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The Divergent Voice: A CEO Formula for the Current Fog of Business

Peter Drucker was a wise sage. Many companies and even some industries have evolved to greatness thanks to his contributions to management thought. Despite his gifted prescience, Drucker could never have imagined the current environment, nor the unexpected journey through which Covid has taken each and every business. Still, a quote from Drucker rings true: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence. It is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Every business leader seeks to understand the current environmental factors and the future of the marketplace. To that point, operating plans consistently open with a view of the present market conditions and a prediction of those to come. It took a pandemic to teach us that our clairvoyant skills are lacking. Even now, we have no idea if our economy is heading into hyper-inflation, recession, or a soft landing. In a time that Drucker refers to as “yesterday,” the conventional wisdom among the wise CEOs would have been to move to a phase of business preparation, anticipating the challenges of the market situation to come. Let’s call this “managing according to maintenance objectives:” optimizing the chances for retention of current state with plenty of emphasis on contingent planning.

In essence, lifeboat management.  

I offer here my thoughts on a different prescription. Keeping with the nautical metaphor, I appreciate the words of Union Naval Admiral Farragut when he said, “Damn the torpedoes!” Are there any lessons to be applied from the fog of war to the current fog of business? I speculate that today’s CEO Farragut would state unequivocally that success is not about survival or maintenance management. Rather, he’d call it seizing greater initiative while expecting inevitable risk.

Having the good fortune to know many great CEOs who would emulate Farragut, I perceive a common denominator among them. It is an insatiable, often unassailable drive to achieve breakout growth for their business, environmental factors notwithstanding. Their passion is palpable, sometimes in visible relief and sometimes not, but always motivating them to find seams and ingredients and synergies for sustainable surges of growth. To many casual witnesses, the business aspirations are almost unimaginable. However, it’s precisely the CEO’s imaginings that seem to prompt the urge to break through the fog, to lead with abandon.

When was the last time you witnessed someone whom you’d describe as an executive who leads with abandon?

In observing these CEOs and their teams, I have come to recognize some common elements that I’ll call the “formula.” These include some leader qualities and some new items of process thinking. These include: a spirit of adventure; a fresh way of expressing vision; a continuous attitude of nimbleness; an approach to embedding strategy as “water cooler” conversation; and a more flexible way to think about organization structure to meet market needs and opportunities.

The Courage to Pioneer

Serving as a business leader in today’s environment is tricky. The most effective CEOs seem to exhibit a pioneering spirit, like Paul Bunyan’s courage to wield a mighty axe for cutting new paths ahead. And it isn’t just a market share strategy in the minds of these few, but a desire to drive demand, to expand markets, to capture much more than their fair share of growth in categories, markets, and channels. Despite the reality of tightening/high-interest money, markets full of ambiguity, and the sequential pressure of business targets that keep approaching at high speed, conservatism does not rule among the best in breed, often called “pacesetters” in today’s lingo.

I see new shoots of growth among many companies, largely because their CEOs are continuously acting in a contrarian fashion compared to competitors. This behavior often includes rapid refinements in market and channel strategies to secure fresh growth in adjacencies, digital initiative to reach new customers and find new supply chain efficiencies, a redirecting of investments from over-mined markets into new product and new market innovation, rethinking the diversity of the business model to capture new opportunities through added services and e-commerce, and even nimbly and rapidly partnering with other companies to gain resources needed to tackle previously inaccessible customer needs, or to create new needs that haven’t yet been articulated. Budgets in some of these progressive businesses are also being shifted from process improvements to commercial innovation.

These pioneer CEOs are taking advantage of market pressures that slow some competitors. As such, their enterprises can leapfrog to future state.

Destiny and Destinational Planning

To many of these great executives, the most significant current question is not “how?” but “what?” That’s to say they often refine and sharpen their view of “what” the future looks like. They have full conviction in the capabilities of their teams and companies in determining their own destiny. Forget about incremental growth plans. Their thinking is not grounded in a cement mentality reflecting the business position of today. They formulate a vision of their business’s destination for tomorrow, more specifically, the overall objectives for two or four or even more years down the road. And they are not afraid to refine along the way or to think bigger if so inspired. Their process for planning and action is based on the “destinational” vision: a longer-term deliverable and a working backwards to define intermediate milestones as well as the related hurdles of consequence along the way.

Once that rock-strewn path is determined, then the focus of attention becomes about resourcing, i.e., what resources do we need to eliminate the obstacles? The tactics of execution spill out from there, and always with precision in mind.

Agility and Flexibility

I’ve alluded to the need for many businesses to undertake occasional refinement/continuous improvement. That’s probably a euphemism; most companies these days need much more than refinement, they need overhaul. Just ask a banker how their industry is prepared for challenges in 2023 and 2024. You may see some uneasy stares. Corporations and even small companies mired in entrenched systems, conventions, and processes rather than market foresight for the future, will likely begin to feel rapid decay over time.

