(Guest article by Bill Thompson.)
Leadership occupies the vast space between that which is clearly right and clearly wrong. The result often is indecision and inaction at the highest levels of organizations. This failure of leadership can be catastrophic, and often is. While most are familiar with the high failure rate of businesses during the early years (nearly 80% by the second year), many do not know that established businesses, even those with ten years of operating history still have a greater than one in three chance of failure. Businesses that have operated for 20 years remain at a one in five risk of failure, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Only the Hard Decisions Matter
Important questions with easy answers are rare and ultimately don’t require leadership. Questions that are complicated, multifaceted, unclear, and emotionally charged are much more frequent, requiring discernment and a willingness to be bold. True leaders do not simply acknowledge this call to action, they embrace that a leader is not a designation that comes with a role, rather it is a distinction that is earned.
The Discipline of Success
Business success, as with individual success, is not the result of a single action, rather a series of actions over time. This discipline of success, as summarized below, is a constant motion and a series of efforts to align value creation with business strategy, while navigating an ever-evolving context.
- Customer Relevancy: The need to understand your customer and their high-value business problems never stops. Needs change over time. Absent ongoing customer recalibration with every day that passes your value proposition drifts a little further away from remaining relevant. Incorporate customer discovery and ongoing feedback into your business operating model. This is often called “Voice of Customer” (VoC). While the methods vary, the targeted business outcome is that the customer has input into product strategy and creation of value. By driving this feedback into your business strategy and into organizational DNA, you ensure that you stay aligned and increasingly relevant to your customers.
- Genuine Curiosity: Leaders must remain curious, as this is the fuel of innovation. Every problem that has ever been solved ultimately began with a question. Most would believe they are curious, however all too often beliefs are anchored with existing understanding of the situation. Confirmation bias shapes the way new information is processed and understood. Employ genuine curiosity to avoid atrophy. As leaders, be quick to ask members across your organization for insight, recognize those who challenge conventional thinking and listen intently. Through this approach, people will trust that you understand and value their perspective. You will ensure that decisions are informed, grounded, and that key stakeholders were part of the decision-making process.
- Intellectual Honesty: There is an abundance of information and business intelligence available to leaders today. This information however, like the instrument panel in an airplane or dashboard in a car, only becomes useful when it informs one’s understanding of reality. All too often indicators are ignored, rationalized by a desire to “dig-deep” and push harder. “Escalation of commitment is deeply rooted in the human brain,” write Vermeulen and Sivanathan in “Stop Doubling Down on Your Family Strategy” (from Harvard Business Review; a great read, I highly recommend it). Leaders must be willing to reevaluate the situation continuously, accept changing market forces, and shift business strategy when needed.
Leaders can begin to “control the controllable” by using persistent customer discovery, continuously questioning presumptions, and being willing to change course when the facts dictate (as outlined above). And control, in a world of seemingly endless variables, allows progress through adversity and agility through change.
To your success,
Bill Thompson is an operations executive and business analyst within the technology and communications space. He has over 20 years’ experience driving performance turnarounds for global organizations, accelerating business strategy, and increasing enterprise value.