The key to redefining your career? Embracing a fresh perspective 

Every worthwhile leadership journey encounters roadblocks and detours. Unfortunately, far too many people succumb to frustration and give up the quest prematurely. Often, they blame themselves: “I guess I just don’t have what it takes to be a leader.” Sometimes they blame a business world that seems to throw up barriers for leaders who don’t fit the traditional mold, like women, people of color, or those with unusual educational and career histories.

In either case, they don’t recognize that most of the limitations we experience in business and in life are self-created and therefore capable of being overcome. The way we think defines the box in which we find ourselves. Often our mindset makes it impossible for us to escape that box, magnifying short-term setbacks into insurmountable obstacles.

Reframing is about creating a new mental landscape with a larger scope of freedom, a greater degree of flexibility, and a set of alternative ways of approaching any problem—which can often lead to new and unexpected solutions.

In many cases, reframing is about seeing yourself in a new light. When I was young, I didn’t see myself as a potential business leader. After working my way through community college, I studied clinical psychology with an eye toward a job in health care. I figured that I could be a counselor or therapist of some kind, doing work that would help people and provide me with a steady, if modest, income.

Partly because of my personal background, I hadn’t really considered a corporate career. I came from a minority-group heritage and an inner-city neighborhood; I didn’t match up in an obvious way with the conventional image of a leader. I remember being surprised and impressed whenever a black person appeared in a leadership role on television, just because it was such a rare occurrence at the time. This leadership gap applied especially in the world of business. Back then, you didn’t see black faces on the cover of Business Week or Fortune. The fact that psychological testing identified me as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert complicated the picture for me even further.

In retrospect, the stereotypes that influenced my thinking back then—the assumptions that future business leaders come from privileged backgrounds, attend high-ranked suburban schools or fancy preparatory academies, and are naturally gregarious, fun-loving extroverts—were all highly dubious, rigid beliefs that severely limited the pool of candidates our society drew on in seeking the next generation of leaders. In other words, our culturally reinforced concept of business leadership was a false one that was badly in need of reframing.

Thankfully, over the past fifty years, social changes from the civil rights movement to the women’s movement to the gay rights revolution have done a lot to broaden the way we think about leaders. Young people today are lucky to have role models of all genders and ethnic backgrounds—and not just in sports and the arts, but also in business, science, technology, and politics, including, of course, a two-term African-American president.

When I was a child, those changes were just beginning. So, despite the advances triggered by the civil rights movement, during my early college years I assumed that business leadership was out of the question for me.

Luckily for me, my college studies brought me fresh insights that dramatically reframed my understanding of the world—and of myself.

I discovered that I was fascinated by the field of organizational dynamics. I learned that there existed an entire cadre of specialists who devoted their lives to studying what makes organizations tick—how the cultures and norms of companies are shaped, enforced, and changed; why some organizations are productive, creative, and progressive, while others are inefficient, slow-moving, and stagnant; and how the best leaders develop and communicate a vision that inspires people, enabling them to achieve results beyond their own expectations. I realized it was possible to think of organizations as living organisms, shaped by processes, people, and technologies linked together in complex interrelationships that could be studied scientifically in the same way as an ecosystem like the Brazilian rainforest or the coral-dwelling denizens of the Great Barrier Reef. And I discovered it might be possible to dedicate a lifetime to mastering the art of leading teams of people from chaos to order.

It was an amazing realization, and it developed into a full-blown passion that would fuel my career in business.

Most important, studying organizational dynamics offered me an entirely new way to think about business leadership. A corporate manager or executive didn’t have to be a charismatic good old boy who leads his colleagues through the power of personal charm, social status, or flamboyant oratory. He (or she) could also be someone with analytical skills, a scientific bent, a gift for accurate observation, a strong sense of logic, and patience and determination. Someone like me.

Suddenly, I found I could see the traits that had shaped my self-definition as an introvert through fresh eyes. They didn’t have to be weaknesses that relegated me to the role of a spectator in the arena of life. Instead, they could be strengths that I could parlay into a career as an active participant, and maybe even a leader, in that arena. Without realizing it, I had reframed myself—and, as a result, doors I had assumed were locked began swinging open.

Reframing is a way of thinking that seems to come naturally to some people. But it’s also a learnable skill, as I’ve observed through years of helping colleagues and team members master it. When you find yourself surrounded by people who define problems using expressions like “Everybody knows” and “It’s obvious that,” your antenna should go up. It’s a sign that you and your colleagues may be trapped in a box of your own making—one in desperate need of reframing. You may need to take steps to shake up your thinking and that of your team members.

When you learn and practice the art of reframing, you’ll find that almost any problem can be transformed into a growth opportunity.

I had the chance to practice reframing on a big scale when I was named president of Aetna in 2002. At the time, the insurance giant was deeply troubled. It had been growing rapidly through a series of poorly planned mergers and acquisitions. As a result, Aetna’s service culture had seriously deteriorated, its reputation among both patients and health-care providers had plummeted, and the corporation was losing almost a million dollars a day.

