As companies expand and grow, the skills that led to their success often won't sustain further development in a more complex, high-stakes environment. Yet few resources exist to help them. They frequently flounder in their attempts to create a competitive strategy, work with the board, and keep other talented executives, managers, and employees on board, all while endeavoring to navigate the turbulent waters of leadership. They need a roadmap to success.
Challenge the Ordinary will help managers and executives at all levels:
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Let a Winner Lead the Way
The lyrics from the song "Step to the Rear," in the 1967 Broadway production How Now, Dow Jones, announced that "here's where we separate the notes from the noise, the men from the boys, the rose from the poison ivy." In this rousing musical, the characters center their lives around the stock market and saving the U.S. economy. Sounds like a familiar theme resurfacing — reality imitating art? In the world of business, separating the critical from the unimportant, the real thing from the imposter, the business where average people want to work from the exceptional organization, is no less essential.
We suspected then, but know now, that ordinary just won't work anymore. Research indicates that only a handful of star performers create the vast majority of valuable ideas for their organizations. These top thinkers, who also deliver stellar results, define the talent you'll need to create your exceptional advantage, but they don't usually perform to their maximum capacity alone. They are not free agents; rather, these highly talented, extraordinary thinkers need the structure of an organization and effective leadership to do their best work.
Leaders who choose to lead a team of these top performers need to understand that these clever — often brilliant — individuals offer more, so they expect more in return. The major-league player wants to play with other stars, not benchwarmers. Similarly, organizational stars define themselves by their excellence, so they want to associate with an organization that does too. They hold high standards for themselves, so it makes sense that they will hold their places of employment to equally high standards. They want to work with other exceptional players in a culture that fosters their growth, formulates a clear strategy for their success, and then creates the day-to-day processes that allow them to achieve their personal goals and realize their need for accomplishment. In short, they want strong leaders who lead exceptional organizations — agile yet stable organizations that hold on to their core values while responding adeptly to the temporary nature of the global economy.
The Paradoxical Organization: Transient and Timeless
A paradox, from the Greek word meaning "contrary to expectation," is a statement that seems self-contradictory but may be true. It seems to conflict with common sense, but we believe it nonetheless. It contains two true statements that, in general, cannot both be true at the same time, yet it challenges us to explore the distinction between truth and plausibility. For example, if I say, "I'm a compulsive liar," do you believe me or not? Can someone be both a compulsive liar yet be telling the truth at the same time?
Throughout history, artists, poets, writers, and philosophers have used the paradox to reveal human nature — the conflicted and complicated inner world that separates us from other beasts. Oscar Wilde wrote, "I can resist anything but temptation." Robert Frost noted, "Men work together whether they work together or apart." In Animal Farm, George Orwell observed, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
The examples from literature show that paradoxes are more than just witty or amusing statements. They have serious implications because they sum up the totality of the work in one statement and create a meaningful and memorable way to illustrate something important. People say, "I must be cruel to be kind," often not realizing they have transcended history to offer a universal truth that Hamlet spoke to explain why he had to kill his stepfather, Claudius — the cruelty involving the murder, the kindness relating to sparing his mother the tragedy of unknowingly living with her former husband's killer. A modern-day philosopher, Yogi Berra, inadvertently emerged as the king of the paradox with such statements as "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded," or the ever-popular "If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't come to yours."
Organizations that have an exceptional advantage offer their own paradoxes: They must react nimbly to the current, ever-changing global economy while steadfastly holding to their mission, vision, and values. They must balance a "just in time" orientation with coherence. To remain the same, exceptional organizations must change adeptly and agilely, thus creating a "Ship of Theseus" or a Theseus's paradox.
The Athenian hero Theseus was probably mythical, but the ancients regarded him as a historical person, the first king to establish Athens on a firm basis as a unified city-state. Theseus, simultaneously begotten by the king of Athens and the sea-god Poseidon, appeared in several Greek tragedies, nearly always embodying Athenian ideals of humaneness and magnanimity. He also overcame insurmountable challenges, like killing the half-man half-bull monster, Minotaur, and escaping from a mazelike labyrinth with the help of Ariadne, who held the end of a thread at the entrance to the labyrinth.
After killing the Minotaur, Theseus returned to Athens, where his countrymen maintained his ship in a seaworthy condition to honor Apollo, the god to whom they had pledged their fealty for Theseus's safe return. Legend implies that the devotion to the god and the commitment to maintain the ship lasted at least until about 300 BC, but a paradox emerged — one that metaphorically mirrors the paradox that business leaders face.
