Looking Back (Part #4) – Weekend Reflections for Leaders: October 27, 2018

As a reminder, the intent of the next several Weekend Reflections for Leaders is to share some learnings from my journey of leaving a successful career with a great multi-national, life science company to learn and grow in the high growth (and high risk) mid-stage and early-stage life science marketplace. Over the last decade, I led a few companies to successful exits and also experienced a few very painful failures.

Here is a brief summary of the last few weeks of Looking Back:

Part #1: Guiding Principles. For large and small companies, it is critically important that we build a business based on a set of principles or values to guide individuals and teams in how we should treat each other, our customers, and fulfill our responsibility to the marketplace and the communities we impact.

Part #2: Risk Taking and the Value of Failure: Taking risks and learning from failures are key attributes of entrepreneurial organizations in the early and mid-stage of development (“you succeed when you fail”). Most large organizations have become too protective of the current business to fully embrace taking prudent risks and the value of trying and failing. However, we learn and grow a tremendous amount when we take the risk to change. In addition, we learn and grow from the pain of failure.  We do our most thoughtful and thorough reflections and detailed action plans based on learnings when we take risks venturing into the unknown and when we fail.

Part #3: Teamwork: There is no “one-man band” in the world of large corporations or small start-ups.  No leader is building a great business on an island. It is well functioning teams that succeed in the complex world of business. The formal hierarchy, structure, silo functions, etc. of large companies often create barriers to effective teamwork. In the world of entrepreneurship, people leave titles, history, and egos at the door and focus on the work to get done. A sense of urgency for the task at hand tends to harness teamwork and remove traditional corporate barriers to effective teamwork.   

Another key learning from this leadership journey from a large, multi-national company to early stage entrepreneurial ventures has been the important power of inspiration.

There is nothing more inspiring than making a human to human connection through solving some difficult problem.

Entrepreneurs in small companies have a hands-on, human closeness to their mission, the customer, and the impact. The result is people are more inspired to give it all to accomplish the mission and work consistently with the principles that guide the team. There is no greater feeling of value than sitting directly with a customer and solving a problem, fixing a mistake, or seeing your product or service “wow” them with an experience that far exceeds expectations.

Large companies tend to create distance from the customer through process and bureaucracy whereby employees become part of the machine’s process and lose the inspiration gained by solving customer problems. In addition, that distance inhibits great companies from seeing the next great opportunity to create a product or service that meets the evolving needs of customers. 

Most businesses begin with seeing a real quantifiable need in the market and building a solution to meet that need. There is amazing inspiration that can be drawn from creating a product or service to meet the needs of others.  

There is no greater source of inspiration that sitting face to face with a buyer of the product or service and having a real human to human connection about solving a problem. This is what entrepreneurial-minded companies do best and what creates the energy to work day and night and bet the proverbial “farm” on the chance to build a business to meet a real need.

Not too long ago, I led a company in developing blood-based diagnostics to improve the early detection of cancer. When I would sit face to face with a patient and a clinician with the results of our test or become part of a very difficult decision for a patient, it provided the fuel to keep pushing to achieve our mission despite the enormous difficulties and worries of raising more money to meet payroll, pay the bills, and fund growth. The problems we were solving became very real to all of us in the company and feeling those needs directly gave us the renewable energy source to put everything on the line to solve these direct, real needs of clinicians, patients, and concerned family members.

In another company that I had the privilege to lead, when a customer would call with an issue, the response was not, “Let me check on it with the group and see what I can do.” The response was, “I can get on an airplane today and be there to work on this directly, would that work for you?” 

At some point in the life cycle of large corporations, leaders become quite distant from the customer, the end users of products, and the evolving marketplace. Customer complaints, voices of concern around new issues facing the marketplace are viewed, not in word, but in the actions of company leadership as being a “pain in the ass” that does not fit the well-oiled, six-sigma process of a “lean” organization. This attitude eventually becomes pervasive and is the beginning of the end of a great company that has allowed itself to become internally focused and eventually blind-sided when customers do not return, and the market shifts dramatically.

As Ernest Hemingway reminded us in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, when a character asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That timeline can be seen in the history of many once great companies.

The lack of inspiration to solve real problems in the marketplace is the beginning of the journey to destruction for large companies. When protecting and optimizing the current state of a steady business becomes the priority and it becomes a headache instead of inspiring to solve customer problems, the company as we know it is done. When listening and responding to customers gets shoved into the bureaucracy of internal meetings, extending approvals to time consuming internal assessments by some “customer experience” committee, etc., it is time for drastic change in leadership of a once great company. The history books would show that if it has gone that far, even new leadership will not be able to turn things around.

Ironically, this well-documented business cycle from inspiration to apathy in large companies is what eventually creates opportunity for a small start-up to come in and grab the business opportunity from the once great company that failed to feel inspired by solving problems in the marketplace.

For today’s senior executives and top talent, remaining engaged and inspired by solving customer problems and being entrepreneurial-minded to see new business opportunities are some helpful deterrents to avoid becoming a once great company that has lost its way.

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

Businesswoman and dollar sign balancing on seesaw over pie chart

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