Businessman and writer Jonathan Shaw is a man who has worked for change, both professionally and personally. Three years ago, he did something drastic, though not altogether unfamiliar: he left his business and decided to take some time to re-evaluate his priorities. He believes constant evolution is integral to growth, whether in a company, within a family or even on a private, individual level. And his book, #Forty, Be the Change, which has recently hit bookshelves, aims to convey this philosophy and motivate others to implement adjustments in the way they do things and the way they think, in what he sees as an opportunity to flourish.
“Change is a process which requires commitment,” Jonathan says. “People sometimes resist it, because of the unknown, but it needs to be seen as a chance to build something new. You need to work for it, however.” The businessman and writer “personally opted for change”, he tells me, citing a shift in perspective when he hit his 40s. “After turning 40, there’s a switch which goes on and off since you think about life a bit more. That decade is one of the toughest since your parents are older; your kids are as well, if you have them; and sometimes you realise you’re not going to accomplish your dreams. That’s when reality hits. This is where people get stuck in a rut, but it’s also when you start to become more aware.”
Jonathan “went through this process” and he “re-engineered” his day-to-day. He changed his lifestyle and diet; read more; and travelled. While travelling he started to jot down some thoughts. “I started writing for myself, as a means of gaining objectivity, and also as a form of release.” He showed his work to two friends of his – writer and actress Jo Caruana, and journalist Chris Peregin – who encouraged him to do something with these reflections. “We met a number of times and we had sessions whereby I would read the concept and we would question it and discuss it. And from these concepts, we shortlisted 30 powerful ones.”
He describes the process of writing and editing as “incredible”, also thanks to the help of another friend of his – Mikela Fenech Pace – who “gave the right perspective.” The end result is a compendium of tips, outlining a more productive, and possibly satisfying, way of living. Between the covers, Jonathan gives advice, such as “80 per cent of your fears will never happen” and “share your plans as much as you can”, which will ring true for many – whatever the age and circumstance.
“Publishing a book is daunting, since you’re putting yourself out there, but this is not about me or Malta, and you don’t need to be 40 to read it! We have 30 concepts in there, together with tips and exercises. The magic will happen if you do the exercises,” he explains. Indeed, the exercises are part of a structured package which pushes the reader to reflect on issues which get bypassed in the rush of our capitalist routines. From the often-heard “switch off your mobile phone” and the more reflective “stop to think and list four things you wish to get done in three months” to the corporate-sounding “identify one personal skill or trait that you can improve to become a better negotiator”, this often feels like a survey of dos and don’ts to living, and operating, in the 21st century.
“You don’t have to read it from cover to cover. I call it a great book to have in the bathroom,” Jonathan smiles. “At least have a book, not your phone! It’s one of those books you need to feel you want to read it. You need to have the space for it. I still struggle with some of these concepts myself, but I wrote them in such a way so that they could be helpful. You could adapt them in multiple situations and you could have already heard some of these, but there is so much distraction, that often we forget about them and need reminding.”
Indeed, Jonathan explains how it is often easy to slip down the slope of routine, becoming automatons destined to repeat the same habits and mistakes, even within our own businesses. “If you’re doing something wrong, you may be doing it without knowing. And you won’t be conscious of it until there is a shock, though sometimes that is too late. The older we get, we assume that we are right, but we need to question this,” he stresses.
He advocates for an awareness of what we do; formulating an understanding of our weaknesses and using that to constructively become better. “We keep on postponing thinking about the way we do things, but if you knew how much time you have left, would you change something?” He asserts that money should not be the determining factor to how we live our lives, and that “it’s important to have your priorities right”. He also dismisses the cliché which comes with being called a workaholic in today’s high-adrenalin corporate environment, saying that “a workaholic is not someone who works hard but someone who puts aside other important things and ignores them.” He complains that “all I hear is that people are busy” and states that “we need to refrain from upholding ‘busy’ as a benchmark for success.”
At face value, this may seem inappropriate for today’s growth economy, characterised by fierce competition and international trade. However, much of what is spelled out on the pages of Jonathan’s tome applies productively for the business environment too. Here, he emphasises the importance of reinvention, whether from a corporate or an individual point of view. “The art of reinvention is key. I’m not saying there is a need for constant change, but by even moving out of the role you’ve occupied for years, you get the opportunity to discover something new.”
He says this is particularly relevant in family businesses which are looking to plan for the future and which have embarked on a process of succession planning. “This applies to a lot of family businesses where the parents or owners don’t want to let go; they don’t reinvent and when the time comes for people to take over, they’re not ready. But there is a way to do it. Sometimes, you get people who are external, who can support you and your loved ones, and who are not emotionally attached. They can then coach the process.”
Moreover, in order to keep progressing productively, a questioning stance should always be adopted, according to Jonathan. “Letting go can be a tough one but being stuck in the past doesn’t help. Being aware of what has happened is important, but you need to be constantly moving forward, as companies, individuals and, even as a country, in an ethical and sustainable way. That is true growth – there is more to growth than numbers.”
Indeed, effective leadership understands these challenges, Jonathan says. “You are seeing things no one else can. Your vision is the catalyst. But, you cannot have a vision which stops developing – it should have the momentum and flexibility to adapt to evolving needs.” He notes that this is not the only quality of an efficient leader, but a true captain must realise he or she rests on the work of many. “As a leader you need to know where you need support. So, you need people who are better than you. If you don’t pick the best, your competitor will.”
In this regard, he stresses that, while much of today’s discourse emphasises recruitment, retention should also be prioritised. “Who are the people to leave a company first? The good ones. In today’s business environment, we’re used to saying that finding the right people is tough. But, now, it’s retaining the right people which is a challenge. And, if you cannot retain the right people, the issue is with you, not with them. People need more than a good wage. You need to give them space to grow and you need to give them ownership.”
But, how does Jonathan intend to keep growing? “Now I want to prioritise on what’s next, and, come January, I will be hitting the ground running. Time is a luxury nowadays and I’m sensitive to that, so it makes my choices a bit harder.” Among his myriad activities, he has recently become a certified coach in cognitive behaviour – which has enabled him to discover more about “change management and the psychology of change”– but, he stresses, he has “become more process-, rather than result-oriented.” For, indeed, it is the “continuous” journey which counts, for Jonathan, one which starts with the very first step.
This article was originally published in The Commercial Courier