Learning to Walk

Here are five lessons forward-looking companies can learn from my infant daughter.

Sean O'Brien | UPS

As my 1-year-old daughter begins her journey toward mobility, she teaches me something new every day – and not just on the need to block the stairs and pad the fireplace.

My 1-year-old daughter, Shelby Clare.

In the new global e-economy, companies and professionals are scrambling to respond to the infancy of this new order of commerce. From company boardrooms to college classrooms, adults are confounded by what they should do and how they should do it.

Well, I believe my fifth (and last!) child can provide some answers:

Be Inquisitive

Childhood psychologists have suggested that cognitive and motor-skill development prompts a child to start walking. Research from these scholars reveals that a child’s investigation of her environment and verbalization of new understandings could catapult her toward those first few steps.

For any professional or company to win in the e-economy, an inquisitive core is a prerequisite. Comprehending the global environment, customer pain points, opportunities for value creation, how to speak the lingo and how to keep score yields the clarity needed to launch forward into the market.

Be Attentive

Anyone who has seen a child learning to walk knows that face – that fixation on the end goal of that short journey. Children succeed in taking those first steps because they have a laser focus.

Many of us are familiar with the stumbling and wobbling child, but that child succeeds by saying mama over and over again while reaching out for her hand.

For many companies pursuing digital transformations and winnable strategies, less is often more. If a strategy requires 250 PowerPoint slides and lacks a clear, laser focus, then companies will fall hard as they start to stumble and wobble across the e-economy.

Companies often overlook clear messaging. But without a clear vision, a company cannot communicate what success looks like or why they should press forward in the face of disruption.

Be Positive

Have you ever heard an adult scold a child for attempting those first few steps? Have you ever seen a child attempt to walk with a self-critical and pessimistic eye? A child – and their natural bliss – is often a motivator for growth.

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Embracing competition will positively motivate workers to achieve a more clearly defined goal.

Too often companies attempt to apply the old rules and scoring systems to the e-economy. This is puzzling given the way the market (both institutional and retail investors) rewards those who act aggressively.

Applying old standards to the new order of commerce will always lead to bad results. Instead, embracing competition within the e-economy will positively motivate workers to achieve a more clearly defined goal.

Companies and professionals should not pursue blind optimism, but rather encourage through words, incentives and outward persuasion.

Be Active

The number of times a child attempts to take her first steps increases exponentially until walking is actually achieved. To reach the walking phase, a child has to ramp up activity, especially after one foot is successfully placed in front of the other. But we all know how hard it is to contain a baby once they start walking.

I’ve been asked to slow down a few times in my career – that’s usually not the right direction. When someone suggests that professionals or companies slow down, they’re often saying something else: I can’t contain you.

In the e-economy, companies and professionals have the responsibility and the opportunity to be continuously active – anyone who opines otherwise should waive the white flag.

Still, you can’t become overly active in the wrong areas. Anyone can be active just to proclaim they’re active, but focusing on the right goals means being attentive and positive with the right things.

Be Adaptive

Learning to walk is somewhat easy on a flat, non-slippery surface. However, as a child continues to grow in their mobility, new terrains and circumstances arise. Challenges such as walking on smooth surfaces, turning corners and avoiding obstacles create the need to learn how to adjust. A child learns how to walk by being adaptive.

In my training at the University of Alabama, I had many opportunities to engage and participate in both real and situational executive committee and boardroom scenarios while being critiqued by our instructors.

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The leaders needed in the e-economy are those who are second-level thinkers.

I will never forget one group that presented a firm’s future outlook, which was greatly challenged by the circumstances of the e-economy.

After essentially stating there was nothing to worry about (based on past performance), our professors jumped into action and directly challenged this approach.

We were then trained on the necessity of Second-Level Thinking, as outlined by Howard Marks in his book The Most Important Thing Illuminated: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor:

“First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority),” he writes. “All the first-level thinker needs is an opinion about the future, as in, ‘The outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up.’ Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.”

Anyone is capable of claiming success simply by mitigating risk – but the leaders needed in the e-economy are those who are second-level thinkers with a track record of recognizing risks, studying them, planning around them, experimenting with them and adapting to the future.

I will follow those leaders into battle every time.

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Sean O'Brien is on UPS’s E-Commerce Strategy team and teaches collegiate courses in marketing and buyer behavior.

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