This is what's next

Joe Nagle

Joe NagleCEO Delta Dental RI

Being asked to reflect on “what’s next” prompted me to drop a line to my “inner Nostradamus” – as my weatherman was too busy flipping a coin. Since our world today is too often marked by racial and religious intolerance, growing income inequality, the erosion of the middle class and a polarized political climate that would make even P. T. Barnum cringe, one would have to think (or perhaps pray) there will be better days ahead.

As a rational optimist, thinking about “what’s next” creates an interesting conundrum. The implication is that there’s a right path forward and that following this path will lead to a successful outcome. But progress rarely follows a straight path. Its twists and turns (and potholes) impact the risks we take. And how we adapt in response to those risks and challenge the status quo advances us in the business world and in society as well.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of emerging Rhode Island leaders. I shared stories of those moments in my career when I faced the choice of walking a safe path or striking out in a different direction. Without a doubt, those times when I challenged myself to think differently and take chances - such as leaving the safety of an established career - have had the greatest impact on my professional life. Being much younger – and somewhat naive – I admittedly might not have understood all of the risks I faced. But “going where they ain’t and doing what they don’t” opened the door to great opportunities.

Thinking differently, and at times contrarily, is at the core of remaining competitive as a business, and as a state. It’s all too easy to settle into the comfortable ways we’ve always done things. But as any business leader will tell you, staying attuned to what your customers need — and how you fulfill those needs — is vital to keeping a company growing and profitable. When the needs of your customers change, you have to change as well. But reacting may be too late. Better yet is to anticipate and get ahead of those trends. Disruption is inevitable, so change, while uncomfortable at times, is essential.

We can say the same of our state. As we strive to grow our economy, create more desirable jobs and make the state a place where young people want to live, work and raise families, it’s clear that the same old thinking won’t suffice. Still, change is hard and innovative thinking requires a certain appetite for risk.

Developing that appetite for risk-taking — getting comfortable with the discomfort of walking the unknown path — may just be one of the most important traits any leader can have. We may not always know “what’s next,” but we can develop and nurture our ability to respond creatively.

So “what’s next?” Nostradamus assures me that we have all the ingredients in place to move our state forward. I agree. The young leaders I meet, in my company and across the state, are poised to take the helm — just like generations before them. All they need is our support and empowerment. They know what needs to be done and are eager to put their ideas into action. They are creative and ambitious. Sure, they are less experienced — and, no doubt, at times naïve — but they can fix what needs to be fixed: better education, better jobs and more tolerance and inclusion. All they need is the opportunity.

So let’s help them take control of their futures. If we do, “what’s next” may well be the best thing yet.

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