Interview with Barbara Mistick, Author of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace

Barbara Mistick is currently the president of Wilson College with over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurialism and education. She’s also the coauthor, with Karie Willyerd, of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s WorkplaceThis book argues that while everyone has a date at which they stop being relevant in the workplace, we all have the ability to extend that date as long as possible. In Part 1 of our interview, Barbara shares why she thinks we should strive to “stretch” in our workplace and the the ways in which we can.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you and Karie Willyerd to write Stretch?

Barbara Mistick: The primary motivation for writing this book is the fact that I feel passionate about the work that I do. I had a really great career, and I worked with a lot of other people who feel passionate. People who are engaged in their work are happier about their work. So what we wanted to do was give people the skills to stay relevant in the workplace, knowing that if they stay relevant, there’s a better chance they will be satisfied with the work that they’re doing and be happier. All of that together really extends your sell-by dates – the idea that your skill can become obsolete over time.

SHY: How did you go about cowriting with Karie?

BM: The greatest thing about having a coauthor is that you have somebody else to bounce ideas off of. But the challenging part about having a coauthor is that it’s really important that the book has a common voice throughout. Each of us has expertise in different areas and different research areas, so we divided up some of the research so that we could go a little deeper. Then we edited each other’s work, so we could create a consistent voice throughout the book for the reader.

SHY: How did you come up with the five stretch imperatives?

BM: The basis for our book was a big global study that we did. SAP helped sponsor a study with Oxford Economics. We asked 5,400 executives and employees around the world – 2,700 executives and 2,700 employees in 27 different countries – so it’s a really broad survey. We asked a wide range of questions and we were really taken away by the findings. We found that people were really worried about becoming obsolete at work. So that was the number one takeaway of the survey, and that was not what we expected, so it was a surprising finding for us. What we realized was that people in the workplace have this anxiety. Will their skills stay relevant over time? Then we started to take a look at the other responses to other questions, and we realized that people were really interested in professional development, but felt that many of their companies didn’t provide the level of professional development they wanted. And we heard these themes overall throughout both our research piece and then, of course, we did a lot of other auxiliary research for the book too – so thousands of scholarly articles in different subject areas. We did a lot of webinars. We had a lot of input from people and we were writing the book along the way. And the number one takeaway we had was that your professional development is all on you. So it’s basically on us; if we care about our careers and care about our futures, then we really need to take responsibility for our professional development. Your company is not going to do that, your coworkers aren’t going to do that, you can’t expect your industry to do that or your boss. It’s all on you. That became one of the imperatives that we saw overall.

Then the second imperative that we saw was that people need options in order to be successful. So while your development can be all on you, you can recognize that in order to extend your sell-by date, you need options. So that became the second imperative – this recognition that there’s not one solution for everybody. There are multiple answers. It depends on where you are in your career, your level of education and training to date, what industry you’re in, and your other obligations – your work-life obligations, your family obligations. We could tell there was not one answer. I think a lot of people today are always looking for the silver bullet: Could you just tell me what to do and I’ll do it? Give me that one thing I can do. But we did not see that. We don’t have the silver bullet; we don’t know that there is a silver bullet or a magic wizard behind a curtain that can give you the one answer. What we knew was that people need options and that you can customize that to your own particular situation.

Finally, the third imperative is to recognize that we all have dreams for the future. We shouldn’t have to lose sight of those dreams in order to be successful. The way jobs are getting disrupted today shouldn’t subtract from where we want to see our careers go in the future. So if it’s something you are passionate about, you should be able to hold onto that passion. If you’re concerned about finding the right balance, you should be able to satisfy your career given the other things that are going on in your life. So you really need to be able to hold onto your dream. I think if you don’t hold onto your dreams, that’s when the anxiety of change has a negative impact on your engagement in work. So we thought of three things together: it’s on you, you need options, and we all have dreams. We thought of them as three imperatives. Those are the three questions that we wanted to answer in the book and to provide some suggestions and strategies that people can use.

SHY: Do your recommendations in Stretch vary by field, or are they relevant to everyone? Do we need to follow all the suggestions or can we pick and choose?

BM: Just pick and choose. I think if you try to follow them all, it can feel overwhelming. When we talked about the number one concern that everybody has about staying relevant at work, the other piece that we heard from people was that there’s so much pressure just to keep up with today’s workloads. Preparing for tomorrow’s changes by having the development skills and capabilities before you need them is daunting. You get this sense that just keeping up is hard. We’ve been talking to lots of people about the book and about their own experiences and universally, and this is what I hear almost every day, which is that people feel overwhelmed by the demands on their careers today. So what we wanted to do with our book was to provide a wide variety of strategies that you can employ, certainly not at one time and certainly not all of them for everybody. You have to pick and choose what makes sense for you. Overall, there are over 29 “stretch breaks” in the book. They’re not meant to all be done at one time.

