“Do you recognize and communicate potential in others? Do you enable them to move forward professionally & personally?
Or do you feel threatened by changing the status quo?”
It has been said that, “Hope is not a strategy”…likewise neither is relying solely on charismatic or even heroic leadership to save the day.
Having a compelling yet prescriptive strategy, followed by disciplined and consistent execution can move an organization to sustained excellence.
Leadership’s role in this is to cultivate buy-in, from all stakeholders, around both strategy and execution as well as define the collaborative culture of excellence within the organization.
It has been almost sixty years since the economic thought leader, Peter Drucker, first introduced the idea of “knowledge work”. In his 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow”, Drucker began to redefine the economic landscape for the coming 21stCentury by stating that there had emerged a fundamental shift in the meaning of the term “knowledge”. He goes on to state that historically, knowledge has been the pursuit of new facts but innovation has progressively begun to reshape this definition. This new definition has evolved to this day and has become the foundation of the term that has almost become cliché’ in our time, “knowledge work” (Drucker, 1959 p.38).
Drucker would revisit this topic many times over the next four and a half decades, before he passed away in 2005. In an HBR report, Wartzman claims that Drucker viewed knowledge work as the most significant contribution to the 21stCentury. He further states that, to date however, most organizations fall short of the ideal that Drucker presented (Wartzman, 2014).
Central to the issue is the idea that the technological advancements of the information age have exponentially outpaced the human capacity to adapt to these changes. Forget 1959, just in the last three decades humanity has seen the adoption of the personal computer, cell phones and the Internet, all of which have reshaped how business and communication is done on a global scale. From both a business as well as a general social perspective, many struggle adapting to all that these advancements have brought both directly and indirectly. Many companies today, for example, still view Internet access by employees as more of a hindrance to productivity than a resource. As a result, they will typically restrict access to just upper management and executives.
Another core issue is the idea that the nature of knowledge itself is rapidly changing. Many have suggested that while technology advances exponentially, the shelf life of information itself is decreasing at the same exponential rate. Arbesman, for example, states in his HBR article that, “knowledge is a lot like radioactive atoms because it decays over time. And when we’re dealing with large amount of facts and information, we can actually predict how long it will take for it to spread or decay by applying the laws of mathematics” (Arbesman, 2012). Some have even estimated that the current shelf life if information can be as little as 12-18 months.
The Need For Continuous Learning
Consider for a moment how much has changed in just the last ten years. By this time in 2008, the iPhone was barely a year old, many business people still had no idea what a “smart phone” was and the Blackberry dominated the landscape. Facebook was barely a year old as well, most considered “social media” as a fad. Terms like, “reputation management” didn’t yet exist and there were no companies that had job openings for “social media manager” or “technology specialist”.
Fast-forward to 2018 and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before the Senate on the nature of data privacy within a platform used by approximately 2 billion people worldwide. These hearings only punctuate the dichotomy between the rate of technological advancement and the required human understanding as well as skill sets. In a recent NPR article, Domonoske recounts the odd lines of questioning from the US Senate that demonstrates their clear lack of understanding, not only of Facebook but the current state of data collection, usage and data privacy in general (Domonoske, 2018).
In“Information Systems”, Watson makes the distinction between Information Systems (IS) and Information Technology (IT). He goes on to state, “information technology and information system are two related but separate concepts” (Watson, 2007 p.24). Bourgeois further clarifies this distinction by breaking it down into the specifics of hardware, software, data, people and process. His idea being that the first three fall under the definition of IT whereas the last two help to define IS (Bourgeois, 2014 p.6). It is in this sense that both businesses as well as business professionals, today, must continually improve their skill sets and tool sets to keep pace with the changes.
