Lately in our business, I have observed a disturbing trend. Companies are on a shorter planning cycle, and long term planning and visionary thinking is difficult to achieve. However, visionary planning informs every future decision, including hiring the right talent on both your management team and board. Too few leaders spend time talking about these critical issues. They are more focused on getting down to tactical results and have forgotten a key step that will enhance their decision-making and strategic effectiveness. By asking the right strategic, visionary questions up front, it will get you to where you want to go faster and with greater effectiveness.
James Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco – “I think the biggest single thing that causes difficulty in the business world is the short-term view. It forces bad decisions.” “Wall Street is in the business of making money between now and next Tuesday. We’re in the business of building an organization, an institution that we hope will be here 50 years from now.”
Long-term visionary business planning includes developing vision and mission statements that resonate within your organization. You really want to ensure that the CEO challenges senior leadership to spend five to ten percent of their time to think about strategy that I would define as a two-year window. I remember asking a client who was struggling to define the strategy for his company, where he wanted to be in five years. This one question led him to unimaginable success, including the sale of his company to one of the most innovative firms in the world. He defined the mission of his organization in ways his employees could embrace. His management decisions were based on a long-term philosophy. He was able to grow and align his business towards a common purpose that was bigger than making money – including generating value for his customers, society and the economy. He included his employees in the value creation of the company both strategically and economically – fostering personal commitment, incredible morale and loyalty.
Management and leadership play a critical role in the long-term success of any business. Resist the survival instinct to focus on quick wins all the time. Think bigger and more long-term. Get back to the mission of your organization. People need to know what you stand for. I often go back to Peter Drucker for business fundamentals and truths. His view was that long-term vision is most critical for leading in complex, turbulent times and the best way to create the future is to invent it.
Co-founder of Fast Company, Alan Webber, said fifteen years ago when he started the magazine, “A good question beats a good answer.” I remember visiting Roger Milliken, President and CEO of his family’s textile company, Milliken & Company. He allowed me to walk around the entire plant and meet with his executive team afterwards. I was impressed by what he did and didn’t ask me. He did not ask me what were his people saying. He did ask me what kinds of questions his people were asking. He changed my focus.
The act of coming together with really smart people from different disciplines to participate in a planning process, creates a critical exchange of ideas that breaks down fences, encourages creativity and acts as an accelerant for new ideas. The Dark Ages had moats built around castles to insulate an exchange of ideas. Models where you need permission to enter someone else’s yard, will not get companies to where they need to be. Engaging thought-provoking, intelligent people in a meaningful dialogue, creates engagement and passion, as well as buy-in for future implementation. Visionary leaders who lay down their view, cannot get it done alone. You need the brain-power of the team to dialogue around the best strategies to achieve any vision. Asking questions prevents against hubris, which I define as arrogance based on a notion of entitlement and belief in your own or your company’s invincibility. Bringing together the best collective wisdom in an ongoing dialogue encourages innovative thinking and agility.
Standout companies pursue iterative ongoing strategic discussions and understand it’s about continuous change. The top focus is getting closer to your customer. Your company’s culture will determine if this is possible. Promote the mindset for faster thinking, faster actions and flexibility of leadership. In a world where volatility and complexity will only increase, those leaders who are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation will connect with new generations in creative ways and leapfrog old management styles to “invent the future.”
Stuart R. Levine is chairman and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates, a strategy, leadership and governance consulting firm. He serves on the board of Broadridge Financial Solutions, Single Touch Systems, Inc and is lead director of J. D’Addario & Co. Inc. and director of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.