Two Corners

Curves Sign CroppedI had a colleague who was known for saying, “Leaders have to be able to see around two corners.” He was right, of course. Leaders are expected to anticipate what is coming around the bend and, more importantly, to have prepared their organizations for whatever they might encounter. Easier said than done, especially given that there are so many obstacles in front of you right now that can distract attention away from some unseen future risk or opportunity. But hey, if this leadership gig was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?!?

A starting point in developing the vision to see around two corners is to honestly look at how future-focused you are as a leader — not how future-focused you aspire to be, but what your actions actually indicate. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, in their book “Getting Off the Treadmill: Competing for the Future” offer a rating scale to gauge your organization’s future focus. Think of each of these questions as a five-point continuum, and consider where you would rate your organization.

  • When considering the future, is your organization conventional and reactive or distinctive and far sighted?
  • Where do your senior leaders focus more of their attention, on reengineering core processes or regenerating core strategies?
  • Is your organization seen as a “rule taker” or a “rule maker”?
  • Are you better at improving operational efficiency or at developing new businesses?
  • How much of your effort focused on catching up with others versus building new advantages/opportunities?
  • Is your “transformation agenda” set by others or is it set by your organization’s own unique vision of the future?
  • Are you more of a maintenance engineer working on the present or an architect designing the future?
  • Within your organization, what is there a greater sense of anxiety or hope?

I’m not suggesting that no one in your organization should be focusing on the first item on each bullet above. But as a leader, if that is where you are spending the majority of your time you, and your organization, are likely to be caught off guard by whatever is lurking around the next corner, much less the second one.

The urgency of the here and now is always going to scream louder than the importance of the future. Also, there is a concreteness to tackling today’s problems. Considering the future is less definitive and may feel less productive, especially if you are a list-checker. All true. Yet, none of these things help you prepare for the future, and preparing for the future is your job as the leader. If you skew toward the here and now, how do you become more future focused? Pick one or two of the bullets above and identify specific steps you can take to move the dial toward the future. That may get you around the first corner. Pick a couple more. Push yourself. You never know what opportunity might be waiting . . . around the second corner.

The Time to Buy an Umbrella . . .

. . . is before it rains.

Sure, it’s easy to put off investing in rain gear when the skies are blue, and there are so many sunny day things vying for your attention. As a leader, however, it is your job to prepare your organization, and those you lead, for every kind of weather. In the Midwest, we appreciate great weather precisely because we know it could change at a moment’s notice. Is that really so different from the current business environment?

The state I live in is six days away from a new fiscal year with no state budget in sight. That means anyone who has a contract with the state is less than a week away from not being paid. The skies are looking pretty threatening right about now, especially for those who don’t have an organizational umbrella (in the form of cash flow/reserve funds/line of credit/etc.). Sure, the rain will eventually stop — presumably at some point we will have a state budget — but there will likely be organizations who are not able to weather the storm, or whose umbrella isn’t big enough to keep them from being soaked.

Or what about the “storm” you may be faced with when a key staff member leaves the organization . . . do you have an umbrella of organizational bench strength to see you through until a replacement can be found, or a current staff member is prepared to step into the role? It’s easy to put off staff development when your lead supervisors aren’t yet approaching retirement age, and appear to be happy in their roles. After all, you have so much on your plate right now and helping employees gain leadership skills takes a lot of time and effort. You’ll have plenty of time to pick up that umbrella before you need it . . . right?!?

Granted, it may not be realistic to have an umbrella specifically designed for every type of storm, but as the leader you should have a pretty good idea of a) which storms are most likely to hit in your area, and b) what storms would have the most damaging impact on your organization. Get an umbrella for those.

Lastly, and I know this is not what you want to hear if you’re looking at storm clouds moving your way, you can’t just run down to the corner market to pick up an organizational umbrella at the last minute. (I once received a call from an executive asking for suggestions on how to diversify their funding right now . . . um, sorry, it doesn’t work that way.) Part of a leader’s responsibility is to consider the most critical “what ifs” and plan accordingly.

Once you have a few organizational umbrellas at the ready, those storm clouds aren’t quite so threatening. Sure they’re still there, but with the right rain gear you can press through the storm to the rainbow on the other side.

How’s your supply of umbrellas?