Information System Skills
Circling back to the topic mentioned earlier of “Reputation Management”, a concept that has evolved in the last ten years. This is an information system built around the digital presence and economic as well as social credibility of both businesses and the individuals within them. Conduct a Google search, for example, on any company or its CEO. What is being said about either? What is the company’s Google review rating? It’s Yelp rating? Today’s professionals must have a clear understanding of what this all means and how to both navigate as well as direct their own digital reputation, if nothing else.
What should a business professional post on Facebook? Should they allow business contacts in their personal network? How does a company effectively use LinkedIn? Is it a recruiting system? Is it a marketing system? Or is it just a digital Rolodex? Businesses and managers need not understand how the entire tech behind these information systems works, but they do need to understand that they are operating in and around themselves and their company. Like it or not, they must develop some basic skills to navigate these systems.
Information Technology Skills
The smartphone has significantly evolved how business is done over the last ten years. It can be used to book as last minute flight on a major airline or a local hotel room. Through the use of apps, like Uber, it can be used to get a ride anywhere in the city. It can be used to submit corporate travel expense reports for that airline flight, hotel or Uber ride. It can sync a variety of calendars across many devices to keep a businessperson organized and on schedule. It can be used to track the whereabouts of the company’s sales people, or anyone’s for that matter! It can also be remotely hacked; conversations can be recorded in both audio as well as visually through the access of the camera system.
Today’s business professional must have a clear understanding of both the positive as well as the potentially negative uses of these technologies. This requires not only knowledge but also cultivating the skills to maximize the positive use while mitigating the negative ones. Managers also have the additional responsibility for coaching these skills to those whom they lead.
New Communication Skills
With all this technological change in communication tools; smartphones, email, texting, instant messaging, virtual meetings and so forth, many managers struggle with how to effectively use these tools to communicate with their teams. When is it better communicate face to face vs. sending an email? How long should a conference call be in order to remain impactful and keep people’s attention? What does “death by PowerPoint” mean? How do you disconnect from all of these devices at the end of the day?
Many of these considerations have arisen in the last decade and require adopting new communication skill sets. These skill sets include communication to oneself as well as to others.
An Age of Insight?
It has been suggested by many thought leaders that society has already begun to move from an age of knowledge work to an “age of wisdom”. This terminology may come across to business people as too esoteric so perhaps an “age of insights” is more appropriate. With the ever shortening shelf life of knowledge and information, one of the most critical skills of today is the ability to gauge both relevance as well as usefulness of information. Is it relevant or obsolete? How is it useful to the current business climate or needs? What key insights can be taken away to better run the business? In other words, the skill is in absorbing what is useful then moving on. Ironically, it was the famous Japanese Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, who put it best back in the middle of the Seventeenth Century when he said, “Know how to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of each thing” (Tokitsu, 2005 p.149).
Arbesman, S. (2012) Be forewarned, your knowledge is decaying. Retrieved from HBR.com (April, 2018). https://hbr.org/2012/11/be-forewarned-your-knowledge-i
Bourgeois, D. T. (2014). Information Systems for Business and Beyond. (p.6)
Domonoske, C. (2018) Lawmakers Push Zuckerberg On Security, Diversity, Drug Sales On Facebook. Retrieved from NPR.org (April, 2018). https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/11/599590470/mark-zuckerberg-is-back-before-congress-for-a-second-day-of-testimony
Drucker, P. (1959). Landmarks of tomorrow. A report on the new postmodern world (p.38)
Tokitsu, K. (2005) Miyamoto Musashi, His life and writings. (p.149)
Wartzman, R. (2014) What Peter Drucker knew about 2020. Retrieved from HBR.com (April, 2018). https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-peter-drucker-knew-about-2020
Watson, R. T. (2007). Information Systems. (p.24)
Or does it? When was the last time that you took a quiet, introspective look in the mirror and assessed your willingness to be open to new ideas? How often do you welcome discussion with those whose opinions differ greatly from yours? Is your, “open door policy” sincere or merely lip service to keep the masses from revolting? Has the fear of being wrong or making a mistake narrowed your vision?