SHY: What do you think makes you uniquely qualified to write this book? Why should people listen to you and Karie?

BM: Karie and I have been researching and writing together for about 15 years. We met in a doctoral program more than 15 years ago. We spent probably several decades in our own respective careers, studying the workplace and workplace trends. We’ve been managers and leaders of a variety of organizations; I’m a college president today, and Karie is a chief talent officer and a workplace futurist for SAP. So each of us has a pretty broad view of the world from a variety of different perspectives. We’ve both done entrepreneurial stints at various points in our careers. I’ve served both for  for-profit organizations and non-profit organizations. Karie has a pretty wide and deep corporate experience. I think we’ve covered the landscape in terms of the different times and types of jobs. And one of the wonderful things for me as a college president is that I’m working with people who are the next generation, day in and day out, so I really see the challenges people have at the beginning of their career. And if I talk to a lot of the people in the workplace, we see the mid-career issues and we also see the top-tier career challenges. So what we started to do was blend that experience across our careers and add to that with a great depth of research knowledge and a variety of workplace issues.

 

SHY: Stretch presents various anecdotes. How did you go about surveying and how did you find these different stories for the book?

BM: Well, we talked to a lot of people. We did probably over 200 different interviews. Then we used those interview stories throughout the book. We talked to people who were at various points in their career, people who created both entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as people inside of organizations and people in non-profits. So we really tried to make sure that our interview group and sampling was very diverse, both in terms of gender, ages, ethnicities, and industry types. We were looking for the broadest representation. Karie and I did a lot of webinars along the way as we were writing the book, testing out some of the strategies that we ultimately presented in Stretch. So we got a lot of feedback along the way and did additional interviews, so it’s a very well-researched book.

SHY: Is Stretch targeted towards people who are already in the corporate world?

BM: It was not our perspective when we wrote the book that it’ll go to one particular audience, in terms of millennial, baby boomers, or Gen Xers. What we really saw across the board was that this was the number one concern of people, whether they were at an entry point in their career, at a midpoint or getting close to the retired part of their career. People across the board felt that they needed to keep their skills relevant. So we hope we’ve given some different strategies for whether you’re in an entrepreneurial situation or whether you’re within an organization situation – could be for-profit or non-profit – or whether you’re in a corporate setting. So we really tried to see across the board. We provide a couple of pages of insights at the end of each of practice in the book for companies and organization, the things that they can do, as well as what we can do as individuals.

SHY: Can you talk more about tomorrow’s workplace? Why is it important for people to read your book and stretch to future-proof themselves as workers?

BM: I think the challenge today is that the definition of ‘job’ is really changing. We traditionally view jobs as a paid position at regular employment, so we go to work at some place year in and year out, and are in that same organization for 20 to 30 years. Today that’s just not the case. Today, it’s much more likely that while you’re going to have paid work, it’s not always going to be from one source and not always going to be in a regular fashion. The current data on jobs is that the average person will have over 11 different jobs in their careers. So that means that if you’re coming out of college with partial expertise in one area, across your career, you really need expertise in a wide variety of areas, and you need to be able to constantly updating your skills. So the rate has changed and technological advancement in the workplace today is such that we can’t be static in our careers. I think in the future, there’s going to be a much greater likelihood that the definition of a job will be more attached to a piece of work, especially one that is paid for some period of time. Many of us are going to have stints that are both in entrepreneurial organizations or in businesses for ourselves and inside of organizations as well. So I think we’re going to step more inside and outside – you’re not going to be in that old perspective of a career ladder, where you just took one rung at a time and you climbed up. I think that’s going to happen less and less in the future. We’ll see more zigzagging – people who move into one position, but then maybe take a step backward into a different position. We gave an example in the book of somebody who went to work for Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook). She said, “I really want to work with you. I want to solve a problem for you; I know it’ll be a great experience for me to have a boss like you.” And what Sandberg said is that her biggest problem is in the HR arena. But the person that she was talking to, all of her experience was in marketing. So here is somebody with deep expertise in marketing, and she’s talking to Sheryl Sandberg saying “I want to come to work with you.” And Sheryl’s saying to her, “Well the real problem I have today is around people and we have to research this issue.” So she took a total step down and stepped sideways in order to gain this experience, and it took her career to a different level. People take what you might have thought of in the past as detours in careers, but what they are is a way to learn different things, perhaps gain different experiences, and those experiences collectively help you build a career that is relevant and lasting.

Liked this? Check out our review of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, and check back tomorrow for more insights from Mistick!

