By Julie Benezet:

thinking man

You have heard them all, and then some:  There are no bad ideas.  The road to success is paved with failures.  To win we have to innovate.  Let’s think outside of the box…  The list goes on.  At the crux of said list lies the idea that to succeed in the 21st Century you have to keep trying new things to please and attract new customers.   True enough.  Without customers, there is no revenue.

What makes it a challenge is that ideas now come cheaply with the online and social media communities.  Focusing on the right ideas and delivering on them does not.  That is a tall order for modern day senior executives.

The Powerful Impact of the Individual Consumer

We now live in a world that has seen the rise of the power of the individual consumer.  What began with consumer product feedback freely given with aid of a keyboard and Internet link to has become DIY everything, from clothing selection to cars.   From the viewpoint of inviting and embracing the new ideas from the front, coming up with great new ideas for products and services to please customers is fun, intellectually challenging and necessary.

The Powerful Impact on the Modern Day Executive

The heart of that challenge for modern day executives is deciding which ideas to choose and then delivering on them successfully against the backdrop of a fast, fickle and global customer market.

At the top of a leader’s job description is setting the strategic direction.  He or she must form a vision, map a plan and get people on board to deliver on it.  According to the 2013 Blessing White Employee Engagement Report a top factor for employee engagement (which determines employees’ level of performance and retention) is whether they perceive senior executives as having and following a clear vision.

Finding Focus and Flexibility

We hear in our executive consulting work countless employee complaints that their senior executives keep going for those bright shiny objects.  With the endless pursuit of the idea du jour, employees do not know where to invest their time, energy or drive to success.  When they do invest their time, energy and drive in one idea only to have it tossed out a few days or weeks later, the attitude quickly becomes, “why bother?”

While there certainly are ideas that once explored do not merit further attention; but if ideas are routinely adopted and subsequently chucked in favor of the next new new thing, a company can find itself with a culture of “learned helplessness,” an idea developed by Martin Seligman in the 1970’s.  In short, if one is unable to do anything that leads to a successful result, apathy descends.

How does the senior executive embrace the world of fresh ideas demanded by fast moving, fickle consumers and at the same time keep his or her workforce engaged and delivering?  Needless to say, this is no small issue, but here are a few guidelines:

  1. Establish a focus

    Spend time to define your market, niche and customer profile, including the many shifting demands.   Figure out where you can have the greatest impact given your expertise and interest.

  2. Involve key stakeholders in the process

    In evaluating the market and choosing the ideas to pursue, involve others in the conversations.  Not only do you get the benefit of their ideas, you also get their buy-in.  Even if they did not agree fully with the decision, research shows that the fact they felt “heard” increases their level of commitment.

  3. Choose a cross-functionalized and diverse group of stakeholders

    All too often, we choose persons we know and with whom we are most comfortable because they will agree with us.  In vetting ideas, it is essential to get the viewpoints from all the parts of the company that will have to execute on those ideas.  Further, gather opposing or controversial points of view to surface key things to consider, and enhance the buy-in for execution.  In other words, don’t spend your time preaching to the choir.

  4. Build a focused but flexible plan

    Once the key ideas are chosen, build with the key stakeholder group a concise plan.  Build filters and critical checkpoints into the plan to monitor the relevance of its ideas to the evolving marketplace.    Work with each employee to link his or her individual activities to the relevant aspects of the plan. Accountability is possible only with clarity and agreement.

  5. Track and evaluate the plan in broad daylight

    Most strategic plans quickly die in the drawer leading to loss of focus and productivity.  Fundamental to making a plan alive is to fold its execution into the company DNA.  Establish a cross-functionalized key stakeholder group to own and check both formally and informally on its progress. Critical to success is to daylight its status to the larger constituents. Nothing leads to success like the pressure of peers.

  6. Have the courage to change the plan, wisely

    Spending precious resources on plans that lose relevance to the market wastes time, money and energy.  Empower your key stakeholder group to evaluate how each part of the plan is doing in terms of market relevance and company performance on execution.   Changing or killing initiatives that do not look promising is important.  However, doing that should be in the context of agreed criteria. Plans that are changed for explainable and previously agreed criteria hold a much higher probability for continued employee engagement.  It also reinforces the criteria needed for success.

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