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.
That 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.