If you quick­ly review “Extinc­tion Is For­ev­er” [link], a blog I wrote last April, you’ll under­stand why I think “renew­al” should be on your mind these days. In that post, I report­ed on a sur­vey done by the PwC con­sul­tan­cy (@PwC_LLC), which “con­duct­ed 1,330 inter­views with CEOs in 68 coun­tries” about a year ago. The results weren’t pret­ty. The CEOs were gloomy about growth prospects, were fret­ful of unex­pect­ed bad things hap­pen­ing and did­n’t think their organ­i­sa­tion could han­dle bad times very well if they came.

About a third were opti­mistic that “new prod­uct or ser­vice devel­op­ment” and/or “organ­ic growth in exist­ing domes­tic market[s]” could help their com­pa­nies’ prospects — espe­cial­ly if their com­pa­nies embraced a strong cus­tomer focus and act­ed so that they could be seen as social­ly trust­wor­thy.

leader crossroadsThat report by PwC has sim­mered in my head for a num­ber of months, and I think that per­haps the first and best thing that CEOs could do to help their firms find their next is to engage in some hearty self-renew­al. In oth­er words — those of Nobel prizewin­ner Bur­ton Richter [link] to be exact — I believe what’s true about sci­ence should be true about any organ­i­sa­tion: “Mod­ern sci­ence is fast-mov­ing, and no lab­o­ra­to­ry can exist for long with a pro­gram based on old facil­i­ties. Inno­va­tion and renew­al are required to keep a lab­o­ra­to­ry on the fron­tiers of sci­ence.” And while he may have been talk­ing about phys­i­cal facil­i­ties, is there any more impor­tant facil­i­ty than the per­son lead­ing the enter­prise?

So, Mis­ter of Madam Leader, what could you do today to begin renew­ing your­self as a leader? You’ll find many lengthy trea­tis­es online about this sub­ject, but my own advice is to start this way.

Stop. Look. Lis­ten.

The prob­lem I see with many lead­ers is that they have filled their days, nights and week­ends with so much “work” that there’s real­ly no time to think. Many a chief whom I’ve encoun­tered takes pride in the length (up at 4AM; to bed at mid­night — that kind of thing) and pace of their days. Some instruct their top assis­tant to cycle as many peo­ple through their office as pos­si­ble. These lead­ers seem to rel­ish their “buck stops here” syn­drome so much that they encour­age every­one to bring to them any and every issue.

The Cana­di­an hock­ey great Steve Yzer­man [link] once said, “When you’re on the ice, you have very lit­tle time, you see very lit­tle, and every­thing hap­pens real­ly quick.” I see a lot of lead­ers who make sure they are always on the ice.

The solu­tion? Start free­ing up seri­ous blocks of time to start look­ing at your enter­prise from new angles of view. Go out and talk to employ­ees and, bet­ter, observe the ebb and flow of the busi­ness as if you were a novice reporter try­ing to answer the most basic ques­tions. What does this busi­ness do? How does the work get done? How does the com­pa­ny make mon­ey? How is the busi­ness oper­at­ing dif­fer­ent­ly from the way it oper­at­ed 1, 3, 5 10 years ago? What do peo­ple think the busi­ness will be doing next month, next year?

In oth­er words, realise that you may be the leader but you may not real­ly be lead­ing your firm because you have got­ten out of touch with both the way the com­pa­ny works and the peo­ple who make it work.

Do that exer­cise for five accrued days (per­haps only a few hours or a half day at a time), and I defy you not to have a new view of what you could be doing dif­fer­ent­ly in order to be more effec­tive as a leader. Make that new view your devel­op­ment agen­da, which any qual­i­ty coach or coun­sel­lor can con­vert into a per­son­al devel­op­ment plan. And once you have that plan, act on it.

View your busi­ness from 40,000 feet.

I am not telling you to go fly on yet anoth­er plane. What I find is that too many lead­ers lack a vision of their indus­try that is root­ed in any­thing more than gut instinct. If you go beyond the walls of your own firm, you’ll find that what­ev­er busi­ness you are in more than like­ly has some avant garde inven­tors or nascent com­peti­tors whom you should get to know via their arti­cles, blogs, books, videos, pod­casts — if not via a per­son­al vis­it. Get out­side your indus­try and find out what oth­ers think about it (and, bet­ter, what peo­ple dream about it).

