Five Leadership Strategies That Can Make or Break Your Business in 2011

What’s in store for business leaders in 2011?

As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see a year of promise and opportunity.  And I see new challenges that require different ways of thinking and leading organizations.

It’s not just that opportunities, threats, and changes in the marketplace happen faster and with less predictability than they used to.  It’s that they’re also becoming increasingly interconnected and interrelated in ways we’ve never had to deal with before.  The result is a significantly more volatile and uncertain world.  One where disruptive change can occur on a moment’s notice, and one where incremental change may no longer be enough to survive.

To lead your organization to even greater success in 2011:

1.  Get clear on winning.

Employees have two questions permanently etched in the backs of their minds: where are we going as an organization and how will we get there?  Your most important task as a leader is to answer those questions by painting a rich and vivid picture of what winning looks like for your organization.

To gain clarity around your vision of winning, paint the picture as if you have already achieved it.  Ask yourself, when we win:

  • What three or four key strategic objectives have we accomplished?
  • How will we define our workplace culture in terms of attitudes, beliefs, values, and operating principles?
  • What skills, knowledge and abilities will exist in the organization?  In each business unit?
  • What organizational structures will be in place company-wide, and at each business unit?
  • What work processes and metrics will we use?
  • What tools, systems and technologies will we need, both internally and externally?
  • What products will we have in the market?  What products in development?
  • Who will our customers be?  How many will we have?
  • Who will our competitors be?  What type of companies will we compete against?
  • What will be our greatest competitive advantage?  Our biggest threat?
  • How will we be known?
  • What will our brand represent?

Once you have a compelling picture of winning, communicate it!  Not just once, but constantly, so that people never lose sight of the goal.

2.  Get closer to your customers.

Last year, IBM asked more than 1,500 CEOs around the globe how they saw customer expectations changing over the next five years.  Eighty-two percent said they expect customers to demand a better understanding of their needs.  Not ask for, but demand. Seventy percent said their customers would expect new and different services.

To stay current with your customers and their changing needs:

  • Increase the frequency of contact. The old days of sending out a customer satisfaction survey once a year are long gone.
  • Check your assumptions about your customers and your markets on a regular basis.  Don’t assume that what you knew to be true six months ago is still valid.
  • Make customers part of your team.  Find new ways to communicate with them (i.e. social media) and new ways to leverage what they tell you.  Invite them to participate in your new product development process.
  • Develop new ways of gathering, analyzing and using the information customers provide about how you can help solve their problems and achieve their goals.  Make sure this information gets to everyone in your organization who needs it.
  • Make every employee in the company responsible for customer satisfaction.  Not just those who work directly with the customer, but every employee.

Most of all, make it easy and transparent for customers to do business with you.  And make sure you know (don’t guess) what really motivates them to buy your product or service.

3.  Get good at scanning the horizon.

In today’s world, new competitive threats can emerge from anywhere at any time.  To keep from getting blindsided, get in the habit of looking at three specific areas:

  • Your own industry. Where do you stand in relation to your competitors?  Are you growing faster or slower?  Of the companies growing faster, what are they doing new, different, or better than you?  Are they merely improving the status quo, or are they looking to transform your industry?
  • Adjacent industries. Which companies that serve your industry are growing fastest, and why?  If they decided to enter your industry, what barriers would they face?  Do they have the people, technology and resources to overcome those barriers?  Do they have the potential to introduce disruptive innovation into your industry?
  • The world at large. What companies/industries currently enjoy the most explosive growth rates?  What issues and problems do they solve for their customers?  Are those solutions likely to impact your industry or your business?

Set up a “We Refuse to Get Blindsided” team that meets at least once a quarter, and task them with researching emerging products, technologies, demographics, and trends in all three areas.  Make the team as diverse as possible.  Not just in terms of job skills and responsibilities, but also in personality, thinking and decision-making styles.  The more perspectives you have on the team, the broader the net it will cast.

4.  Get good at strategic thinking.

Not just you, but everyone in your organization!

Today’s business environment demands a workforce that can move fast with focus and flexibility.  If you can’t respond quickly to changing market conditions and unforeseen events, you’ll get left behind by faster, more strategically agile competitors that can.

Teach people at all levels to anticipate opportunities and threats while managing their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.  Give them the training, coaching and mentoring to become more responsive to changing customer needs.  Develop their creative problem solving skills, and help them understand how their decisions and actions impact the business in the future as well as today.

Structure your organization so that it can realign quickly in response to unexpected events.  Learn how to say “no” to opportunities that take you off focus, unless you have redefined winning and agreed to the new destination.  Create laser-like focus and prioritization at every level, keeping your picture of winning visible at all times by communicating it and keeping it physically in front of people on a regular basis.

5.  Get good at innovating.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge because most companies aren’t set up to innovate.  To support innovation on an ongoing basis:

  • Have a vision and set clear goals. Get very clear on why you’re innovating, what you want to achieve, and how you will get there.
  • Don’t limit your search for new ideas. Look internally and externally for new product ideas and for ways to improve your systems and processes.  Sometimes the best ideas come from unlikely sources.
  • Develop a culture of communication. Innovation isn’t cheap.  Don’t waste time and money duplicating ideas and/or efforts because different parts of the organization didn’t talk to each other.
  • Provide full management support. Innovation can’t succeed if employees see it as just another “flavor of the month” management fad.  Management must commit sufficient expertise and resources, and demonstrate that commitment by their actions as well as their words.
  • Develop an appropriate reward system.  If employees don’t get rewarded for new ideas, they won’t come up with any.  Make sure your reward system aligns with your innovation goals and the innovation model you adopt.  And don’t limit your rewards thinking to just monetary – employees are often as motivated by simple recognition such as thank you notes, personalized emails, comments in team meetings, etc.

Most important, strive for disruptive, rather than incremental, innovation. Disruptive innovation redefines your market and the way value gets delivered.  It fundamentally alters the customer’s relationship with your product or service.  And it puts you in a position of market leadership so that competitors end up chasing you instead of the other way around.

For companies looking to get ahead, innovation is no longer a “nice to have.”  It needs to become a way of life!

Push yourself to incorporate these five strategies into your working habits.  Unlearn some of your old ways of doing things so you can relearn based on all the change around you – you’ll win!

– Guest Author Holly G. Green www.TheHumanFactor.biz