Leadership Success: Making a Difference “Beyond the Numbers”
By J. Allen | Published September 12, 2017 | Download Poster
Are You Really an Executive Leader?
Are You in Pursuit of an Enthusiastic Organization?
C.S. Lewis, an English philosopher and long-time professor at Cambridge University described a perspective on the connection between aspiration and reality. He suggested two fanciful stories to help explain how these two different concepts really work together. One was about the Beauty and the Beast, where the girl married a monster, kissed it as if it were a man and it really turned into a man. The other was about a man who looked so hideous that he needed to wear a mask, making him look much better. He wore it for years, and upon removing the mask, he found his face had grown to fit it and he was now quite handsome.
Let’s take imaginary into the real world, keeping these word-pictures as a setting for our Executive Leadership exploration.
Something is Obviously Different
Maybe you are starting to see that this is not just another Leadership Article! Once you’ve finished reading this, I hope you’ll agree. Our last article “The Burden of Regret is Greater Than the Risk of Leading,” was about the idea that no matter where you “sit” in an organization, you have an opportunity to show up as a leader – you just have to notice the opportunity and do it! Instead, this article is for those brave souls who have officially signed up, or intend to be on a leadership team. You are at the top of your organization, and you worked hard to get there. And, if you’ve been in this role longer than a few months – you know by now that the characteristics and talents that got you this far may not be sufficient now. Those skills that differentiated you, separated you from the pack of internal competition, need to be updated to transform you into the best leader you can be.
And it’s not what you think. I’m assuming you know how to work hard, build relationships, have a solid knowledge of the company’s product, processes and technology – and have insight into customer needs in ways that compete and gain market share. These are table stakes for leadership. They are the “entry fee” for hanging out in the leadership club. But they won’t help you stay relevant in your leadership role. In fact, the things that will differentiate you now will likely take you back to some of the first things you learned at the beginning of your career.
Do you remember the first thoughts you had as a newly on-boarded business person? You may have muttered “I sure hope the guys at the top are smart, because this doesn’t seem to make any sense to me!” Or “Wow – that great new product – I wonder how they figured that out!” Your brain was filling up with new culture, new requirements and adjustments to what “success” looked like every day. Or, as a freshly-minted MBA student, you were eager to show everyone things no one else could possibly know. In either extreme case, you were ready to make a difference, stand out and get recognized.
And now it feels like the rules are different. You’ve been at this more than a few years, perhaps decades, and those experiences are in a long-forgotten past. Happy memories of simpler times…. Or are they? Haven’t your personal growth experiences served you and your company well? Hasn’t your definition of Common Sense become both simpler and broader? Since when did making a difference in the world stop mattering? Since when did introducing a breakthrough product into the market become old-fashioned?
You and I both know that these things didn’t stop being relevant, we just distanced ourselves from the concept because of other demands pulling us away. First managing a team, then more exposure to senior leaders. Next working with senior leaders, and learning how they achieved success. Focusing on the numbers and the results. Sales, cost to produce, customer satisfaction scores, to start with, then more complexity – stock price becoming a monitoring point when your incentive started to include stock options. It’s a predictable path – I’ve seen repeated time and time again. Stock Price, PE Ratios, Earnings per share, and investor confidence are all extremely important. Are they mostly what you concentrate on today – your primary metrics of success? If you quickly say: “Maybe” or “Yes” – it is time to re-examine whether you are truly leading.
Think about what motivated you before you received an executive bonus or possibly owned a single share of stock – what made you get to the office early, stay late and engage beyond what you ever thought possible? What was that past you thinking, that led to your current you, and will make the difference for the future you?