How? I would begin by ask­ing ques­tions that you have nev­er asked before and which you might just be afraid to find the answer for. Like what? Sup­pose you are the CEO of a com­pa­ny that mass pro­duces appar­el. “What will peo­ple be wear­ing in a cou­ple of years?” is a stan­dard ques­tion inside that indus­try. But ask­ing how cus­tomers might be buy­ing those clothes dif­fer­ent­ly in a cou­ple of years — how clothes might be cus­tom-cut and shipped based on each cus­tomer’s body pro­file — how clothes may be updat­ed for cus­tomers much like soft­ware is updat­ed now: these are ques­tions that I would bet are alien to many in the clot­ing indus­try.

More than like­ly such ideas are being bandied about in a think tank or in a TED talk [link] or in a yearn­ing expressed in some frus­trat­ed cus­tomer’s blog. Step away from the papers and tasks on your desk and “fly high” by seek­ing out the peo­ple who are play­ing with the answers to the provoca­tive ques­tions you have posed.

Can’t think of any ques­tions? Well, let me give you one idea that beats giv­ing up: find out who’s writ­ing sci-fi books these days and hire that per­son to draft ten ques­tions he or she thinks you should be ask­ing if you want to be more future-savvy about your indus­try. Then, search for those who are talk­ing about the answers to those ques­tions.

When you start play­ing with fan­ci­ful answers to imag­i­na­tive ques­tions, you will quick­ly start to see your com­pa­ny and your indus­try with (at least) a 40,000-foot view. Who knows how that might change you, shape you, renew you.

Get hon­est feed­back from peers you don’t know.

It’s not hard to find insti­tutes or con­sul­tan­cies that will pull togeth­er peo­ple of the same lev­el (that is, groups of man­agers, VPs, CEOs) who are strangers to one anoth­er and put them through exer­cis­es designed to gen­er­ate feed­back. This is what lead­ers sel­dom receive.

So many peo­ple inside a lead­er’s firm are hes­i­tant, if not down­right afraid, to say any­thing that might ruf­fle the chief’s feath­ers. So they don’t. The val­ue of being in a struc­tured exer­cise or dia­logue with oth­er peer lead­ers — peo­ple whom you have not talked to before and whom you will prob­a­bly not talk with again (unless, of course, you want to) — is that you might actu­al­ly hear some­one say­ing that you seem to be con­fused about what you think, dif­fi­cult to under­stand, too impe­ri­ous or too impetu­ous in response to oth­er’s sug­ges­tions, or some oth­er hard truth that evolves from a peer watch­ing and work­ing with you, albeit in an impro­vised, aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise.

Now, such feed­back could be eas­i­ly dis­count­ed. “They don’t real­ly know me,” many a leaad­er has been known to say after such an ecounter. “So, what my peers said to me does­n’t real­ly mat­ter.” But I would urge every leader who takes this sug­ges­tion to try to find at least one per­son­al behav­iour that could and should be worked on based on such feed­back. Maybe some­one claims that you need to work on a com­mu­ni­ca­tion skill (like lis­ten­ing) or a pre­sen­ta­tion skill (like suc­cinct­ly organ­is­ing your thoughts). Maybe some­one claims that you seem insin­cere or come across as inau­then­tic. What­ev­er the crit­i­cism, if you accept the wor­thi­ness of it, you can find at least one area of your­self that needs improv­ing. Such improve­ment inevitably leads to renew­al of at least one tool in your lead­er­ship tool­box. And, who knows, it might be that one tool that ulti­mate­ly moti­vates the peo­ple in your firm to start think­ing seri­ous­ly about their col­lec­tive future in new ways.

Add all this up, and you’ll find some echo here of Shake­speare. “It is not in the stars to hold our des­tiny but in our­selves.”

Renew your­self, leader, and you will also be on the road to renew­ing your des­tiny.

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