Lessons on Endurance
As a young business leader, I operated as if speed was the key to success; with age and experience I now believe endurance and excellence in execution are more important than speed. While speed can give a company first-mover advantage in a new market or with a new product, real value creation, in business and in our lives, comes not from speed, but by ensuring a strategy or value is built to last.
I’ve led many projects that rushed to get a business plan and funding in place, and I’ve seen several partnerships entered into too quickly. In each case, these ‘speedy’ projects required rework, and took more time than if we had slowed down and built the program to endure. Slowing down and creating time to think and plan creates a depth of understanding that impacts my own well-being, adds joy and results with lasting business impact.
Here are a few lessons I have learned on building enduring value in our businesses, and in ourselves:
1) Endurance is the steak, not just the sizzle: I challenge teams to focus on adding value to our end consumer and to build products and programs to last (the steak), versus only building demand and marketing our idea (the sizzle). This principle is also important for our personal value set and well-being. One of my favorite quotes is Essse Quam Videri, to be rather to seem. You can always ‘seem’ to care, listen, or support – but are you sincere, or do you just appear to? Real satisfaction in a job well done, and lasting value, comes when we are authentic. Don’t try to blend in or morph your style (sizzle) to align with a team,but be who you are (steak); the best leaders understand that diversity of approach and opinion drive real value in teams, and real value endures.
2) Endurance is aiming before firing: Often the energy and excitement of starting a new venture (workout, diet, project, …) is more invigorating than thinking about the details necessary to bring it to life. But enduring value starts by clearly defining the end goal (or problem to be solved). Every turnaround business I’ve led had one thing in common – the mission, vision, values and plan were not clear. One consequence of this was members were aiming at different targets, often resulting in wasted or inefficient efforts. The first step I take as a leader is to set a very clear, simple goal, that is widely understood. This ‘aiming’ allows the whole team to execute together. Ready (create the idea), aim (establish the end goal), then fire (execute) creates enduring value.
3) Endurance is living with uncertainty and grit: David Brooks, author and NYTimes columnist, suggests that endurance in our lives is “remaining quiet in the face of uncertainty because no conjecture will really tell you what is coming. Endurance is the knowledge that the only way out is through and whatever must be borne will be borne.” I have often seen teams get swallowed up by uncertainty, or succumb to analysis paralysis in the midst of executing a plan. Action and momentum toward a clear goal are vital to creating enduring business results. Similarly, it is hard to stay focused personally when facing adversity or in uncertain times; but like Winston Churchill famously said, “if you are going through hell, keep going’. Be gritty and keep moving toward your goal.
4) Endurance is execution. My experience in consumer-packaged goods and retail has convinced me that there aren’t that many truly new ideas. The winners, in the long run, are those who execute best. Of course, you must meet a consumer need, but the path between idea and consumer purchase is long, and execution of the plan is much more difficult and critical to success than choosing the exact right idea. A perfectly executed OK idea trumps a poorly executed perfect idea all day long. Focus on execution for lasting impact.
5) Endurance is simplicity: it is easy to make things complex, but quite difficult to make things simple. Good leaders make direction and instruction clear and simple. Good teams do risk assessments, scenario plans and reduce friction in any transaction with the end consumer. The ‘first cost is the least cost’, is a process design principle I learned as an engineer. It means that by taking complexity out of a process early, one can add exponential speed later in execution, when more people are involved. Value maximizing teams address the the hard stuff that focus on customer needs, they don’t pass the complexity down the supply chain.
One of my favorite leadership stories is that of Ernest Shackleton, who led an expedition to the South Pole in 1914-1916, in his boat named Endurance. He started by seeking a first-mover advantage; he wanted to be the first person to walk across Antarctica to get to the South Pole. When his team of 28 encountered serious issues, he re-aimed, and re-invented the team’s goals, executed the plan, kept things simple and survived seemingly insurmountable odds.
He wasn’t the first to get to the South Pole, in fact his team never even made it to the continent. But Shackleton endured – he adjusted his aim from the South Pole to survival of 29 people. He never wavered from that higher level goal, and led the men in activities that maintained their sanity and established order in times of uncertainty; they kept a strict routine of duties, ensured good interpersonal interactions and a sense of camaraderie.
In the business climate of 2020, my encouragement to you is to focus on endurance. Reset your aim if needed, focus on the ‘steak’ and the overall value you are creating. You may not be able to set the speed at which the economy moves, but you can lead with clarity and purpose and take care of your team, remembering that the only way out is through.