Monday, February 13, 2017

How Successful Leaders Think

Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, wrote, “Leaders who change the game recognize that success is not just about thinking differently from other companies. It is also about caring more than other companies - about customers, about colleagues, about how the organization conducts itself in a world with endless opportunities to cut corners and compromise values. You can't be special, distinctive, compelling in the marketplace unless you create something special, distinctive, compelling in the workplace. Your strategy is your culture." 

I agree with this quote on so many levels. Given all my travels and three decades of work, I have clearly seen that success is about caring more than other companies about customers, partners, colleagues and the organization as a whole. Furthermore, I fundamentally agree with the idea that “your strategy is your culture.” When I step back from the day to day hustle and bustle of work and look at the bigger picture, I notice the following about how successful leaders think and successful companies work.

First, we live in an era of nonstop interruptions and disruptions. Right now, there are continual external disruptions to the established order of how things get done. The impact of this constant lack of continuity from quarter to quarter, year to year in systems, service and production has yielded a high level of burnout and cynicism amongst many employees, plus a general decline in a disciplined commitment to the pursuit of excellence.

Second, we live in a world filled with me-too thinkers, and fast followers. With strategy and competitive advantage being so transparent, any and every idea, service or product is constantly being copied, tweaked and/or slightly customized by the competition. There is very little originality in the world of product or service delivery, and there are very few people who want to take the risks associated with being original or unique.

Third, we live in a period where tunnel vision is epidemic. As many organizations rush to solve pressing operational problems and preserve market share in an unstable or deteriorating market, they often experience a loss of peripheral vision, i.e. strategic awareness and understanding, causing them to loose sight of the true underlying factors that created their success in the first place. Using a Jim Collin’s metaphor, they zoom in rather than zoom out most of the time.

Fourth, after all we have experienced since September 2008, there still are leaders who believe that they are entitled to success given all they have achieved to date, and how hard they have worked. To them, success is viewed as “deserved,” rather than fortuitous, fleeting, or even hard earned. These individuals believe that their success will continue no matter what the organization decides to do, or not to do. As Jim Collins wrote in his book,  How The Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, HarperCollins, 2009, these individuals role model an “Undisciplined Pursuit of More.”

So, given this context, how do successful leaders think?

As Reed Hammans noted at the Spring 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, successful leaders understand that “information is not knowledge” and knowing is not doing. From my vantage point, I see more and more people who are on bended knee worshiping technology as the solution to all problems. And more and more people are blaming technology for not providing for them the solutions they want. Finally, more and more people complain about having too many e-mail and text messages than ever before. But we must understand that being successful is less about technology and more about psychology. Human beings are human beings with all of our frailties and strengths. 

The first step in understanding how successful leaders think is to recognize that they see problems and the future in a holistic manner. They examine how different elements impact or interact with each other from a holistic vantage point. Successful leaders do not, by default, break down all problems into pieces and work on them separately or sequentially. As Roger Martin in his wonderful article called, “How Successful Leaders Think”, Harvard Business Review, June 2007, notes “Opposable thumbs- opposable minds.” Successful leaders are able to see the same problem from different vantage points, and different perspectives.

From what I observe and understand, when successful leaders see problems in a holistic manner and understand the dynamic nature of problem solving, they carefully begin by defining the problem, issue or challenge. The key to this process is that they determine the salience of all the factors related to the problem even if it is not in line with their department or organization doctrine, e.g. a head of finance department that considers a qualitative measure to be as important as a quantitative measure.

Next, rather than discard factors to simplify a problem, they embrace the diversity of factors in a problem, recognizing that not all information is accurate and not all knowledge is current.

With the above in mind, successful leaders also analyze the context, people, the variables, and the language around the problem, exploring linear vs. non-linear causality. For example, direct or linear causality is a straight line and sequential development or cause in a certain situation. On the other hand, in-direct or non-linear causality comes from the examination or exploration into non-linear elements impacting what is taking place, e.g. two people in the work place that are struggling to communicate well, each being impacted by external events like the health of an aging parent or a son getting involved in a prank at school.

Once the above has been done well, successful leaders determine the decision architecture related to a problem or challenge. After better understanding a problem and figuring out the variables involved, they then look to what are the decision-making variables, e.g. who?, what?, when? and how?. Then, they methodically examine the decision-making variables and make a decision. After the decision has been made, successful leaders mobilize people and resources to implement the decision. The goal of all this level of work is to align themselves and their team so that everyone understand why the decision was made the way it was made.

We live in tough economic and political times. Understanding how successful people think and work through these tough times gives us a road map to a better way. Now is the time to strengthen our culture and our strategy by thinking better and more effectively.  

This week, practice slowing down and thinking more holistically. As Jim Collins’ often wrote, zoom out before you zoom in is the first step to fixing something.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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