Leadership Means Moving Beyond Short-Term Thinking

imageOn a flight to Stockholm this afternoon (on my way to SharePoint Saturday, #SPSsthlm), I was reading the latest Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 2014), which focuses largely on the topic of innovation (you need to check out The New Patterns of Innovation on page 86), and was inspired by the letter from the editor in chief, Adi Ignatius, and jotted down a few notes. Those who know me well understand that I am a bit of a organizational / leadership development junkie, and so what he said at the beginning of his brief column rekindled a topic that I occasionally talk and write about around management versus leadership. He writes:

“It’s almost an article of faith: The world would be a better place if businesses stopped thinking so much about short-term results and focused more on the long term. Yet it has proved nearly impossible to shift their behavior. The ideal is clear, but the incentive systems in place at many firms deter efforts to attain it.”

I saw this with clients back in my consulting years, I saw it again when I worked at Microsoft, and I’ve seen it since departing. The thought I had was not really about short-term focus on revenue rather than long-term strategy – a huge problem with many product companies, especially in the technology field. In software, for examples, many companies have been caught asleep at the wheel when the market changes, and they pay the price for their lack of vision and strategy as customers follow the innovation (um, hello Microsoft).

A core skill of many of the most successful entrepreneurs, and a sign of good leadership, is the ability to take limited amounts of information, carve out a strategy, and move forward. Strategy does not equal a regurgitation of what the latest analyst report suggests. Those reports always have a wonderful grasp of the obvious – they focus on what companies have done, but rarely provide insights into where things are going. It doesn’t mean they are always wrong, but leaders will look at analyst research as just one data input. They are (well, should be) constantly reading the data and making adjustments. They make mistakes, sure, but they also have successes – and learn from both.

In general, we confuse “management” with “leadership.” The two are very different – and I’m not talking about people management. Individual contributors can make the same mistakes managing processes, virtual teams, communities – and demonstrate leadership by helping the business move forward strategically when everyone around them is busy micro-managing their workloads. Management is tactical, and tends to be down in the weeds of the business, while leadership acts as a compass to make sure those tactical activities are focused on the right business issues and solutions.

Yeah, I know…I’m babbling in management generalities. Maybe I’m just unable to completely express my thoughts on the topic, but I’ve lived through this. It makes sense in my head. Thinking back to a couple of my own experiences, I once completed a massive project that took well over a year to plan out, and it all culminated on a single weekend – a massive system cutover. We nailed it, we were under budget, and I was the project lead. But it came at a cost. None of my peer groups wanted to work with me after that. My internal customers and executive team were thrilled by our success, but my opportunities within the business unit were gone. I literally had to go find another job within the company. Despite this, my manager acknowledged that it would have never come together had I not driven it forward in the way that I did. I understood the long-term, strategic importance of the project and spent a good deal of time working with partners, my executive team, and our target customers to make sure that our strategy adjusted as we learned, and worked hard to ensure everyone involved stayed the course. Many of my peers just viewed me as unyielding. The whole thing bothered me for a couple years, but I got over it – and its still one of my proudest professional accomplishments.

At another customer, I was brought in to fix some big, hairy problems, and we actually discussed the probable end scenario – that by fixing the big, hairy problems, we would cause a tremendous amount of change, that the disruption would cause anger, and that to alleviate that anger, my time there would come to an end. But I knew this going in, which allowed me to focus entirely on what needed to be done. Some of my team referred to me as “The Bob” because a portion of the role was to rebuild teams and clean house. And you better believe we cleaned house (oh, do I have stories). I may not have made friends with everyone while there, but I helped solve many of that company’s long-term, strategic problems, and set them on the right path forward.

Maybe I’m getting sidetracked here. In the past, I was a hard-driving PM and team leader, but my teams always delivered. I was rarely worried about the short-term effects of these changes because I knew that, over time, following the right long-term strategy would benefit the team and the business. I would argue that having excellent leadership (vision, strategy) but poor management can still find great success, but good management with poor leadership rarely, if ever, succeeds.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.