Transforming Performance – Part 1

At the start of the year in 2020 Resolutions & The Rear View Mirror I expressed that after delving into PURPOSE in 2018 and PASSION in 2019, my focus in 2020 will be PERFORMANCE (creativity, innovation & adaptability). In particular, ‘ordinary’ companies doing extraordinary things.

Who doesn’t want to be part of a great, success story?

To run, start, or play a leadership role in a company that wins big and changes the course of its industry. To launch a brand that dazzles consumers & customers and dominates its market. To be the kind of executive or entrepreneur who creates jobs, generates wealth, and builds an organization bursting with energy and creativity. These days, in the popular imagination, the quest for success has become synonymous with the spread of disruptive technologies and viral apps, with the rise of radical business models and new-fangled work arrangements. This is the stuff that fuels the dreams of countless venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. The “new economy,” the story goes, belongs to a new generation of companies and leaders who have little in common with what came before.

But why should the story of success be the exclusive domain of a few technology-driven startups or a handful of young billionaires? The less-noticed story of our time, the huge opportunity
for leaders who aim to do something important and build something great, is both simple and subversive: In a time of wrenching disruptions and exhilarating advances, of unrelenting turmoil and unlimited promise, the future is open to everybody.

The thrill of breakthrough creativity and adaptive performance doesn’t just belong to the youngest companies with the most cutting-edge technology or the most radical business strategies. It can be summoned in all sorts of industries and all walks of life, if leaders can reimagine what’s possible in their fields. Summoning that sense of possibility, though,
means answering eight questions that get to the heart of how the best organizations compete and innovate, and how the most effective individuals work and succeed. Your answers to these eight questions, I hope, will help you write a more rewarding story for yourself and the organizations you care about.

Today we will look at the first four questions (with next week the last four).

Can you develop a definition of success that allows you to stand apart from the competition and inspires others to stand with you? 

What struck me about every great organization and leader I’ve encountered was the sense of purpose they exuded, and how that sense of purpose motivated colleagues, customers, and allies to contribute to their success. Brand strategist Adam Morgan calls it a “lighthouse identity”—
a “very particular take” on what organizations are trying to achieve, a “compelling conviction” that their goals are “uniquely theirs” and uniquely important. Venture capitalist John Doerr prefers
to invest in entrepreneurs who conduct themselves as “missionaries” as opposed to “mercenaries,” founders who strive not just for success, but for “success and significance.”

The specifics of the metaphors are less important than the universality of the insight. The organizations and leaders that create the most value are the ones that position themselves as the most alluring alternative to a predictable (albeit efficient) status quo. Vernon Hill, founder of Metro Bank, the fastest-growing financial-services brand in the UK, likes to say, only half
in jest, that he operates on the “lunatic fringe” of his industry—but that’s precisely why so many employees and customers get so excited about something as mundane as a retail banking.

This not is an argument for lunacy. But it is an argument for uniqueness and intensity: What do you do that other organizations can’t or won’t do?

Can you explain, clearly and compellingly, why what you do matters and how you expect to win? 

Ultimately, the only sustainable form of leadership is thought leadership—championing an extraordinary set of ideas, not just good-enough products and services. So leaders who think differently tend to talk differently. Mavericks at Work coauthor Polly LaBarre has observed that too many leaders communicate with “jargon monoxide”—empty rhetoric, mind-numbing buzzwords, eye-glazing acronyms.

But the high-impact leaders I’ve encountered are as precise with their words as they are creative with their ideas. They understand that they have to explain, in language that is unique to their field and compelling to the outside world, why what they do matters and how they expect to win.

Do you know how 
to “talk the walk?”

Are you prepared to rethink the conventions of success in your field and the logic of your success as a leader? 

The “paradox of expertise” is one of the most dangerous occupational hazards for leaders. In a world being remade before our eyes, leaders who make a difference are the ones who can rethink what’s possible with their organizations. Yet the more closely you’ve looked at a field, and the longer you’ve been working and succeeding in it, the more difficult it can be to see new patterns, new prospects, new possibilities. The people with the most experience, knowledge, and resources in a particular area are often the last ones to seize opportunities for something dramatically new.

That’s why I learn so much from leaders who are not just disrupting their industries, but also disrupting themselves, leaders who, in the words of management thinker and jazz musician Frank J. Barrett, practice the art of “provocative competence.” Barrett describes provocative competence as “leadership that enlivens activity and rouses the mind to life.” I think of it more simply—as
the capacity to reflect on your career, think hard about the future, and recognize that the mindsets and skill sets that got you to where you are probably won’t get you to where you want to go.

Are you as determined to stay interested as to be interesting? 

The most creative leaders I know are not just the boldest thinkers; they are the most insatiable learners. In his legendary speech on “Personal Renewal,” civic-reformer John Gardner explored what it takes for leaders to stay relevant, effective, and engaged as they rose through the ranks. “Not anything as narrow as ambition,” he said. “After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die.”Translation: As interesting as they may be, the most vital leaders figure out how to remain interested—in big ideas, in little surprises, in the enduring mission of their enterprise and all new ways to bring that mission to life.

Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, the fast-growing manufacturer of lubricants, has built an organization filled with what he calls “learning maniacs.” He and his colleagues have made an extraordinary commitment to maintain their “zest” for learning and discovery, to stay interested in new ideas about products and purpose even as they work to make the company and its brands more interesting to the outside world. He actually affixes an electronic signature to his emails with the message “Ancora Imparo,” Italian for “I am still learning”—a favorite phrase of Michelangelo. “My dream,” Ridge says, “is for this organization to be viewed as a leadership- and-learning laboratory for business.”

What’s your strategy for personal renewal?

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