Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can You Reshape the Industry?

I was recently reading Bill George’s 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.   What better description of how to handle the situation when you planned your strategy upstream but instead found your company swallowed up by a dangerous current? 

And yet, what worse advice than gems like: "Reshape the industry to play to your strengths"?

How many companies can do that?   The Fortune 10 or 20?   I might aspire to that level of power, but actually I’m thankful if I don’t max out my line of credit and can make payroll in the midst of a crisis.  
For me, Mark Twain’s sentiment about the Mississippi comes to mind:
The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise...”
Which leaves…reshaping yourself, your product offerings, or your company.

That isn’t easy, and requires self-awareness, as well as an occasional outside view because it’s so easy to hold onto an outmoded view of ourselves and our companies after years of incremental changes.   

Like the time I went to the store and tried on the 34” pants.  They didn’t fit, so I tried another pair, which also failed to button up.   Exasperated that they would put the pants in the wrong place, I brusquely asked where the 34” pants were.   After glancing at me, the clothier simply said – “Well, I'm sorry to say I know once place they're not going to be and that's on you.  The size you need is over there.   What style are you looking for?”   Humph, I thought, stomping off.   Yet he proved right and I sadly realized I had lost perspective about myself.

The same can happen with our teams and our product offerings - just like we're seeing with today's cruise ships:

Where you started
Are you here now?

You added the mall, the bowling alley, and a few thousand extra passengers because each feature made you more money.   But now it takes 5 hours for all of the passengers to get off and in the case of crisis, your options are very limited and you can be trapped.  Who wants their business to become the Carnival Triumph?

The bloating can happen in numerous places.   You expand and evolve because it makes sense at the time.    But has it cost you nimbleness and the ability to make it through unexpected rough waters relatively well or even profitably?

Having fun with smaller, more nimble teams

One Chief Executive I know recently went through the process of going from a large ship to a smaller one, letting several people go because he was frustrated with breaking even and not breaking through.   It’s an unpleasant and difficult process –  even if we know some people aren’t a fit for the company or aren't top performers.   Worse, if we’re close to them, it’s like chopping off a finger or arm.  However, if done well, the gains can be worth it.   He notes that as difficult as that was, the company is selling and delivering even better than it was before*.  

A CEO peer advisory board provides an opportunity for the type of outside input that helps you see if your company has added a few too many things, has become too complicated, or points where you can be more lean.   In fact, there could potentially be a special meeting for each member to share and give feedback about this.

Peer advisory boards also provide one of the best places for the most difficult feedback of all – objective feedback about yourself.   

Self-awareness is brought up more and more frequently as a critical skill and trait of high-performing executives.   This is because a leader's feedback loops become skewed – it’s hard to get negative news about sales or service, let alone honest feedback about oneself.   A leader frequently gets patted on the back as negative feedback is filtered out.  New studies** show that those in positions of power have less empathy and ability to objectively read situations.  

Strong self-awareness takes
more than a mountain top retreat.
Insight isn’t something one gains from mountain top visits with the Dali Lama.   It’s not a one time lightning bolt.   Though those may help.

It comes from the critical skill of learning to look at yourself objectively – without creating self-doubt.   It takes practice, repetition, and support.  It's why software teams do retrospectives on a regular basis.  It's important to consult your team and peers as well as creating alone time for reflection.

Peer advisory board meetings can provide an excellent trigger for that inward look to evaluate what you did well, where you can improve, and to better understand the person you are.   And the outward gains have been worth it for me.

So if you find yourself like me, unable to reshape your industry,  consider how and when to gain perspective on and awareness about your teams, products, company - and yourself  - so you can reshape what is in your control and get the most out of the risks you take and work you put in every day.

* There are fascinating organizational design advancements coming out of the leading software companies today - they build around teams of 3 people.   That's a great future blog.

** Those studies are highlighted in Daniel Pink’s new book To Sell is Human.

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