’t or won’t rely on anyone else. So there is a price, and it took a lot of self-development in order to be able to keep my resilience intact but also to nurture the fragility that comes with it so that sometimes I feel able to ask for help.
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