The purpose of every business is to solve a problem, fill a need, and make money. Now, here is a scary, but important, question: will the solution your business is providing still be relevant tomorrow? (Or the next day, or the next year) Most likely, you aren’t certain. You can’t be. This is why the best leaders are bold, brave and flexible. Bold because they and their followers have a unique vision that they believe in. Brave because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 50 percent of new companies fail within the first five years. And flexible because rigid leaders are averse to change: a death sentence for any organization.
So, what can we learn from the leaders and organizations in the less than 25 percent that have lasted at least 15 years?
Clarify and crystallize your purpose or mission. Be clear on the purpose of why you are in business, why you do what you do, and who you are as a leader/organization. Why does your organization exist? Your goals may change, even your vision may change, but the mission or purpose of why you exist seldom changes. A great question I love to ask clients is, “Could your purpose or mission last the next 100 years?” Our vision as a consulting firm is, “To help leaders create an environment or organization where employees love to come to work and customers love to do business.” That could last 100 years. I am confident that over the next 100 years, the way in which we conduct our work and the goals we set will radically change, but I am uncertain how. It is exciting to know that regardless of the world changing, we will still have the opportunity to fulfill our purpose and mission.
Some of the great purpose statements of organizations that have withstood the test of time are:
- Merck: To save and improve lives
- 3M: To solve unsolved problems
- Walt Disney: To entertain
Articulate your vision. Once you have your purpose or mission crystallized, it is important to articulate your vision. Think of your vision as the top of a jig saw puzzle box. You always know exactly what you are building because you have the picture on top of the puzzle box to look at.
Bill Hewlett and David Packard put together a vision and core ideology as the foundation that guided almost every decision of HP. The foundation of their ideology and vision were: a deep respect for the individual, a dedication to affordable reliability and quality, a commitment to the community they worked in, and the vision that the company existed to make technical contributions for the advancement and welfare of humanity.
It is important to note that although vision and goals may be achieved and new ones need to be created, very seldom does the core purpose of your organization or who you are as a leader need to change. Your purpose should stand the test of time.
Set goals and take action. Once your mission and vision are clear, you will need to set goals to turn them into a reality. As Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, put it, “Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.” The most successful way to motivate employees is to create challenging goals. No employee has ever walked away juiced when their boss came to them and said, “We set mediocre goals this year and I just wanted to let you know that you hit them.” Most people feel the best when they question whether they will even be able to achieve the goal, but deep down, realize that through dedication, hard work, and the willingness to remain focused, the goal is obtainable.
Develop options. In uncertain times, you need options of what you will do if you do not achieve your goals due to environment changes or your strategy just not working. Leo Buscaglia, the late professor of Education at the University of Southern California said it best, “The people with the greatest number of viable alternatives are the most successful in life.” The same is true for organizations.
Outlearn your competition. J. Paul Getty said, “In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.” When times are uncertain, some people and organizations are better at analyzing the environment or data, and then making correct decisions based on what they have learned from their analysis. Other leaders look at the environment or data, and then try to document that what they are seeing and feeling is forgery. Bob Dylan said it best, “”You better start swimming or sink like a stone, cause the times they are a-changing.” The more you can correctly interpret your environment, and quickly make necessary course corrections, the stronger the chances that you are going to successfully deal with uncertainty.
Hire people who think differently. Most supervisors and managers conduct interviews for new potential employees, then hire the person who is most closely aligned to their way of thinking and who they think will best fit in with the department or organization’s culture. That is a mistake. In times of uncertainty, you will benefit from hiring people who see and think differently than you do. Over time, a diverse team that can figure out how to work with each other and play off each strengths, will outperform a team who all think alike.
Slow down to go fast. Anytime you make a change in direction, it will take you more time than continuing the way you have always done things in the past. Leaders need the confidence to ride the “J” curve. Your current performance is at the tip of “j”. As you change your way of doing things, your performance will actually decrease to the bottom of the curve. It is only by sticking to your new strategy will you be able to rise up the stem of the “j”, much higher than where you originally started at the tip of the “j.”
Strategically plan. Peter Drucker stated, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Make a plan of all the changes you will incorporate this year to help you and your organization align to an uncertain future. Many managers and organizations strategically plan by adding or subtracting a few percent from their goals and budgets. That is not a good way to deal with an uncertain future.
To be successful in uncertain times, you need to have your life-long purpose crystallized, your vision clarified, and challenging goals set. Once you have the strategic planning mechanics in place, you will need your leaders to develop options, outlearn their competition, hire people who think differently, be willing to ride the “j” curve by slowing down to go fast, and put together the right strategic plan of what you will do differently to align to an uncertain future.