August 2011Senior Leadership

Think it Forward: Planning for Future Success

think it forward

Where will you be ten years from now? Do you have a vision for your future, and a plan in place to help you achieve it? If you're like most executives, instead of a plan you have some vague ideas that might include a higher-level position, greater compensation, or early retirement.

Participants in Wharton's Advanced Management Program (AMP) are asked not only to imagine where they'll be, but to commit their vision to writing and share it with a group of other executives. Called the Cover Story assignment, it asks them to choose a publication for a future article about themselves. It's an important and revealing part of the task: someone who wants to land on the cover of Fortune magazine has a different vision for his future than a colleague who dreams of making headlines in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The assignment begins with a session exploring success and achievement. As session leader and Wharton professor Richard Shell explains, "They're asked to define success personally. You can't conquer the world, so what part of it are you trying to be successful in, and with whom and for what reason? What audiences are you interested in getting in front of and what would you need to do to make that happen?"

Thinking deeply about your version of success, and what it will look like in the future, is an "invaluable opportunity," notes Wharton Management Professor Ian MacMillan. "Much of what is learned in AMP has to do with better serving your company. The Cover Story assignment is for you."

Kanwar Bhutani, vice president of Avon, strongly agrees: "The experience in AMP gave me more courage, conviction, and clarity about what I wanted to do with my life. Because I had to write my Cover Story, I was able to stay focused on my ultimate goal of running a multi-billion dollar business in Asia, in a company that is making a major mark on society. That focus helped me to turn down some opportunities that I might have taken otherwise; they would have distracted me from my goal."

Bhutani acknowledges that writing his feature article wasn't difficult. "I always had the dream of going back to Asia [Bhutani was born in India but left at age two and worked there briefly early in his career]. My heart has always been there, and I knew there was tremendous opportunity there." The opportunity to articulate that dream with a group of colleagues made him realize he had to become more proactive in making it happen.

MacMillan stresses that sharing the assignment with a smaller group of peers is one of the more powerful aspects of Cover Story. "In AMP, participants are divided into groups that work closely with one other and get to know each other well over the course of five weeks. When you share your vision of your future with them, you get the kind of feedback that's impossible to get anywhere else. There are no politics or other obstacles to prevent honest, constructive reactions."

He continues, "The assignment doesn't stop at career plans; it includes your family. You're asked to think through how your experiences affect your spouse and children. I have had more than one participant tell me that the exercise saved their marriage, or that they it made them realize they needed to spend more time on their relationships with their children. Cover Story is powerful both in terms of career development and personal development."

Bhutani knows the power of the assignment first-hand. "When I got back from AMP, I made it very clear that I wanted to go back to Asia. When I saw an opportunity that would be more likely to get me there, I took it, and I made sure I let people know what I wanted, including the chairman. In seven months, I had an offer to run all of Asia as Head of Sales. I agreed. It took me less than two years to reach my ultimate goal."

What did he do after being offered his dream job? "I called a colleague from AMP. I asked her if she remembered my cover story. Then I told her that it happened. When you put something on paper, it becomes part of your belief system."