The Ship of Theseus paradox raises the question of whether an object that has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object. Through several centuries, every worn or rotted plank and wooden part of Theseus' ship had to be replaced with new, stronger timber. That prompted the philosophical question about the nature of identity: how much can something change and still remain the same?
Regardless of these issues of the originality of the ship's structure, for Athenians the preserved ship kept alive their understanding that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure — which none then doubted — and gave them a tangible connection to their divine providence. They didn't care whether it remained the same ship or not; it served the function that they needed it to.
Similarly, your organization will need to find the balance between legend and truth, originality and innovation, today and tomorrow. Most leaders build their companies based on their beliefs about the future; however, that future has shown itself to be unpredictable and fickle. Worse, should the future not turn out as expected, the requirements of breakthrough success demand implementing strategy in ways that make it impossible to adapt. Thus, the paradox. Devotion to an outdated strategy or fealty to an unrealistic vision won't help you, but a culture that has its roots in tradition will. Much as the Athenians maintained the seaworthiness of Theseus's ship, you'll want to preserve the aspects of your organization that define it, while replacing the worn and rotten aspects of it.
Therefore, organizations with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure. That is, the same behaviors and characteristics that maximize a company's probability of notable success also maximize its probability of failure. The status quo stands firmly at odds with innovation, and the commitments of today often don't align with the reality of tomorrow. In the past, we have relied on past performance to predict the future. Now we can't. Past performance still plays a role, but only those companies that develop crystal ball accuracy in their predictions will outrun the competition. We can no longer base decisions on traditional best-practice questions such as "Does this fit with the organization's core competencies and culture?" because we don't know if the competencies and culture of today will match the challenges of tomorrow. As Yogi also said, "The future ain't what it used to be."
Five Reasons for the Paradox
1. Workforce Changes
The assumptions we once made about our workforces no longer apply. Demographic changes continue to happen so rapidly that business leaders can no longer base talent decisions on tried-and-true approaches. Gone are the days of someone entering an organization in the mailroom and rising to the CEO position. You can't assume you'll have the same talent for 30 years the way business leaders once could.
Similarly, you don't want that same talent. As your organization responds to the rapid changes happening around it and to it, you'll find that you need different kinds of specialists, depending on the nature of your products and services. "Retention" will no longer serve as a universal goal or gold standard of excellence. Instead, retention of key players and top performers will become the new battle cry and leveraging that talent an evolving strategy.
But the gods will conspire against you in your attempts. As the need for specialized talent evolves, we will see more foreign students in our graduate technology and science programs — students who intend to take their talent and education back to their countries of origin. In the near future, our public schools will continue to disappoint, and many of our students won't be able to compete for positions in our universities. Simply put, not enough people have been getting ready for the top positions.
During the recent recession, in some industries we took a four-year timeout. For example, construction ground to a screeching halt, and those who should have been preparing to take over from the retiring Baby Boomers didn't get ready. The senior people who have specialized experience, like renovating a large hospital, will be retiring. There are few on the bench who can step up.
The eminent retirement of senior Baby Boomers also means that those with the corporate knowledge and industry history won't be available for mentoring the future leaders. We will have lost a succession-planning advantage we've long taken for granted.
Adding to the confusion, researchers tell us that there has been a sharp increase in the number of companies complaining that competitors are trying to recruit their top people. Yet too few companies have changed their approaches to retaining them. Consequently, competitors have started to pirate the industry stars, a practice that was once held in disfavor.
Social media, in particular, and technology in general, have played significant roles in the poaching. In a given industry, two degrees of separation now divide the star performers from the recruiters. Penetrating today's organization and gaining information about key contributors have never been easier, and Websites like Linkedin will even supply the names of people who can do introductions. The negative implications for an organization's bench strength and leadership succession are apparent.
To our detriment, we became too reliant on human resources for recruiting and hiring. They implemented detailed, often-daunting hiring practices that take too long. Only then will you position yourself to attract the talent you'll need.
But the basic assumption that HR should be the hiring body has to change too. Now, senior executives need to identify the kinds of people and the specific people they want to hire. They need to add to their impressive list of responsibilities "Talent Magnet." All this cooks up a recipe for new, unprecedented challenges for businesses — especially those involved in cutting-edge research and development.
2. New Rules of the Road
The road that got you here won't take you into the future because today's global economy does not allow for mediocrity or outdated approaches. The rules and players have changed, and ordinary simply won't work anymore.
