I am Learning So Much. I Need to Unlearn So Much.

I am Learning So Much. I Need to Unlearn So Much.

“I am learning so much.  I need to unlearn so much.” That is hands down the quote of the week for me—or maybe even the quote of the year.  

I wish I could take the credit for it, but it actually comes from a Chief Commercial Officer who we recruited out of a c-level position, at a publicly-traded behemoth, to join a start-up.  When I caught up with him this week to see how he was adapting, he made that statement coupled with “I will never go back”, which I was thrilled to hear.  He is getting the start-up bug and the rest of his career will be in for a great ride!

It’s risky business hiring an executive who comes from a large-scale, public, company and bringing them into a start-up with less than 100 employees.  It is both risky for the CEO and risky for the candidate.  Frankly, it’s risky for us, as recruiters, too.  Nobody wants to fail, especially with a hire this big, and it is a rare executive who can successfully make the transition.

When he made the statement about UNLEARNING, it stopped me in my tracks.  

Here’s why:

Regardless of size or stage, every company is different, and every company culture is different.  The product, the clients, the people, the job—they are all unique, even if they are within the same industry.  When joining a new company, the instinct is to bring all of your past knowledge and implement changes in ways that drove your past success.  I’ve personally made the mistake when going into a new role, but got lucky in that I quickly realized that the way I had learned things in the past may not be the right way for the new company I joined.

The thing about moving from a big company to a start-up is that you can’t hide.  Your mistakes are in the spotlight because start-ups are small and actions and activities quickly make an impact. There is a glorious feeling to moving so quickly and seeing an immediate result, but typically, the ideas or actions you put in place at your prior position are not right for the new company. The best leaders use strategic and creative thinking to design new approaches instead of relying on the past for solutions. The best executives leave old tactics behind, unlearning what they may have spent years focused on, and instead, dive deep to learn about their new business, their new customer, and their new culture to create fresh strategies and approaches that drive growth. The executives that fail when taking on new roles chose not to unlearn.  Instead, they are flustered by the new company culture or leadership and try to force their past experiences and approaches into the business and onto others. At a start-up, this could be detrimental and both you and your leadership will be questioned.

Unlearning is just as important as learning when launching into a new role, and leaders who understand that using their intelligence and creative thinking to devise new strategies, are the leaders that are most likely to thrive.