Written by Diana Kim

Barbara Mistick is currently the president of Wilson College with over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurialism and education. She’s also the coauthor, with Karie Willyerd, of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s WorkplaceThis book argues that while everyone has a date at which they stop being relevant in the workplace, we all have the ability to extend that date as long as possible. In Part 1 of our interview, Barbara shares why she thinks we should strive to “stretch” in our workplace and the the ways in which we can.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you and Karie Willyerd to write Stretch?

Barbara Mistick: The primary motivation for writing this book is the fact that I feel passionate about the work that I do. I had a really great career, and I worked with a lot of other people who feel passionate. People who are engaged in their work are happier about their work. So what we wanted to do was give people the skills to stay relevant in the workplace, knowing that if they stay relevant, there’s a better chance they will be satisfied with the work that they’re doing and be happier. All of that together really extends your sell-by dates – the idea that your skill can become obsolete over time.

SHY: How did you go about cowriting with Karie?

BM: The greatest thing about having a coauthor is that you have somebody else to bounce ideas off of. But the challenging part about having a coauthor is that it’s really important that the book has a common voice throughout. Each of us has expertise in different areas and different research areas, so we divided up some of the research so that we could go a little deeper. Then we edited each other’s work, so we could create a consistent voice throughout the book for the reader.

SHY: How did you come up with the five stretch imperatives?

BM: The basis for our book was a big global study that we did. SAP helped sponsor a study with Oxford Economics. We asked 5,400 executives and employees around the world – 2,700 executives and 2,700 employees in 27 different countries – so it’s a really broad survey. We asked a wide range of questions and we were really taken away by the findings. We found that people were really worried about becoming obsolete at work. So that was the number one takeaway of the survey, and that was not what we expected, so it was a surprising finding for us. What we realized was that people in the workplace have this anxiety. Will their skills stay relevant over time? Then we started to take a look at the other responses to other questions, and we realized that people were really interested in professional development, but felt that many of their companies didn’t provide the level of professional development they wanted. And we heard these themes overall throughout both our research piece and then, of course, we did a lot of other auxiliary research for the book too – so thousands of scholarly articles in different subject areas. We did a lot of webinars. We had a lot of input from people and we were writing the book along the way. And the number one takeaway we had was that your professional development is all on you. So it’s basically on us; if we care about our careers and care about our futures, then we really need to take responsibility for our professional development. Your company is not going to do that, your coworkers aren’t going to do that, you can’t expect your industry to do that or your boss. It’s all on you. That became one of the imperatives that we saw overall.

Then the second imperative that we saw was that people need options in order to be successful. So while your development can be all on you, you can recognize that in order to extend your sell-by date, you need options. So that became the second imperative – this recognition that there’s not one solution for everybody. There are multiple answers. It depends on where you are in your career, your level of education and training to date, what industry you’re in, and your other obligations – your work-life obligations, your family obligations. We could tell there was not one answer. I think a lot of people today are always looking for the silver bullet: Could you just tell me what to do and I’ll do it? Give me that one thing I can do. But we did not see that. We don’t have the silver bullet; we don’t know that there is a silver bullet or a magic wizard behind a curtain that can give you the one answer. What we knew was that people need options and that you can customize that to your own particular situation.

Finally, the third imperative is to recognize that we all have dreams for the future. We shouldn’t have to lose sight of those dreams in order to be successful. The way jobs are getting disrupted today shouldn’t subtract from where we want to see our careers go in the future. So if it’s something you are passionate about, you should be able to hold onto that passion. If you’re concerned about finding the right balance, you should be able to satisfy your career given the other things that are going on in your life. So you really need to be able to hold onto your dream. I think if you don’t hold onto your dreams, that’s when the anxiety of change has a negative impact on your engagement in work. So we thought of three things together: it’s on you, you need options, and we all have dreams. We thought of them as three imperatives. Those are the three questions that we wanted to answer in the book and to provide some suggestions and strategies that people can use.

SHY: Do your recommendations in Stretch vary by field, or are they relevant to everyone? Do we need to follow all the suggestions or can we pick and choose?

BM: Just pick and choose. I think if you try to follow them all, it can feel overwhelming. When we talked about the number one concern that everybody has about staying relevant at work, the other piece that we heard from people was that there’s so much pressure just to keep up with today’s workloads. Preparing for tomorrow’s changes by having the development skills and capabilities before you need them is daunting. You get this sense that just keeping up is hard. We’ve been talking to lots of people about the book and about their own experiences and universally, and this is what I hear almost every day, which is that people feel overwhelmed by the demands on their careers today. So what we wanted to do with our book was to provide a wide variety of strategies that you can employ, certainly not at one time and certainly not all of them for everybody. You have to pick and choose what makes sense for you. Overall, there are over 29 “stretch breaks” in the book. They’re not meant to all be done at one time.