Ironically, the topic of overconfidence and arrogance in our culture continues to only quietly appear and disappear and has done so for almost two decades. Most recently, the Harvard Business Review article below cites overconfidence as a prime factor of ineffective decision-making. Further, if you Google Search the topic, “overconfidence caused the economic crisis” there are over 300,000 articles pertaining to the idea that the last global recession was a direct result of overconfidence amongst professionals and the financial sector in particular.
Discussion about overconfidence is not new, however. It’s from the ancient Greeks that we get the term, Hubris and combines both overconfidence and arrogance. They obviously had similar issues in their time as this was often a central theme to their literature. In between ancient Greece and today, many have also written on the dangers of overconfidence. Some of those include:
Jim Collins, in his 2001 book, “Good To Great” discusses what he calls Level 5 Leadership being a combination of humility (in other words, a lack of Hubris) and an indomitable spirit.
The late John Wooden in his 2005 book, “Wooden On Leadership” famously states
“It’s what you learn, after you know it all, that really counts.”
In the “Little Red Book Of Selling” also published in 2005, author Jeffrey Gitomer outlines his sales maxims including, “Resign your position as general manager of the universe”. So essentially, get over the title on your business card.
Yet with all of this history, how often do you hear organizations, CEOs, leaders or experts of late warning of the dangers of overconfidence? Arguably, it’s becoming more and more of a rarity and there are at least two plausible explanations for this. First is the idea that our culture is becoming increasingly risk averse. Making a mistake is no longer an option and admitting a mistake is often seen as career ending for many professionals. Hence overconfidence has become the default defense mechanism. Judgement errors are for “other people” and admitting that one may need help or solicit the feedback of others is seen as a weakness.
Second are the by products of the digital age. Technology, the internet and social media in particular have made it possible for anyone to become a self-proclaimed expert or celebrity. Now more than ever, our culture sees popularity and the”number of likes” as some fundamental measure of societal contribution. This digital narcissism has spawned a new version of overconfidence that has spilled over into the real world.
In researching people, over the last decade, there are some common denominators in those who have thrived, been effective and found excellence both in the past as well as the present. First is cultivating the ability of introspection. Simply put, this is the practice of looking within and examining personal behaviors both openly and critically. Many of found excellence through looking at themselves both figuratively and literally in the mirror and asking the tough questions; “Am I being overconfident?”, “What could I be doing differently?”, “Am I soliciting input from others?”.
Second is having a set guiding principles that include keeping overconfidence in check and creating a sense of personal responsibility to self-regulate. I’ve often called this the, “Personal Code” and it can include specific commitments such as;
In 2012, a business associate proclaimed to me that, “print is dead” as she carried on in her predictions about the coming all digital age of media and advertising. Yet today there are more physical books in print than in any time in human history. Printed books have actually grown in volume since those proclamations. Jonathan Segura writes, “Despite a less-than-ideal environment—no breakout bestsellers on the adult fiction side and a lengthy, brutal election cycle that sucked nearly all of the air out of the cultural conversation—unit sales of print books were up 3.3% in 2016 over 2015. Total print unit sales hit 674 million, marking the third-straight year of growth, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 80% of print sales in the U.S.” (Segura 2017). Some estimates state that there were 2.7 Billion books printed in the US in 2016. So it seems that print is not quite dead yet.
In studying people of excellence over the last decade, one of the most recurring themes was the idea of continuous learning and in particular reading across a broad spectrum of interests. Research is showing that physical reading stimulates that brain in ways that other activities cannot and some are beginning to correlate this with reducing risk of disease later in life, such as Alzheimer’s. Consider just a few people throughout history:
In the “Book of Five Rings”, the legendary Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi once wrote that fundamental elements of excellence included:
“Take an interest in many arts”
“Know the ways of all professions”
It seems that one of the best ways to expand your knowledge and be exposed to new ideas is still to read across a variety of topics.
So what will you read in 2018??
