A leader’s manifesto:
Business leaders love to talk about themselves as all-knowing. It’s macho, rewarded and even expected that when you reach a certain level of leadership in business you must have the tools and knowledge to navigate all the challenges that come your way. I have come to learn that this is just fallacious ego talk. Nobody was born a business leader. We all learn the skills and acquire the competencies and attributes required to succeed at a certain level in business. We all LEARN.
Confession: the past two years have been particularly difficult for me. I have had to pivot my business three times. I have entered new partnerships, tested them, tested market assumptions & exited the relationships and markets that don’t deliver value or are not aligned to personal values. I have had to hire, fire and hire talent more suitable for the destination in which direction I am taking business, not the place from which we come. I have been investing a substantial portion of my personal wealth in the future growth of my business. It’s a big bet.
The literature written about the visionary CEO or leader that took the risks in the face of overwhelming opposition & evidence that they would fail makes for gripping reading, however (and take it from me) living the reality of it is a vivid, testing, messy and scary thing.
Finding the end of the earth
There was a time in history — considering the context of human existence on earth — no so long ago when man was in his conventional wisdom believed that the world was flat and that if you dared sail the horizon of the oceans you would fall off the edge of the earth into the abyss that is eternal nothingness.
Changing direction in your business, pursuing a new strategy, testing new markets, growing your product mix or simply starting with a new thesis of the business and then testing it, is just as scary as pre-historic man daring to sail the oceans to prove that the end of the earth was the beginning of the earth. We all now know and accept that the earth is round.
So, to grow your business and develop yourself beyond your competence requires of yourself a willingness to test your knowledge, unlearn old knowledge, relinquish deeply held beliefs, embrace new thinking and, here is the terrifying bit, repeat this cycle perpetually to stay ahead of the curve of change.
For business leaders, the end of the earth are markets we KNOW exist, clients, we KNOW buy what we sell and the traditional competitors against whom we KNOW how to compete. Our KNOW-ledge (things we know to be completely true) is what impedes us for the quest of perpetual knowledge acquisition. The conventional wisdom is conventional because it is universally accepted. That is what makes it dangerous. The comfort of knowing that what we know is accepted by everyone.
Navigating blue oceans
Perhaps the hardest thing about navigating blue oceans is that there simply is no certainty. Neither you, your skills or intellect are certain about your fortunes. What you know for sure that the way things were is no longer how things are: What is certain is that remaining still — whilst an attractive proposition at the face of it — is too dangerous. The possibility of being left behind by evolving markets, disruptive newcomers and demanding customers is all too real.
Perhaps my most important class session over the past two years has been moving from manager to leader. Migrating from Managing Director (involved in the daily operational decisions of the various functions of the firm) to CEO (setting the strategy, hiring a competent skilled team of professionals & keeping the firm enthused about the prospects of the future). I still find myself meddling in the tasks and functions that the various MDs are driving. My justification, of course, is that I have been the MD of the business through its organic growth into new markets, new opportunities and new territories for a decade so it is difficult to unlearn this. Even then, I must.
Why is it so hard to make the shift?
Why is it so hard to allow yourself the room to develop and grow?
Why is there such pressure by society to be the perfect business leader ALL THE TIME?
1. The Fallacy of the “Perfect Decision”
Much of the literature written about leaders that have built great businesses and delivered superior shareholder returns tends to build the business leader as some sort of cloud-bearing halo-wielding messiah. The storyline usually narrates a story of a courageous and visionary leader who saw things that others didn’t, pursued them and achieved them. Words such as guru, genius or (the one most en-vogue in contemporary business literature) maverick are adjectives dispatched to describe the person.
The story usually tells of series of events that follow a smooth straight line.
And that’s the lie. You live in the day to day mirage of constantly evaluating and re-evaluating whether you’ve made the right call. You are constantly questioning yourself. Sleep becomes an expensive commodity that your wallet, skimmed dry by restlessness and uncertainty, can little afford. At a financial level, you are under pressure to be prudent with your runway, to maximise the resource of currency. But worst of these, you are constantly scrutinised by the hardest force to ignore: your own shadow. Fighting a battle between the man you are, the man they believe you to be and the man you are fighting to become.
I have come to accept that there is no such thing as the perfect decision. Only a decision made perfect.
The truth is that leaders make more poor decision that they do good ones, however, the quantum of the gains from the good decision is an order of magnitude the quantum of losses from the poorer decisions. So, I am learning to forgive myself. I am learning that it doesn’t have to be perfect only good enough. I am learning that “perfect is the enemy of good enough”.
2. The fallacy of “Perfect Time”
This is by far the trickiest consideration in the life of a growing business leader: When should you do something? The answer is almost always “yesterday”. When the market is growing and the business is growing you tend to want things done perfectly, YESTERDAY.
However, you soon come to realise that few things are as demotivating to your people as unrealistic expectation dogmatically applied through a system of performance management and peer-pressure. If you’re anything like me, you manage the detail and performance management is a routine occurrence. You drive your people hard on the matrix that they must deliver on and then expect that they are nimble and agile to learn the best ways to do those things daily. You want that the strategy is implemented by the end of the strategy meeting. You want that the product is launched by the end of the meeting about the product launch. You want the debtors to be reduced and your working capital cycle within your parameters before the end of the meeting with your finance team.
You want it all. You want it perfect. You want it yesterday.
I have come learn that just as I am having to learn to work anew so too are my people. Expecting that they are going to drive the perfect P&L is fallacious and frankly, de-motivating.
Learning is a not a weakness. It is the single most important asset that any business leader can have today. What makes you a great business leader is not having all the answers; it is knowing which questions to ask and how to lead the process of discovery that may eventually lead to answers. And then embracing the ambiguity and duality of leadership, that they may be more than one answer to the question.
The literature of business leaders of the modern day needs to tend toward the truth of our lived experiences.
The truth is that:
a. none of us knows with certainty that it will work;
b. testing is the only way to know what doesn’t work;
c. failure is part of the process of success just as pain is part of the process of revelation;
d. learning is more powerful that knowing.