That’s one of the more memorable expressions I’ve heard over the years, and it’s a great reminder to always have a back-up plan – for strategies you’re pursuing at work, and for your career.
The theme was brought to life in vivid terms by two leaders I interviewed this year for Corner Office.
The first was from Ilene Gordon, CEO of Ingredion, which makes ingredients for various industries. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with her:
One question somebody once asked me was, ‘What do you think are important attributes to be successful in leadership?’ I said it’s about tenacity. It’s never giving up. It’s having a Plan B. And that’s one of my favorite expressions: Have a Plan B, because Plan A doesn’t always go well, or maybe it’s derailed by a competitor or somebody else’s new product or some type of regulation.
My point is to always have a Plan B that you can implement. Maybe you have to go to Plan C or D, but the point is that you always have to have a backup plan. Business is always challenging. It doesn’t always go well, and Plan A doesn’t always work. So I look for people who have dealt with some adversity in their life. It could have been in business — maybe their company was acquired, and they had to figure out what they wanted to do and made a change, rather than sitting around for two years lamenting, ‘Why me?’
Or somebody might have lost their parents early on. The point is, they’ve dealt with some type of adversity or illness and they came back and they persevered. That’s what I look for, because very few people have had perfect lives. You want people who are able to have a Plan B and C, and to rise above a challenge, move ahead and just get on with it, and have that can-do attitude.”
The insight was echoed recently in my conversation with Clara Lippert Glenn, the CEO of the Oxford Princeton Programme, which offers training for people in the energy industry. She discovered the importance of having a Plan B early on in her career.
I was a language major. I studied three languages, but my major was Russian. My plan was to go work for the United Nations and single-handedly help solve the cold war. And when I graduated, the U.N. wanted no part of me. In fact, who wants a Russian major? Nobody did, except for the C.I.A., which was convinced that I could sit in a little cubicle and translate articles all day long, which I had no desire to do.
The life lesson was that it’s not what you think it’s going to be. So what’s your Plan B, and how quickly can you shift to Plan B? I had to shift really quickly. I did not have a Plan B. I was graduating, and I needed one. I had student loans to pay off. Then a great professor said to me: ‘You’re good at languages. You seem to like business. Why don’t you go get a business degree, but one that’s international?’ I thought, ‘Well, there’s an idea.’
I was very lucky to get into the energy industry as a trader. I loved it. I’m a little competitive. Actually, I’m very competitive, and it was an environment where people were measured day by day on how well they’re doing. I really like that.”
In this relentlessly fast-paced and uncertain economy, it’s not enough anymore just to have a plan. You need a plan B. It doesn’t hurt to have a Plan C, either.
Adam Bryant has interviewed more than 250 leaders for his “Corner Office” feature that runs every Friday and Sunday in The New York Times. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed.” His second book,“Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation,” will be published in January.
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