I attended a roundtable discussion sponsored by Susan Howington, CEO of Power Connections, the other day. Susan holds these meetings with senior executives regularly and we discuss topics of interest. The topic we discussed revolved around whether a strong leader is not afraid to change his/her mind and under what circumstances they should be flexible in changing course. It appears that many leaders, in order to look strong, set a course of action, and don’t want to change for fear of looking weak and flighty.
There were several people in the discussion today including Peter DeAngelis (CEO, TechCoastAngels), Ron Davis (CEO and GM), John Theron (former CEO and current software consultant), Patrick Flynn (PE CEO and former aerospace exec) and Cindi Mullane (CEO and operations executive in the fashion industry.) This was an excellent complement of people.
The initial discussion centered on the need for clearly setting goals and objectives, continuity of strategy, becoming agile in one’s thinking, recognizing challenges and preparing your team to meet the uncertainty of these challenges, and keeping options open, e.g. predesigning flexibility into your decisions.
Many years ago, I coined the term StreetSavvy℠ as applied to many executive functions. When I worked for founding CEO of US Cellular Don Nelson, Don and I coined the phrase fast, fluid and flexible as we were trying to grow in the young but growing wireless market. I have used that concept over the past many years of my career. This was the start of thinking about the characteristics of what StreetSavvy Leadership is about. Additionally, I have also talked about fast failure in getting products to market. More recently I wrote a blog and did a talk on managing a business. The two words are Focus and PODFU (plan, organize, delegate and follow-up). After participating in this discussion group, I found myself seeing how all these components now come together in what I call the 5F Factors in StreetSavvy Leadership. These are the five factors I believe that can make leaders stronger and their companies grow.
1. Focus. Business executives are constantly bombarded with many different product opportunities, decisions, strategies and the like. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Therefore, the first characteristic for a StreetSavvy executive is to be laser focused. Don’t try to do more than two or three major initiatives at the same time. You have to have clear priorities because you need to have dedicated resources to be successful. As Sun Tzu said: concentrate your resources at the competitors’ weakness at the point of attack. This is the business correlate.
2. Fast Afoot. Fast doesn’t mean reckless. Most executives believe they have to make a decision and do it with speed. Then once a decision is made you execute relentlessly. This is basically true. As executives we need to have information and facts upon which to base decisions. Unfortunately, in business, information and facts are never complete and there is a point at which more facts give you limited additional utility in making a decision. Because an executive never has complete information, decisions are always uncertain and it is a matter of how likely the decision will be correct and how potentially damaging uncertainty becomes.
3. Fluid. Things change. Water conforms to the changing landscape to reach its destination. The destination or goal may still exist but there may be impediments along the way and obstacles to overcome. Fluidity means dealing with these changes, mostly tactically without changing the strategy or the end game. StreetSavvy Leaders continually scan the environment absorbing new facts and information. They figure out a way to maneuver through the changes that take place. Scanning the market through customer panels, tactics like mystery shopping or Undercover Boss, assigning people or teams to track a competitor – both direct and indirect – are critical to get new information and upon that new information to make informed decisions which might change the tactics of the strategy or to a lesser degree the strategy itself.
4.Flexible. Opportunity knocks and changes in tactics may occur. Tactics and strategies must be consistent with goals and objectives which are much longer term. Andy Grove, former Chairman and CEO of Intel wrote that only the paranoid survive. To me, paranoia in business is good in order not to be complacent. Executives have to look at opportunities as they arise and address them. Should an opportunity exist executives might need to change course. I recall working for one company which had negotiated a large contract with a supplier many years before. The technology shifted and over time that technology was neither as robust nor cost effective as a newer technology invented by an Israeli company. Our company chose to stay with the older technology and that was perhaps one reason why our company was not as successful as we could have been. It happens all the time. Culture has to be set to enable this flexibility as changes to a plan are not normally welcomed by the highest levels of leadership due to economic or political concerns.
5. Fast Failure. Making a decision is one thing. Staying with a decision that becomes a losing one can cause irreparable harm to a company with potentially serious side effects like going out of business or having to lay off people. As one of the participants stated: bad new does not get better with age. I recall when I was at one of the Baby Bells and we were trying to grow our business by focusing on new product development. Unfortunately, one of the products on which we spent significant resources was not going to be a winner. The right decision was to terminate the project yet the project lead who worked for me did not want the stigma of failure on his shoulders. The culture was to “punish” failure. In this specific case it was a slow failure. In retrospect, the life support on this project should have been pulled years before. In this case with a little prompting, the project lead terminated the project and I gave him a reward for making the right decision. The culture had to be established for fast failure. Just think of Google and how many projects they have in the works at any one time. Or even 3M. They know that some projects will fail and executives are ok with that. Similar to stock trading you have to let your winners run and cut your losers quickly. How many of you are willing to do that?
How does the StreetSavvy Leader manage to implement these 5 F Factors? The primary need is to communicate and have an open dialog with your team and others lower in the chain of command. It is critical for the leader to walk the talk and become Pattonesque in their leadership style. Be on the front lines with your troops. Be visible and be communicative. Ask questions and listen and know that your obligation to your company is to new and even divergent information so you have the best chance of building a successful company.
Glad to have other viewpoints.