Turning Adversity to Advantage: Dr. Laura Huang, Harvard Business School

April 3, 2020

The Harvard Business School’s Dr. Laura Huang on how executives can manage their career concerns during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

The Harvard Business School’s Dr. Laura Huang speaks to Michael Wong about how executives can manage their career concerns during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Michael Wong: When people are faced with adversity, we often revert to past playbooks of success including parental tips like “try harder or shouldn’t you be studying/practicing more.” But per your assertion that “It’s a myth that hard work is enough”[1], why do parents and for that matter, employers, often stress the importance of hard work? 

Dr. Laura Huang: When world-class executives including Bob Iger[2] and Indra Nooyi[3] are interviewed, hard work is often described as a crucial factor in their celebrated careers. And so from the C-Suite to professional sports and to many other careers, there is a natural tendency for societies to place this attribute on a pedestal. But based upon research that I’ve done for the past ten years, the unfortunate truth is that hard work, alone, is not enough. Frankly, many of us invest countless hours of effort but it’s that last mile of purposeful actions which convert adversity to advantage. Effort is important but my research-based framework, EDGE, places effort as “last.” Enrich, Delight, Guide, and Effort are all needed to help achieve your goals.[4]

With COVID-19 creating adversity in terms of not only an uncertain future but also immediate job losses for many workers, what are some practical ideas to help people?

First, for those who have recently lost their jobs due to COVID-19’s impact on their employers’ operations, you need to recognize that while it’s not your fault for this pandemic, it’s going to be important to critically evaluate why your role was eliminated and what unique value that you can deliver to your next employer. The new reality for most employers is to be able to navigate through the current economic storms. So if your recent job was a nice-to-have role versus positions like sales generation, you need to be willing to pivot accordingly given that we’ve moved, at least here in the States, from a 50-year-low unemployment rate to a record 3.3 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits in under a month.[5] Moreover, it will be valuable to reframe potentially negative perceptions of you given a potential hiring manager’s personal lens on how he or she perceives you. We all have biases and so if it has been a few years since you transferred from sales to a headquarters’ role, it’s up to you to help them see the side of your diamond that shines the brightest and how you’re ready to boomerang back to a revenue-producing position. 

Second, today’s global work-from-home norm will likely place extra stress on those who have always believed that working hard is the key to career sustainability. After all, being first in the office and last to leave seems to have been a mantra in many service industries like i-banking and consulting as well as Fortune 500s. And having those extra hours enabled people to leverage a variety of engagement options such as team meetings and one-on-one-in-person sessions. But without such in-person engagement given the current state, it’s up to you to creatively figure out how best to amplify your limited channels (conference calls) and address long-standing challenges. For instance, perhaps you shorten historical 60-minute staff meetings to 15, and with the freed up 45 minutes, you engage in some client calls which you might not have ever had time for in the past? Now is an opportune time to convert those hours of commuting to big-ideas-generation and action. Nearly every organization has pockets of fat which have accumulated because of inertia to change. Take the initiative to come up with some ideas that can help your c-suite weather the storms. Even if it’s not in your job description, such ideas can provide a welcome surprise to the recipients and help change their lens on your value to the organization. 

Finally, with COVID-19 creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt on a global scale, the challenges might seem insurmountable. However, I’d urge your readers to think about their own personal crucibles over time and reflect on the steps that they took to eventually navigate through them. It might have been a family issue, career rejection or loss of a loved one. I’ll share a personal one for me. I was rejected three times by Harvard. While it might not have been as many times as Jack Ma[6], each time (trying to secure a spot in their MBA and DBA programs as well as a teaching position) was painful at the time. However, by decomposing the steps that I took on each of these journeys as well as successful ones; I figured out a path forward that has helped me to convert adversity into advantage. 

Dr. Laura Huang is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the author of EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage. Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

[1] Gerdeman, Dina, “Hard Work Isn’t Enough, How to Find your Edge,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, January 27, 2020.

[2] Scipioni, Jade, “From summer janitor to CEO of Disney: What fueled Bob Iger’s rise to the top”, CNBC-Make It, October 2019.

[3] Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey, “Sonnenfeld: PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi Did It Her Way”, CEO, August 6, 2018.

[4] What is EDGE and how do you develop it? https://laurahuang.net/videos/https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/harvard-business-school-professor-shares-tips-find-edge-68581262

[5] Long, Heather and Fowers, Alyssa, “A record 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits as the coronavirus slams economy,” Washington Post, March 26, 2020.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6lVahS5aNU