A Critical Timeline for Leaders (Part II of II) – Weekend Reflections for Leaders: December 8, 2018

These two recent Weekend Reflections for Leaders address a critical timeline for leaders. Part I was about People and Part II is about the Marketplace.

The marketplace, no matter how we define it, continues to grow in intensity, uncertainty, and urgency. Customer expectations continues to rise, competition seems to come virtually overnight from previously unknown players, and technology has leveled the global playing field.

The topic for this Weekend Reflections for Leaders is about a most critical timeline that, unlike last week’s topic on people which is rarely discussed openly, this week’s topic on the marketplace is more openly discussed by executive leaders. However, discussion alone is not enough to prevent having a significant negative impact on business performance. 

The business cases are now legendary about how once dominant companies and multi-billion-dollar industries were just “Napstered” or “Ubered” or “Amazoned” seemingly overnight. From a learning context, it is important to realize that although technology has accelerated these events recently, the business cases are not unique within the modern-day technology revolution. We should all remember the once dominant US auto industry in a post WWII economy that, in a few short decades, became a small fraction of the global market. 

The most critical timeline for leaders that is so clear in hindsight, but rarely garners a sense of heart-pounding panic and urgency in the methodical rhythm of a large, multi-national corporation, is the timeline between that initial sense that disruption is happening on the fringes of the market and the time leaders actually “wake-up” to the threat and start to take meaningful action to address the challenge of survival of the business. Most businesses have a timeline that is far too long in addressing threats to the business.

A sobering reminder of how it feels in hindsight for most leaders who fail to act on threats first seen on the fringe of the market is the quote from Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises; When the main character is asked, ‘How did you go bankrupt?’ The response, ‘Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.”

The timeline of when leaders initially realize the emergence of small threats to the business and the time we actually start making progress towards addressing the threat is a timeline worthy of our attention. Responsibility to be more efficient in shortening this critical timeline rests squarely on the shoulders of leaders in the business as they are the ones that can direct action with a sense of urgency.

Here are some thoughts to help us all better address this most critical timeline:

First, what holds us back? Here are a few common obstacles:

  1. The business is most likely operating well in the near-term and there is a host of routine work that needs to get done. Our time and attention can easily remain focused on the routine tasks that are comfortable, familiar, and still important to running the business.
  2. When the business is currently performing great relative to our current competitive set, traditional financial metrics of unit volume growth, cash flow etc. are setting records, and the stock price continues to grow, we run the risk of pride becoming the barrier to us clearly seeing threats on the horizon. The Book of Proverbs reminds us that “Pride goes before the fall.”
  3. As senior executives, we don’t always listen well. (1) Our teams on the front lines who see threats first and try to communicate up through the organization don’t always get a listening ear from senior executives. Our view is a few layers removed from the front lines and we don’t feel the heat as much as those who are daily on the front lines. (2) Our customers, when we open routine channels of communication, can reveal changing expectations which usually provide hints as to where they want to go tomorrow, and we often build systems and processes that don’t listen well to customer’s changing expectations.

Second, what can we do about it? Here a few ideas:

  1. “Only the paranoid survive,” Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel. As leaders, we need to always have an element of paranoia about threats to the business. On a personal level, paranoia may not be a healthy mind-set, but in running a business, somewhere inside the organization’s belly, we need to be sensitive to and observant of threats.
  2. Assign teams to be more intentional about taking action towards companies in the lower and middle market of the industry. Meaningful action can be just a closer observance, commercial partnerships, licensing opportunities, and/or direct investments in companies beginning to make progress in the market. To be effective, this can’t be a side job of a commercial organization. A small team needs to have a primary responsibility to be fully focused on the lower and middle market of the industry.
  3. Listen better and discern better. Senior executives need to create more channels and be more effective in listening to teams on the front lines and to customers. In addition to listening, senior executives need to build their skills to be more effective in discerning emerging threats to the business. Building the skill of discernment can come through painful direct experience, external advisors, and being intentional about routinely getting outside of the natural rhythm and mind-set of the company by participating in venture capital/early stage investing forums, business incubators formed around premier business schools, etc.  Senior executives need to be intentional about routinely getting outside of the four walls of the company.

Today’s senior executives and top talent need to be careful that they do not become too comfortable in the current success of the business. The mantra to “stay humble and stay hungry” should be carved into the walls next to the flat screen that teams are routinely punch-drunk by power-point-slides at the next strategic planning session. The marketplace is moving too fast for us to think we can skate by a few more years until retirement.

What if I were to ask you, “What is the most difficult leadership challenge you are facing today?” What would you say?

Here are a few resources to help:

  1. Download FREE resources at www.harvesttimepartners.com
  2. Contact me. Email: david@harvesttimepartners.com (M) 269-370-9275

David Esposito

Determined coworkers working on computer and discussing plans at office