Ex-JPMorgan CEO says highly successful people get outside their comfort zones: 'That's how you keep growing'

William Harrison, chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland Saturday, January 28, 2006.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Your comfort zone, while obviously comfortable, can be limiting. The former CEO of one of the world's largest banks recommends leaving it.

"You've got to get people out of their comfort zone. That's how you keep growing," Bill Harrison, who led JPMorgan Chase from its formation in 2000 to 2006, said on a recent episode of the "How Leaders Lead with David Novak" podcast, hosted by Yum Brands executive chairman David Novak.

You can often learn from entering new environments, roles or opportunities — potentially sparking your personal growth and setting you on a path to success, Harrison, 79, said. Before making it to the top of one of the nation's largest banks, his career was continually marked by colossal changes that he didn't always personally enjoy, he added — but they helped set him up for success.

Harrison said one particular change accelerated his career trajectory the most. In the mid-1980s, he landed his first management job, overseeing a team of 13 people at Chemical Bank's regional office in San Francisco.

After three years, the bank asked him to move to London to manage its European business. He'd be overseeing 1,300 people.

Initially, Harrison wasn't a fan of the idea: "I don't want to go to London. I mean, I'm happy in San Francisco ... I was very comfortable staying in [my comfort] zone. I was one of the people who didn't want to keep moving so fast."

Eventually, Harrison succumbed to the pressure and packed his bags. The shift wasn't easy, he said: He had to grapple with a dysfunctional executive committee and judgment from his coworkers for being a young American leading a U.K. business.

But he gained a wealth of knowledge while working in that unfamiliar and difficult environment, he said: "It really taught me probably more than most anything I've ever done."

Harrison's advice to get out of your comfort zone is backed by recent psychological research. In March, psychologists from Cornell University and the University of Chicago published a study on what happens when people seek discomfort. They divided more than 550 improv students into two groups, and asked one of the groups to run through an improv exercise the way they normally would.

The researchers asked the other group to put themselves in an "awkward and uncomfortable" position during that improv exercise. The latter group reported learning more and making more progress, according to the study.

A 2018 Yale study had similar findings. Researchers gave one group of monkeys tasks with familiar and constantly occurring outcomes, and another group tasks with more unfamiliar and uncertain outcomes. They found that the second group learned more, and showed more brain activity in the frontal cortex, which is important in both monkeys and humans for attention, memory and judgement, among other functions.

Ultimately, Harrison's unfamiliar and uncomfortable experiences helped propel him to a highly successful career.

In 1991, only a few years after Harrison left London to lead Chemical Bank's U.S. corporate division, he helped orchestrate a merger between his bank and Manufacturers Hanover — the first of three deals that would ultimately create JPMorgan Chase in 2000. He retired in 2006 after nearly four decades in the banking industry.

Over the course of his career, he was given the choice several times between stepping out of his comfort zone and remaining in the familiar, Harrison noted. He almost always chose discomfort, he added, and never regretted it.

"I look back and say, 'If I hadn't done that, I would have missed out on an unbelievable experience,'" Harrison said.

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