Nadya’s peculiar life path took its first unlikely turn in Kazakhstan when she put an end to her six-year career as a professional dancer in the national troupe, physically unable to carry on.
“I was so ashamed of my failure that I didn’t even have the courage to tell the director about my decision. I simply stopped coming and never said goodbye or thanked him for his teaching,” she says.
This was a failure, without which she would have never discovered her real interest. Afraid that she would go on a dark path paved with drugs and other teenage hazards, Nadya’s parents sent her to work at an assurance company, where she fell in love with business. She moved to the US in 1998 to pursue a postgraduate programme. Positive failure struck again with her doctorate later on when she got rejected by all the business schools she applied to but Case Western Reserve University, which she had only reluctantly considered.
Photo credit: Nadya Zhexembayeva
“Looking back, it is fortunate that I failed getting admitted in any other school, because I realised that Case Western Reserve was the only one that truly matches my understanding of leadership management and knowing what school of thought the other ones represented, I would have quit anyway,” she explains.
Once a doctor in organisational behaviour, Nadya started JZ Consulting in 2007 together with her husband, whom she had met at university. The firm became profitable by the end of the year and has been lucrative ever since. In 2008, Nadya moved to Slovenia with her family, taking on an offer to run the MBA programme for IEDC-Bled School of Management. “It was a wonderful invitation to shape the region, as this school is educating not only the vast majority of Slovenia’s executives but also of Kosovo, Croatia, Serbia and even of Ukraine and Georgia. Working at this important executive platform was a very exciting opportunity,” Nadya says.
You don’t have the choice but to renew who you are because the world is changing.
“It felt very much like you had to start from scratch and prove yourself because nobody cares about your past in this new environment. You don’t have a name for yourself; you don’t have a reputation, or people’s trust,” she remembers starting over in Slovenia.
Despite experiencing a few “what-in-the-world-were-we-thinking moments”, Nadya considers moving on as a necessary and benefiting decision. “You don’t have the choice but to renew who you are because the world is changing, so either you’re going to change, or life will swallow you. It’s scary yet liberating at the same time.”
Nadya applies the same mindset to business, recalling having made investments that tanked and decisions to partner with people that led to disasters. “Failure leaves you with no option; that what’s reinvention is about; letting go of everything but your very best, and finding a new way of using it. If that’s reinvention, then failure is your best friend to find a better version of you,” she says.
Photo credit: Nadya Zhexembayeva
Letting go of things, however, is the real issue in entrepreneurship. Researching the subject of sustainability for 10 years and writing two books about it, Nadya says that most people associate this notion with words such as ‘enduring’, ‘holding on’ and ‘resisting’ instead of reinventing and adapting, which she holds responsible of business failure. “That obsession with holding on is absurd; in reality nothing does. Instead of resisting change, floating on it is the best way of surviving,” she reckons.
This phenomenon, she says, is particularly salient in the startup world, where only 3 out of 10 businesses survive the 5-year mark. “They are failing because they desperately try to stay in business […] instead of getting out of it or reshaping it. That’s why I like the lean startup model better; you embrace change in the process and don’t hold on to your old cherished product.”
“Built to reinvent” rather than “Built to last”
The notion of reinvention has become the key concept of Nadya’s teachings. The overall life expectancy of companies has been significantly shrinking and that the phenomenon has been speeding up in the last decade. From 75 years in the late 20th century, the lifetime of a company decreased to 15 years at the beginning of the 2000s and has now come down to seven years on average, she says based on her latest research.
Nadya is adamant that it is essential for companies to reinvent their business model while their revenues are going up: “You have to reinvent yourself just before you reach prime-time, before you get too comfortable, otherwise it’s easy to think that you are too good to fail, too big to fail or too scared to move. You’d better choose your own failure rather than being a victim of it.”
This means that companies must start the reinvention cycle anew after about 3,5 years into their existing business reality in order to stay afloat. This “adapt or die” mindset she develops further in The Ten Commandments of Today’s Sustainable Company, her freshly published manifesto.
Shaping the future of executive leadership
They are failing because they desperately try to stay in business […] instead of getting out of it or reshaping it. That’s why I like the lean startup model better.
While running a private equity fund with the profits from her consulting business, Nadya has been practising being an in-sourced executive ten days a month for another firm since 2012, a concept she says having borrowed from Pharell Williams, part-time creative director of several companies.
“This model allows you to get ideas from different industries while being a in full-time commitment: You are responsible for results, but at the same time you have a fresh eye every month because you work with different products and industries,” she explains.
Nadya advocates for enriching the C-Suite with this new executive position, the Chief Reinvention Officer, a title that she coined for a role that she believes to be necessary to include in companies’ management board in the future. As for her plans, she considers progressively moving her family and activities back to the US, ending the Slovenian chapter for the time being.