Kiss the Beast, Put On the Mask
Making a difference for the future you – recapturing the Common-Sense business basics that were so intriguing, so exciting, so compelling – to instill in others that same desire to make unique, competitive things happen. What if it is not so natural anymore? What if this makes sense, but you can’t remember how to get started. What if beginning to MBWA, for example (managing by wandering around, by Tom Peters), seems like a waste of your important time – or, even more revealing, is a little scary (where would I go, what would I say, what if I look out of touch or stupid?). Remember the fanciful stories? This is where aspiration to become a worthy and better leader needs to overcome reality. This is where you need to re-earn the “stripes” of an Executive Leader to be increasingly relevant to your organization! You need to “Kiss the Beast” or “Put on the Mask,” but remember, the motivation must be pure, no faking it. Back to C.S Lewis for a moment. He further states: “Very often the only way to get a quality ‘personal’ result is to start behaving as if you had it already.”
To make this leadership shift more feasible and attractive, recall how you dealt with uncomfortable change from time to time. Remember when you decided to be brave and not show your fears – whether it was an athletic event, a concert, a speech or taking on the next big responsibility? When you “sucked it up,” and did it, becoming more courageous? When you helped others and became more caring as a result? This was where your aspirations became reality. I have observed many leaders experience the same result – consciously deciding to change the way they are leading to benefit those being led, their organization’s success and their own personal fulfillment. And leading better and better, they became more comfortable with the changes. It is a little like getting back on the bike – our “basic business muscle memory” returns quickly. Once again, you find the excitement in connecting with customers, with those who directly connect with customers, with suppliers and other constituents. You also discover that your efforts are appreciated by others. One of my favorite quotes from a client executive is: “It is amazing how much I learned last month about our business. In lieu of months of meetings and reports, I got the real flavor of what is really going on in our business.”
But How Will I Find the Time?
Jack Welch ran General Electric while formally teaching new executives, visiting customers, suppliers, plants, holding people accountable – and maintaining a golf handicap of 6. I have been fortunate to personally interact with Jack twice in my career. I found him to be an attentive listener with a memory of our conversation which enabled him to make some pointed, encouraging comments in our second connection. My conclusion from much more intimate discussions with hundreds of leaders is that time is not the issue. It is priorities, commitment and an understanding of how to cause more things to be accomplished with many turned-on participants. You don’t need be everywhere or be perfect. You don’t need to connect with everyone for the word to get around about your efforts. Your commitment to do as much as you can is what counts. Still concerned about the time? A reminder, you are always “on stage.” Leaders are responsible for their own reputations – either manage them or let the rumor mill do it for you. This is not self-promotion – it’s being human and doing what is right.
Here are some thoughts to help you to start doing, practicing, experimenting – because start you must if you intend to truly remain an Executive Leader:
Making A Real Difference for Your Customers and Your Team
The thrill of solving a problem for a customer is unlike any other feeling on an average workday! Before you dismiss the idea that you can still do this, because of your busy schedule and placement in the organization, I’m going to challenge you to think broader – bigger. Just because you can’t solve individual customer Jason Smith’s problem – you can commit to providing a solution for all customers like Jason. That’s the gift of power in an organization – you have the resources, position, and wherewithal to solve BIG problems in the marketplace. You can create a unique product to meet some customers’ needs – known or unknown! What’s stopping you from doing it?
You can change that trajectory – today, right now. Just find someone that has the same passion you did “back in the day” and invite them to lunch. Ask them how you can help make a difference for their customers. Repeat with others often. Open your mind, your heart and maybe even your cost center/budget to the idea that an idea floated at a single lunch like that could change a market. Take immediate action on those things that excite you – engage the suggesting team member in the process and watch your engagement numbers start to rise. Monitor the “making a difference” progress as closely as you monitor your company’s stock price. Some might call these “pet projects.” Frankly, I don’t care what you call them – if they are making a real difference in the marketplace – then you should spend time and resources on them.
For the Love of Pete – Actually Do What You Say You’re Going To Do!
