I played hockey growing up as did most Canadian boys and although I was fast I had a huge flaw to my game—I played with my head down. I had early success until body contact came into the picture and the game sped up as everyone was bigger and fast. I still remember getting creamed in the open ice and barely making it back to the bench before my legs gave out. Unfortunately, this happened repeatedly until I finally applied the ultimate strategy—I switched to soccer.
In my experience, organizations can easily get caught leading with their head down. They are short staffed with a clear focus on efficiency and productivity in order to maximize profit. They run a fast pace and rely too heavily on internal metrics (such as revenue and margins) that they eventually get blind-sided. Bam! A new competitor, regulation, market change or consumer preference comes along, and they are now charged with picking themselves up and trying to recover.
Unlike my hockey strategy, organizations don’t have an option to stop playing altogether. They might pivot or choose to move in a new direction, but they can’t stop.
Here are three strategies to ensure you can lead with your head up:
1. Leverage external data in decision making. I mention this a lot because it’s that important. Most small- to mid-size businesses don’t invest in market research because they can’t see the ROI immediately. However, without solid, verifiable external data your strategy will be crap (excuse the crassness). Your judgements will be based on your own personal bias and past experience and you will never be able to see trends coming or feedback unto it’s too late.
Research doesn’t have to be expensive, just strategic. Start with industry reports that your accountants, lawyers or your past university can provide. Create very simple and cost effective surveys for your customers to get their feedback and ask them questions. The typical response rate for SME businesses in a warm list is about 10-15%, which means many people will take the time to give you input.
2. Educate yourself constantly. Continuous learning is not an option—it should actually be an obsession. The world is changing too fast to be idle. Whether it’s news feeds, books, newspapers, industry publications or seminars, there are so many opportunities to continue learning and growing personally and professionally. The key is to understand what you should learn.
Outline the skills and knowledge someone in your role needs to have and place importance on those skills within the organization. Assess whether you have gaps in the most critical areas. Create a four-month plan to fill the top three importance gaps or choose to strengthen them further. I don’t spend a lot of time investing in non-essential weaknesses. Instead, I strengthen the areas that are most critical for success.
3. Invest in an advisor. Everyone needs someone to be accountable to, who can help them see the big picture on a regular basis. I have invested in an outside advisor and coach for the past four years and it’s worth it. Whether that’s a TEC chair or independent executive coach, we need qualified, intelligent, and value-based coaches to keep us focused and our feet to the fire. A good advisor should challenge your business plan and assumptions, help you assess your strengths and weaknesses, assist you in building clear next steps, and be an objective sounding board for the myriad of issues that arise on a daily or weekly basis.
Once you start leading with your head up, you’ll start to work with vision. This quality is what starts to separate the great ones from the others…just ask Gretzky.
Have a great day!