Segura, J. (2017) Publishersweekly.com Print book sales rose again in 2016
Recently, my organization asked all leadership to read and analyze the book, “Achieve with Accountability”, by Mike Evans. It’s a short and insightful reminder that builds off of the works of the late Dr. Stephen Covey. The essential premise is that we are all, response “able”…that is, responsible for self management. The idea that there is a space between stimulus and response in which we have a choice. In other words, the idea of leadership, management and responsibility all begin in the mirror. Coincidently I recently interviewed a top leader in the Southern Arizona are who stated,
“I’d say that the most critical element in life and business is the ability to look at yourself in the mirror, each day and ask the tough questions.”
This concept, however, is not new. In researching ‘people of excellence’ over the last decade this idea of self-management, introspection and personal accountability appears again and again. In fact, I suggest that this is at the heart of what I’ve called the “Circle of Mental Excellence”.
Several centuries before Evans and Covey, Miyamoto Musashi eluded to this same concept in his, “Book of Five Rings”. For him, having a strategy as a warrior, in life or in business included this daily self-management. Often interpreted by the phrases below, I suggest that it goes much deeper than looking within. The path of excellence or ‘the way’ as Musashi puts it involves both having a strategy as well as daily execution. The discipline to execute daily must come from that person in the mirror.
Lastly, the idea of teams, organizations and cultures begin with this process. This is why the “Circles of Excellence” begin with the individual and work there way out, like the rings of tree growth or the development of our solar system relies on the sun and what happens in its core. Over twenty years of management and leading others, I’ve often summarized this in these maxims;
“Lead and manage yourself, so others will not have to come in and manage for you”
“You will only be able to lead and manage others as effectively as you manage and lead yourself”
At some level, every organization, whether a for-profit business, not for profit and even governmental organizations all have a variant of these five elements. They may use different terminologies, philosophies and vary with regards to when these elements become most relevant. They are there nonetheless….and how they work together determines the long-term effectiveness of an organization.
“Sales closes the first deal and operations closes the next ten, or doesn’t”
“You must study this in great detail” -Miyamoto Musashi
And that’s Wright as in The Wright Brothers. Wilbur and Orville Wright have been credited by history for being the first in controlled, powered flight as well as first to bring their planes to market for sale. There were naturally many other inventors and tinkerers fighting with them for the prestigious title and the Wrights fought relentlessly to the first position. But is being first always best?
In his book, Originals, Adam Grant argues that coming in second if often more advantageous than being in first. Being second allows for stepping back and seeing the accomplishment from an objective view whereas the first place winner can often get caught up or overly preoccupied in the winners circle. This preoccupation can lead to narrowed thinking, not learning from mistakes or a lack of desire to continue to innovate. This is precisely how it played out for the Wright Brothers.
The Wrights, preoccupied with protecting their distinction, would go on to spend many years embroiled in law suits over patents much to the detriment of their health and company. They refused to look at better ways of building an airplane. Their “wing warping” design, although original, was rudimentary and less effective. Their stubbornness would result in the first aerial fatality in 1908 and cost them a successful partnership with the US military.
The Wright’s second place archrival, Glenn Curtiss, saw the advantage of being second. Although he spent years fighting off the legal pursuits of the Wright Brothers, his real focus was on building better, then best aircraft. He did and landed many large contracts during WWI and WWII. His aircraft became some of the most popular of the early 20th Century. He eventually sold his stake in the company for a hansom profit and later formed 18 other companies throughout his lifetime. In an ironic twist of fate, the Curtis Company would end up acquiring the Wright’s company in 1929 to form the Curtiss –Wright Company.
“Learn to see the advantages and disadvantages of each thing”
In other words, if you want to manage and lead others, you must first be able to manage and lead yourself in a comprehensive way. Perhaps you have no desire to manage or lead anyone and that’s ok. Self-management is the best way to avoid having others step in and manage in ways that you may not favor.