Going on the Offensive in an Uncertain World

6. Remove the blockages. Even if you educate yourself about digitization and the consumer, your own psychology can trip you up in the following ways:

    • ATTACHMENT TO EXISTING CORE COMPETENCIES. Many lock on to these with a death grip, assuming that they are the company’s greatest or only strength and its foundation for a secure future. The CEO of Kodak is the poster child for this problem: he focused on geographic expansion into China, building on Kodak’s great expertise in film photography, and, despite his background in semiconductors, missed the implications of the shift to digital photography. John Akers, IBM’s CEO in the early ’90s, was locked on to its core competency in mainframes. His successor, Lou Gerstner, liberated the company from that blockage and refocused it from hardware to software and services, where the new game was emerging.
“No one wants to abandon people who have helped them succeed. But if that sentiment stops you from having a clear view of where the business should go, by definition it’s a blockage.”
  • REFUSAL TO RECOGNIZE OBSOLESCENCE IN KEY PEOPLE. No one wants to abandon people who have helped them succeed. But if that sentiment stops you from having a clear view of where the business should go, by definition it’s a blockage. A variation on this theme is the delusion that the key person will change. People can and do change—but will they change fast enough? During the spring of 2014, the 20 most critical senior executives of a company we’ll call “Super Snacks” convened from around the world to discuss strategy. The company was the industry leader, but CEO “Gail Jones” was worried about the accelerating shrinkage of the sweets market, the company’s mainstay. Jones invited me to help the team visualize the evolving forces that were reshaping the market space. It was a supreme challenge for them to think beyond the traditional boundaries of their business, but after some months, all but a few came along. Those few holdouts, all great people who had contributed much to the company’s success in the past, had become blockages. As painful as it was, Jones had no choice but to move them out of their jobs.
    • FEAR OF FAILURE. Despite the unwavering confidence business leaders outwardly display, many have psychological blockages rooted in fear: of being shown to be wrong, of being embarrassed, of how others will respond to their decisions or actions, and, more generally, of the unknown. At times, fear can be constructive, as Intel founder Andy Grove pointed out in Only the Paranoid Survive. But if you let your subconscious fears block your judgment, you won’t know how to gauge the degree of business risk. Going on the offense does not grant you permission to gamble a business on hunches or theories, but it does involve risk-taking. Becoming aware of and confronting your own inner fears will allow you to see things more accurately, think more creatively and move more decisively.
    • AVOIDANCE OF OPPOSITION. If you see something shaping up on the horizon that others don’t yet see, you will raise some hackles with your board, your investors and even a few powerful direct reports. If you doubt your ability to bring such powerful people along, you may rein in your ideas. It’s not an unfounded fear; when you push for radical change, you run
    the risk of triggering backlash or revolt. But you can win over constituents by helping them develop a mindset for offense along with yours. In any organization, some 2 percent have a disproportionate influence on the other 98 percent. Never lose sight of your 2 percent—their buy-in will make all the difference.

7. Don’t be a wimp. Ultimately, going on the offense is a test of your courage. Do you have the guts to make a big move? Intellectualizing is one thing; having the courage to pull the trigger is another. As Dean Stamoulis, head of global leadership and succession services for executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates puts it: “Savoring complexity and processing it intellectually is a learned skill that needs to be well developed. But the capacity to act is a reflection of self-confidence—not behavioral boldness or arrogance but genuine authentic self-confidence about one’s ability to figure things out and deal with the consequences. That self-confidence is vitally important when the unexpected occurs.”

We can never completely eliminate uncertainty. Doing nothing can be risky in itself and there will always be unknown unknowns—risks you don’t even know exist despite careful thinking.
But building your perceptual acuity, being able to spot the opportunity in uncertainty, having the willingness to forge a new path and commit to it as well as the adeptness to manage the transition—those are the leadership skills absolutely necessary in these, the most uncertain and fast-changing times.