Recently, I spoke at some length with two very senior operating partners at a successful and prominent middle market private equity shop in New York City. Their stature and growth suggest they are big thinkers and unusually thoughtful. That was quickly borne out in the conversation which was a by-exception dialogue, meaning we only discussed bold thinking for an hour. As we traded perspectives on the distinctions between today’s good CEOs and those who are truly great, we continued to circle back to their overriding hypothesis. The best CEOs at this moment in time are those who demonstrate “clear ability to pivot.” This needn’t be expanded upon at this juncture, as it is the fodder for another post, but ponder the point and consider how it applies to the strategy discussions around most of today’s boardroom tables which appear sleepy in contrast.

One last point on pivoting. I have a fervent view that companies today must have something called “organizational elasticity.” During the intensity of Covid, we all heard how business cultures need “resilience.” But I see resilience as an ingredient of foundation, namely, an ability to withstand unusual and extreme pressures.

“Elasticity,” on the other hand, is more about flexibility and the rubber-band stretch that a leadership contingent and their teams can withstand, bend with, and rebound as new space is explored and tested. The pioneering I have highlighted cannot be undertaken unless the organization has the mental preparedness and curiosity to peruse new forks in the road, to make some probes of reconnaissance, and to recover to a stable track if the diversions prove unproductive. Organizational elasticity requires all in a company to understand and agree to the attendant nimbleness of the journey. Change that finds a more open and faster-lane approach should be embraced. Rigidity should be institutionalized in mission-commitment, core values, and collaborative interest, not in growth initiatives, organizational dynamics, or processes.

The Compression of Strategy

The best CEOs are redefining strategy. In a classic sense, strategy has normally meant an articulation of direction for the long term, indicating dimensions of both azimuth and time. I’ve already addressed direction in the pioneering sense. But we now find highly successful CEOs and leadership teams who have compressed the strategic timeline into more tactical timelines. They ask questions like, why should this initiative take 3 years? Why can’t we achieve the same course correction in 3 months?

Incidentally, when was the last time the company reported upon the achievement of the long-term objectives that it set forth 5 years earlier? What’s the purpose of a long-range plan anyway, other than some vague hopes of where we seek to be in a few years? There’s nothing wrong with that, except it’s fictional when companies apply the metrics and objectives that they really don’t expect to discuss at the end of the journey. I’ve already addressed that topic in the explanation of destinational planning.

Organizational Implications

We all have seen a variety of corporate org charts that generally depict conventional details like seniority, pecking order, and lines of responsibility. Such mappings are not unimportant. “Org Charts” in my humble opinion are soon to be artifacts of past companies and cultures. Those leaders who are maneuvering through the fog these days are doing so with gusto, and most are thinking of their organizations as competitive teams, not silos and compartmentalized ownership and reporting lines. Great teams think about overall team objectives first, recognizing they have a variety of star players to carry the ball, and the teams make the distinction between who’s on the field (or the “floor”) and who’s on the bench, and sometimes the substituting happens at a moment’s notice depending upon the tenor and sway of the game’s score and the intuition and judgment of the coach.

Which makes you question: how do such companies keep straight their HR design and structure?

The future-leaning answer is they don’t, primarily because their teams are organized in a fluid fashion around the strategic growth issues of their company, not around units, functions, and roles. Think project and program management, for example, with constant asset deployment and redeployment. There’s a necessary fluidity required to stay ahead of market circumstances to achieve aspirational objectives. More to come on this very critical org piece in an upcoming post. Drucker was not only clairvoyant in realizing the danger of “yesterday’s logic,” but he was giving a clear warning to the hidebound CEOs who think that lifeboat or playbook management is the key to success. The very best of the pacesetters are making up some things as they go about the business of working to achieve the unimaginable. Managing a company in a dynamic foggy market is the “Wheaties” of today’s most athletic and most organizationally ambitious CEOs.

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Alan Renne leads the firm’s Industrial Technology practice and is a key member of the firm’s Board and CEO Services team. Alan specializes in helping companies build competence and effectiveness within their leadership teams and at the board level. He has advised numerous organizations and C-Suite executives on leadership development, succession planning, and organizational design and development.

RSR Partners is a boutique professional services firm headquartered in Greenwich, CT, that specializes in helping Boards and CEOs with their most critical recruiting, selection, and succession needs. The firm was founded in 1994 by industry icon, Russell S. Reynolds, Jr. The firm has conducted thousands of projects for Boards and CEOs at public, private equity backed, and family-owned businesses across a range of industries including asset management, consumer goods and services, industrial, technology, and healthcare. To learn more about RSR Partners, click here.