NACD: Leading by example

03 December 2013 11:10  [Source: ICB]

What makes a great leader? Author and speaker Jason Jennings has conducted extensive research, evaluating the performance of over 55,000 companies and interviewing more than 11,000 top business executives, in order to answer that question. He has determined that all great leaders share several key characteristics that can impact every aspect of an organization’s operations.

Two of these important character traits include the ability to let go of things and the wisdom to continually make small bets on new ideas. “While these concepts might seem pretty simple, they can have truly profound effects. Company executives that lack these characteristics often watch their businesses fail, while those that do excel at them share their success with their employees, shareholders, and customers,” Jennings observes.

Why is letting things go important? Says Jennings: “Most companies go out of business because they refuse to change; they remain committed to the original products that brought them initial success, and fail to recognize when they are no longer leading the market.” Great leaders are able to let go of yesterday’s breadwinner. They realize that what brought their firms’ success in the past will not take them where they want to be in the future.

The same can be said about letting go of older systems and processes. Great leaders recognize that doing the same things the same way will not lead to success. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

Letting go can be challenging, as author and speaker Roger Von Oech recognized: “It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date.” That is why great leaders have a positive influence on the companies they manage.

They also, according to Jennings, leave their egos at the door. “By that I do not mean they are not confident. On the contrary; great leaders are confident enough that they don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. They seek out the most talented people and listen to what they have to say,” he explains.

Finally, Jennings says that great leaders let go of conventional wisdom and instead embrace unconventional thinking.

The consequences of not letting go can be severe. Consider Borders and Blackberry. Despite changing dynamics in the publishing business, Borders followed the same procedures it always did. It could not let go and now is gone. Blackberry, valued at $82bn just two years ago, is worth $4.5bn today and irrelevant in the smartphone market, says Jennings.

“When great leaders and great companies let go of older products and processes and traditional ways of thinking, they are forced to innovate, and it is innovation that drives growth,” Jennings asserts.

That leads to the second key trait of great leaders: making lots of small bets. “Successful leaders don’t find themselves faced with make-or-break decisions. Rather, they are continuously making small bets with minimal consequences. If those bets are winners, the company benefits. If they don’t work, no harm is done, and often important information is gained,” notes Jennings. This idea is not new in the world of chemistry; chemist Linus Pauling knew that, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”

An example of a firm that is an expert at making small bets is Nucor Steel, which has never had to lay off a single employee. CEO Daniel R. Dimicco is willing to try every idea that comes up, says Jennings. As a result, it has reduced the time it takes t make steel from 11 hours to 10 minutes.

Jennings points to Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, as a leader that knows how to make lots of little bets. Schultz took over the company when it was in trouble. “What is different about Schultz is that he sees the company not as a maker of coffee, but as a builder of communities, a place to grow employees, and a creator of value for shareholders. Thus, over an 18-month period, he made 150 small bets designed to achieve that vision. While 140 of them were unsuccessful, the other 10 - including offering wine and beer, instant coffee, and oatmeal – were real winners that have replaced the $3bn in revenues the company had previously lost,” he adds.

Importantly, Jennings notes that great leaders don’t see themselves as leaders, but as privileged stewards working on behalf of their constituents: employees, customers, suppliers, and shareholders. They recognize that their companies are in business to create opportunities for their employees and suppliers, value for their shareholders, and solutions for their customers.

Jason Jennings is a keynote speaker at NACD’s 42nd Annual Meeting

Cynthia Challener, Vermont

Author: Cynthia Challener

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