As you can imagine, there was a long list of systemic problems we had to address in order to begin a turnaround at Aetna. One of the most urgent was a flood of complaints about slow and inaccurate responses by Aetna’s customer service representatives—the front-line employees who were charged with solving problems and answering questions for physicians and other health-care providers as well as for our other customers.

The obvious solution—one applied by many insurance companies—would be to retrain our customer service reps and increase the pressure on them to respond to questions more quickly. That might have improved things a bit. Maybe we could have shaved response times by a few seconds; maybe we could have gotten our reps to do a slightly better job of identifying the right information from one of our databases to answer physicians’ questions more accurately. Measures like these are important. But I realized that simply pressuring employees to do better without fundamentally improving the process could easily backfire. Morale would suffer, and when service personnel get single-mindedly focused on sheer speed, they don’t hear what customers really need.

I sensed that really fixing the problem would call for reframing it.

When I met with the team charged with improving the customer service system, I deliberately refrained from asking the obvious question: What can we do to induce our service reps to respond more quickly to questions? Instead, I asked, What kinds of questions are doctors asking us? What kind of information is needed to respond to those questions? What can we do to provide that information more quickly and accurately?

This reframing of the problem led us in a new, more fruitful direction. The managers in charge of customer service spent some time talking with their front-line employees to discover the roadblocks that were making it hard for them to help doctors with their concerns. They discovered that the real problem was not the training, talent, or motivation of the service reps—it was a structural problem.

Aetna’s service teams were organized around employers and their insurance policies, which made sense from an internal perspective; it meant that a given service rep could concentrate on mastering the details of the insurance coverage we provided to the thousands of employees working for Corporation A, University B, or State Agency C.

But this structure made little intuitive sense to the doctors and other health-care providers who called us with questions. After all, when ophthalmologist Dr. Jones calls with a question about his patient Nancy Smith, he isn’t thinking about the company Nancy works for—he may not even know its name. Instead, he is thinking about Nancy’s cataracts and about the coverage Aetna will provide for her upcoming surgery. Having our service reps organized by employer often meant that providers like Dr. Jones would be shunted around from one rep to another before finding one who could help with a simple question. And when a physician’s office called with questions about a number of patients, the calls would get even more convoluted and time-consuming.

Reframing the problem of response time by considering it from the external perspective of the care provider rather than from the internal perspective of our service team helped us recognize that our organizational structure was backward. We decided to reorganize part of our service system into physician-centered teams. We created groups of reps who worked consistently with specific care providers and were equipped to answer their questions no matter which patient, employer, or insurance policy was involved. Now Dr. Jones could call Aetna and expect to speak with a familiar representative who knew him, his specialty, and his practice, and was prepared to answer his most likely questions with speed and accuracy.

Redesigning our service system and retraining our reps was a complex and costly undertaking—but it improved Aetna’s relationships with doctors in a way that simply cracking the whip on our employees could never have done. It would never have happened without our initial reframing of the problem.

I hope these examples have convinced you that reframing can be a powerful tool for jumpstarting your career and solving the problems you’ll likely face as a business leader. If so, you may be wondering what you can do to develop your own reframing skills.

Perhaps the most effective way to improve your talent for reframing is to deliberately open yourself up to new perspectives. Don’t just talk to people from inside your own organization or even from your own industry. Expose yourself to diverse sources of new ideas. Meet, swap ideas with, and learn from people who come from different walks of life and apply very different perspectives to the challenges and opportunities of life.

If you’re a leader at any level of an organization, you can involve your team members as well. There are lots of ways to do this. Some tech firms organize periodic field trips to movies, concerts, sports events, art exhibits, food festivals, and other off-the-beaten-track experiences just to stir up their team members’ thinking and suggest new contexts in which to view their work. Google invites authors to visit its headquarters to discuss their books—most of which deal with social and cultural topics that are seemingly unrelated to the company’s web-based business activities. If your company doesn’t have the facilities needed to host an author appearance, you can visit a local bookstore to attend a reading by an eminent expert in some field that may have an offbeat relationship to your work—or even no obvious relationship at all.

You can also swap site visits with well-managed nearby organizations from fields that seem foreign to your own. For example, if you work for a provider of business services, like accounting, advertising, or law, you could visit a local craft brewer or fashion design house. If you work for a company that makes and markets consumer products, you could ask for a behind-the-scenes tour at a nearby hotel, theater, or science museum. Later, you can debrief your colleagues over lunch, chatting about such questions as: Did you notice any activities or practices that were relevant to the work we do? Are there things that our hosts are doing that we could adapt to our business? Are they serving customer needs that we’ve never thought about, but that our customers might also share? Are they creating forms of value that we could create as well?

At its core, the art of reframing is about consciously seeking fresh ways of thinking about the challenges you face—in your career journey and in your daily work. The more you make this practice into a regular habit, the more instinctive it becomes—and the more you’ll find yourself experiencing a steady stream of creative ideas that can turn seemingly insoluble problems into opportunities for innovation and growth.

Ron Williams is CEO of RW2 Enterprises, former CEO and chairman of Aetna, and author of “Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization.”

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