Advancements in technology explain many of the new rules of the road. The amount of data in our world has been exploding, and analyzing large data sets — so-called "big data" — will become a key basis of competitive analysis, underpinning new waves of productivity, growth, innovation, and consumer behavior. Now, more than ever before, leaders in every function and industry — not just a few IT or data-oriented managers — will have to grapple with the implications of big data. Big data involves data sets so large and complex that processing all of it with traditional data processing applications has become unrealistic, but the rewards provide the motivation to create pragmatic solutions.
Big data can unlock significant value by making information transparent and usable at much higher frequency. As organizations create and store more information in digital form, they can collect more accurate and detailed performance statistics on everything from product inventories to vacation days. Leading companies use data collection and analysis to make better strategic decisions; others use them to develop tactics — to adjust their business levers just in time so they can precisely tailor products or services to specific customers and exact needs. Exceptional organizations will have to do both.
The challenges of big data include capturing, storing, searching, sharing, and analysis — that last one presenting the biggest challenge because big data sizes are a moving target, and the target moves constantly due to continuous improvements. Without question, sophisticated analytics can substantially improve decision-making and influence the development of the next generation of products and services.
The size of the company doesn't matter. Big companies no longer own the corner market on big data. Now, small and medium-sized companies can buy sophisticated analytic tools for very little money, and sometimes these smaller companies can absorb and exploit these technologies faster and better than larger organizations, essentially leveling the playing field. Whether the organization is big or small, it will all come down to one thing: the rate of ROI in these technologies is only high when implemented correctly.
Exceptional organizations will leverage data-driven strategies to innovate, compete, and capture value from up-to-real-time information. But then someone will have to know how to use these data to make decisions. Companies will invest enormous sums to derive insight from data, but only those few exceptional organizations that boast extraordinary talent will translate big data into big judgment.
The use of data won't be the only new rule for the road ahead. Agility and flexibility will no longer be optional. Those companies that wish to compete in the global economy will have to be willing to experiment with never-before-heard-of challenges and opportunities. They will need to steadfastly hold to their core values while remaining open to what the data tell them. They may have to address the demand for flexible work options among their employees, perhaps opening locations in new countries or involving more extensive remote working. Whatever options emerge, one thing will remain constant: those companies that define the competition will become more results than input focused. Things like "who works what hours" will become less important, while productivity will become more critical.
Strategic planning, bold leadership, decisive action — once the prerequisites of success — can now supply the ingredients for a formula for failure. Leaders must now make choices about far-reaching consequences based on a future that hasn't existed before. These successful leaders will need to learn to live in harmony with complexity, speed, instability, and ambiguity. In short, they will need to create exceptional advantages.
3. Global Tilt
The world has shifted its economic center from Western countries of the northern hemisphere to fast-developing countries such as China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, and parts of the Middle East. These countries of the South have started to drive change that scares their Northern neighbors. New dynamics of global competition have emerged as more countries begin to seek a larger share of the jobs pie, an improved standard of living, increased financial reserves, and more political stability. But there are no clear rules for the new game.
The United States practices some protectionism in selected areas but has no coordinated economic plan, and other countries are creating their own rules as they go along. Some countries have government funding in the form of low-cost loans; others are using their country's sovereign wealth funds; in others, private equity firms are trolling for opportunities. As they are learning, economic power creates political power — not the other way around.
Leaders of exceptional organizations will start with a clear grasp of the global context, a world with no central governing body and no set of enforceable rules — a hard-earned lesson from Europe. Several things to keep in mind about this economy: it's huge, growing at a breakneck speed, interconnected, complex, unstable, and lacking in transparency. The system that affects the lives of millions of people around the world continues to be overseen by totally uncoordinated players.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Challenge the Ordinary"
Copyright © 2014 Linda D. Henman.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The Exceptional Organization
Chapter 1 Let a Winner Lead the Way 13
Chapter 2 Strategy Guides Passion 37
Chapter 3 Culture Informs Behavior 61
Chapter 4 Excellence Defines Results 81
Part 2 The Individual
Chapter 5 Star Talent Creates Your Future 101
Chapter 6 Exemplars and Avatars 119
Chapter 7 Falling Stars and Snakes in Suits 141
Part 3 The Leader
Chapter 8 Aligning the Stars 169
Chapter 9 Don't Recruit a Star; Create a Constellation 191
Chapter 10 Failsafe Steps for Extraordinary M & A Growth 213
About the Author 255