I can do it in my sleep. Four years at Wharton, two at Columbia Business School, and a few more in investment banking have drilled into me the most broadly used tool that guides corporate decision-making: the financial projection.
Last Wednesday, in a suburban New Jersey warehouse converted into conference space and a cooking show set, I joined 80 managers assembled to discuss their company’s strategy. We had helped design the two-day experience and were at the point in the flow of the off-site when we hoped we would hear some new, breakthrough insights.
I have been repeating myself for a decade. In each of the 1,000 or so workshops and keynotes I have delivered over the past ten years, I have repeated some version of the refrain, “Do what customers love and competitors won’t copy.”
Greg Hale was an electrical engineer with a curious spirit when he interviewed for a position in Disney’s engineering department almost 30 years ago. He was eager to see how things worked behind the scenes, so he applied for the job figuring that even if he didn’t get it, he would at least get a backstage tour.
The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.
- Eugene Delacroix
In the late 1970s, Kevin Allen was sitting in a boardroom about to deliver some bad news. His client, Mastercard, would surely not respond well. But Allen is masterful at understanding markets. He understands one core concept that separates good brands from great ones. If he could get Mastercard executives to embrace this counterintuitive secret, he would set the company on a decades-long streak of wins against far larger competitors.
The echoes of this great marble hall always bring me back to college. I’m sitting in the Philadelphia 30th Street Station, awaiting my Amtrak train to take me home, circled by ornate pillars and homeward-bound revelries on a Friday afternoon.
What an energizing whirlwind two weeks: keynoted for the Federal Reserve (the future of banking), spoke to CFOs in San Diego (the future of finance), facilitated our Outthinker Chief Strategy Officer roundtable in New York (the future of strategy), met with ABC TV in LA (the future of television), ran a workshop for a Fortune 500 real estate firm (the future of real estate), ran an Outthinker workshop for an apparel retail leader (the future of retail), then addressed a room of board members of public tech companies in Silicon Valley (the future of everything!).
At a barbeque this weekend, a friend fretted, “How does a large company retain its entrepreneurial spirit?” Part of the leadership team of a fast-growing, $5 billion, public company – historically one of the most innovative in its sector – he painfully understands this dilemma. The agility and speed helped you grow. But your growth requires installing rigid policies and processes which kills your agility and speed. What keeps you big kills what got you there.
The term “employee engagement” was introduced into the management lexicon around 1990 when HR (or personnel, as they were called then) departments shifted focus from employee satisfaction toward employee commitment. Employee engagement is now a multi-billion-dollar business with consulting firms, training companies, and technology firms seeking new ways to get employees to find meaning in their work.
For centuries, leadership skill has been measured by your ability to make things happen inside “built to last” organizations. Success depended on your ability to build trust, cultivate long-term relationships, and manage stakeholders. But we are now entering a world defined by temporary, cross-functional teams, frequently formed to work on specific issues or goals, rather than more traditional fixed structures. Excelling will require a fundamentally different skill set.