SHY: What do you think makes you uniquely qualified to write this book? Why should people listen to you and Karie?

BM: Karie and I have been researching and writing together for about 15 years. We met in a doctoral program more than 15 years ago. We spent probably several decades in our own respective careers, studying the workplace and workplace trends. We’ve been managers and leaders of a variety of organizations; I’m a college president today, and Karie is a chief talent officer and a workplace futurist for SAP. So each of us has a pretty broad view of the world from a variety of different perspectives. We’ve both done entrepreneurial stints at various points in our careers. I’ve served both for  for-profit organizations and non-profit organizations. Karie has a pretty wide and deep corporate experience. I think we’ve covered the landscape in terms of the different times and types of jobs. And one of the wonderful things for me as a college president is that I’m working with people who are the next generation, day in and day out, so I really see the challenges people have at the beginning of their career. And if I talk to a lot of the people in the workplace, we see the mid-career issues and we also see the top-tier career challenges. So what we started to do was blend that experience across our careers and add to that with a great depth of research knowledge and a variety of workplace issues.

 

SHY: Stretch presents various anecdotes. How did you go about surveying and how did you find these different stories for the book?

BM: Well, we talked to a lot of people. We did probably over 200 different interviews. Then we used those interview stories throughout the book. We talked to people who were at various points in their career, people who created both entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as people inside of organizations and people in non-profits. So we really tried to make sure that our interview group and sampling was very diverse, both in terms of gender, ages, ethnicities, and industry types. We were looking for the broadest representation. Karie and I did a lot of webinars along the way as we were writing the book, testing out some of the strategies that we ultimately presented in Stretch. So we got a lot of feedback along the way and did additional interviews, so it’s a very well-researched book.

SHY: Is Stretch targeted towards people who are already in the corporate world?

BM: It was not our perspective when we wrote the book that it’ll go to one particular audience, in terms of millennial, baby boomers, or Gen Xers. What we really saw across the board was that this was the number one concern of people, whether they were at an entry point in their career, at a midpoint or getting close to the retired part of their career. People across the board felt that they needed to keep their skills relevant. So we hope we’ve given some different strategies for whether you’re in an entrepreneurial situation or whether you’re within an organization situation – could be for-profit or non-profit – or whether you’re in a corporate setting. So we really tried to see across the board. We provide a couple of pages of insights at the end of each of practice in the book for companies and organization, the things that they can do, as well as what we can do as individuals.

SHY: Can you talk more about tomorrow’s workplace? Why is it important for people to read your book and stretch to future-proof themselves as workers?

BM: I think the challenge today is that the definition of ‘job’ is really changing. We traditionally view jobs as a paid position at regular employment, so we go to work at some place year in and year out, and are in that same organization for 20 to 30 years. Today that’s just not the case. Today, it’s much more likely that while you’re going to have paid work, it’s not always going to be from one source and not always going to be in a regular fashion. The current data on jobs is that the average person will have over 11 different jobs in their careers. So that means that if you’re coming out of college with partial expertise in one area, across your career, you really need expertise in a wide variety of areas, and you need to be able to constantly updating your skills. So the rate has changed and technological advancement in the workplace today is such that we can’t be static in our careers. I think in the future, there’s going to be a much greater likelihood that the definition of a job will be more attached to a piece of work, especially one that is paid for some period of time. Many of us are going to have stints that are both in entrepreneurial organizations or in businesses for ourselves and inside of organizations as well. So I think we’re going to step more inside and outside – you’re not going to be in that old perspective of a career ladder, where you just took one rung at a time and you climbed up. I think that’s going to happen less and less in the future. We’ll see more zigzagging – people who move into one position, but then maybe take a step backward into a different position. We gave an example in the book of somebody who went to work for Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook). She said, “I really want to work with you. I want to solve a problem for you; I know it’ll be a great experience for me to have a boss like you.” And what Sandberg said is that her biggest problem is in the HR arena. But the person that she was talking to, all of her experience was in marketing. So here is somebody with deep expertise in marketing, and she’s talking to Sheryl Sandberg saying “I want to come to work with you.” And Sheryl’s saying to her, “Well the real problem I have today is around people and we have to research this issue.” So she took a total step down and stepped sideways in order to gain this experience, and it took her career to a different level. People take what you might have thought of in the past as detours in careers, but what they are is a way to learn different things, perhaps gain different experiences, and those experiences collectively help you build a career that is relevant and lasting.

Liked this? Check out our review of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, and check back tomorrow for more insights from Mistick!

Written by Diana Kim

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