Rethinking Success: Diana Wu David On How To Future Proof Yourself

By Isabel Wong

To many, former Financial Times executive Diana Wu David is a classic example of success: private office in a reputable media organization, an MBA holder from one of the world’s top business schools, as well as an accomplished leadership coach for multiple prestigious institutions.

Diana Wu David spoke at TEDxWanChai in 2016. (Photo: TEDxWanChai)

All was good until David received the news of her best friend’s suicide on a regular work day back in 2012. “That devastating moment completely changed the way I worked, lived, loved, and parented,” it was a wake-up call for David as she recalled the tragedy in her TEDx speech, “I promised myself that I would go from just running to running free”. For years, David saw true success could only be achieved by attempting greater speed on the treadmill of life. But the loss of her best friend made her reevaluate the meaning of success, and reshaped her priorities in work, life, and parenting.

Now the founder of Future Proof Labs and Amazon bestselling author of Future Proof: Reinventing Work In An Age Of Acceleration, David sat down for a conversation with Lynk ahead of International Women’s Day to speak about what it means to be future-proof and how the corporate world can adapt to the new way of work.

L: Lynk | D: Diana Wu David

L: What is the future of work? What does it take for the world to get there?

D: The future of work is NOW. The reality is that work has already changed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution first coined by World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab, creates a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. Change is not only constant but accelerating. Globalization, despite hiccups, remains a factor in work today for people at all levels – be it virtual teams across countries or competition. Demographics mean that the usual model of “learn, earn and retire” has been disrupted, and we now have the opportunity to experiment more over a longer working life but a need to be more flexible and “work to learn”.

What will it take for all of us to adapt? I believe we will need to have a high adaptability quotient (AQ) to ride the waves of change. We need to be better at communicating and collaborating, reinventing our skills to fit new needs and working in all different kinds of environments.

L: What does it mean to be future-proof?

D: To inoculate yourself against the threat of obsolescence by intentionally reflecting and growing; upgrading your operating system. Maintaining your sense of relevance, contribution and belonging. Ultimately, it’s about identifying what future proof success looks like to you and taking steps to make that happen.

David took the plunge and quit her corporate job after the loss of her best friend, and has since been dedicating time to coaching veteran executives on future-proofing themselves. (Photo: Courtesy of Diana Wu David)

L: We now live in a time where embracing changes is an obligation. But how can veteran corporate executives go about reinventing themselves when stability used to be one of the factors that led to their successes?

D: I think that the most exceptional corporate executives haven’t gotten to where they are by being stable. They have had to see around corners and consider how to take advantage of whatever they see coming down the pike. These modern elders are considered a “safe pair of hands” not because they are stable but because they can evaluate risks and take immediate action to mitigate it. They have a breadth of understanding coupled with depth of expertise in a specific area (the T-shaped skills set popularized by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO design consultancy). The great thing is that senior executives have built up career capital that gives them a strong and stable core of experience to draw upon.

With company lifespans reducing, job tenures decreasing and our lives lengthening, we live in an age of reinvention. It has become a necessity rather than just a nice to have. You explore new interests and accumulate new skills to perpetually reinvent yourself. Your reinvention accelerates change in your life and work. This often isn’t easy, and it can be scary to let go of things you think are important. Yet once you move on, reinvent, and evolve, you’ll find yourself looking back and wondering why you didn’t make the change sooner.

What you know now has a shorter than ever shelf-life so you have to constantly shift to adjacent opportunities and combine your skills in new ways to solve problems. I am excited by my work helping executives find new ways to apply their skills because the global challenges we face are big and I believe making full use of that talent is necessary for society.

Illustration from David’s TEDx speech. (Photo: TEDxWanChai)

L: What are some of the common challenges executives face when trying to reinvent themselves and relearn the new dynamics of work?

D: Identity is one of the biggest challenges. We get wrapped up in our identity as affiliated with a well known company or prestigious title. We get accustomed to a certain lifestyle and, like all people, have a bias against loss. We worry people will view us as giving up, rather than as doing things in a new way that is engaged and ambitious, but on your own terms.

“For people who have achieved a certain amount of success, it can feel like looking over the edge of a cliff,” David said getting too wrapped up in one’s identity is one of the biggest challenges for executives to reinvent themselves. (Photo: Courtesy of Diana Wu David)

I certainly had challenges leaving a regional role at a famous company like the Financial Times. It took me a while to articulate what I was doing (teaching, writing and speaking about making sense of disruption) in a way that gave me credibility with fellow board members and peers. That experience informed my decision to create a Future Proof Course for people leaving corporate roles and wanting to develop a separate identity, brand, story and community of support. Fear of losing face can be replaced when you reflect on what is now important to you and craft a compelling story to share with others.

For people who have achieved a certain amount of success, it can feel like looking over the edge of a cliff. So many people achieve excellence in one area and are then afraid of tackling other areas because they fear they’ll no longer be able to shine or be the star. They deprive themselves of becoming a broader, more valuable person even in their profession. However, as you learn to trust in yourself and your own creative process, you’ll find yourself building your own bridge, one step at a time, across the chasm. You’ll also find that you’re not alone on the bridge, even when it sways in buffeting winds.

L: Is the corporate world aware of and embracing the new changes ahead? Are they doing anything to future-proof themselves?

D: Companies are embracing flexibility in the corporate hierarchy in different ways. As I write about in my Future Proof book, Schneider Electric has ensured more flexibility and advancement by having three headquarters across Europe, North America and Asia. This allows people who aren’t willing to live in Paris to have global roles that contribute meaningfully to the bottom line. Other companies are following.

Mercer has recently started an initiative whereby their retired consultants can bid on projects so that projects that don’t make sense for the company can go to their ex-staff who can work more flexibly but still maintain the high quality of service clients expect.

At the moment, these initiatives are fairly fragmented in large companies. However, new companies are starting with completely outsourced workforces and flexible policies that may allow them to win the war for talent over incumbents.

L: What did success mean to you in the past? And what does success mean to you now?

D: When I was younger, success meant being the best, competing and winning against my peers, external benchmarks of success.

As I reflect with more depth on my values, I value learning, building communities and connecting to do great work with people I respect. It means not accepting the life I’ve been given, but working hard for the life I want. And that is not a static idea. I know that I will continually edit my beliefs and expand my identity as new experiences allow me to grow and see new vistas.

This interview is a part of Lynk Elite Expert Women interview series, click here to learn more about the initiative.