What is it about leaders who talk a great game, but don’t follow through? The world seems to be full of them! A 1999 Fortune Magazine article entitled “Why do CEO’s Fail” caught my eye then and the lessons remain with me today. It’s remarkable how relevant the nearly 20-year-old writing is today. Lack of ability to execute on a strategy or a plan was the primary reason stated in the article then – and it’s still true today. When I speak with CEOs, CFOs CMOs and COOs – I can identify the “Competitive Difference Makers” [Doers] vs. the “What We Ought to Do” folks [Talkers], after just a few interactions. It’s clear that we still have an endemic corporate culture problem – too many promises are made and not enough are delivered.
And here’s the kicker – if you unknowingly recognize, or worse, promote a Talker over a Doer, the team around you will take note. They’ll now start to give you only the information you want to hear [and fewer new ideas], regardless of what they can actually deliver. Until you measure “Getting Stuff Done” as part of your performance system, you’ll be susceptible to implications of the Talker. Can you see the connection between making a difference and getting stuff done? We would all get more done if we thought we were making a difference!
A secret is Doers have purpose, meaning to their work, and they are motivated to get it done and see the results. I have witnessed “potential” leaders get enthusiastic about a difference-making idea and take action where no one else dared. And in those critical moments of their career, they step into their true leadership potential. It’s the magical convergence of talent, potential and passion – not an everyday occurrence, but gets repeated once experienced. Don’t miss it! Or let others miss it!
Don’t Be Swayed by Good Numbers
What do I mean by numbers? It’s the amalgamation of the Key Performance Indicators you see flashed on your executive dashboard. No matter how positive trending they are, or how they look like you are exceeding expectations, it’s dangerous to look only at the dashboard.
Think twice about the notion that revenues, net income, margins, cashflow, or even a high stock price has some transformative effect in the world. Is your business growing due to customer/market demand, value-add and competitive advantage or is it growing from pressure on the sales force, discounts and “deal packages?” Shouldn’t it also be more rewarding [and a more sustainable business model] to know that your products, your solutions are helping your customers live better, eat better, play better, feel better or do business better? Shouldn’t we find value in a more efficient service process because it serves the customer better – not just reducing cost? What motivates you, what drives you and what makes you get out of bed? If it’s the numbers, check yourself. Think long and hard about what’s going on behind those numbers, rather than the numbers themselves.
Last, But Not Least – Common Sense Leadership
The well-worn saying about “common sense not being so common” rings just as true in the boardroom as it does in the family room. Why is that? How did we forget how to assess a situation with a practical combination of intuition and knowledge? What “training” did we receive that deactivated this part of our brains? How did we lose track of the “pure fun” of helping others make a difference with customers?
One of my favorite leaders, president of a 7,500 person, leading-edge organization says it this way: “I got to this position by being the best problem solver, implementer and goal achiever. Now I must also concentrate on the future of the business and lead others to both focus on those same skills and give sharp attention to customer’s customers, markets, and competition.”
A New Way Forward
Earlier, I said something about the Future You – linking back to what motivated you at the beginning of your career. If you read this far, you might be interested in doing something different, in choosing a different path. You know what comes next! It’s time to take a look around and understand what you do every day that makes a difference. Why not make the best of the next few years – why not take the chance that the Future You could be a better leader, that the Future Company could be a better company? That your organization would attract and retain more difference-makers. And that your next generation of leaders would carry on these values – and the Future You gets translated into the competitive culture of your organization.
So, which is more risky, aggressive market attack or passionate financial focus? You are right, you must do both. You must walk and chew gum at the same time!
Now that you have thought this through, you are probably remembering many of those common-sense business fundamentals – and may not need to “Kiss the Beast” or “Wear the Mask.” But they are always there if you need them…
We Can Help
We help successful leaders and companies become even more successful. We can help bring these principles to life with your organization – we provide the tools and experience to help your team step up and take action. We’ve helped dozens of our clients implement this “new” way of thinking in their organizations.
Masters Alliance is a 30-year strategic management consulting firm that has helped more than 120 client organizations in over 20 industries in 13 countries gain a competitive advantage in their market. We help organizations develop and implement unique business approaches that work – faster than our clients ever thought possible.
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