From Above



NORTH STAR: Make it about more than money

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.” – Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time series

The beloved series of fantasy novels (14 in total, three of them completed after Jordan passed) is like Lord of the Rings on steroids. Dragons and wizards and evil gods and heroes and witches and shapeshifters and and and. But where it is quite clever in a self-deprecating way, is that it acknowledges its total lack of originality.

You see, the books – which have sold millions – tell the same story as Tolkien, or Weiss and Hickman, or Feist, or any of the others. But it does it in a fresh way, with great storytelling, and an inside joke of this has all happened before. The battles have been fought before, the hero is a reincarnation, and so are most of the baddies. If this all feels super familiar, it should. Also, if it all feels new and scary, that holds true too.

Funny thing. Harvard actually has a matrix on this.

If you can come up with a product that is both highly innovative (it hasn’t been seen before) and yet feels immediately familiar, your odds of success are quite high. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone or the first MP3 player or the first mini-computer – but the use of touchscreen tech made it innovative and it put Blackberry out of business.

Last week, a friend of mine, who recently assumed a very demanding senior job in a massive SA company, recommended this book: CEO Excellence, by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller and Vikram Malhotra. And these three pioneers did the logical thing: Wrote a leadership book based on a strong foundation of research and distilled their consistent findings into a coherent thesis on what it takes to succeed at the very top.

But hold on. As I read through it, the terms seem familiar, and I thought of other leadership tomes that were the gold standard in their day:

Perspective Practice: Stay Humble/Teamwork Practice: Make the Team the Star

Sounds suspiciously like Jim Collins’s Level 5 Leadership from Good to Great.

Team Composition Practice/Operating Rhythm Practice

Get the right people on the bus – Collins again? Meeting rhythms from Scaling Up?

Vision Practise: Reframe the Game

North stars and make it about more than money, which is really the good old BHAG from Good to Great.

What’s great about this book is that the authors did the work. They collected sample stories from a broad base of companies (including outside of the US, which is fresh). They offer some fresh insights along with some tried and trusted principles, and I find it a worthwhile read.

A book written in the context of leadership during the Pandemic is needed, if only to interrogate what the best did before, during and now after to take advantage of the opportunities created by crisis.

Tellingly, they start, as most good leadership books should, with vision. This happens to be the cornerstone of my coaching practice as well. Before you can be effective, before you can be influential, before you can lead others, you need to know where the hell you are going. And what’s the bigger picture – not in terms of money, but in terms of impact. Not one single person worth having will jump on board with you if your vision is “Let’s get rich.” Well, maybe there are some. But the best companies – the companies that outperform all the others – have goals and dreams bigger than money.

The founders, and eventually the people they get to lead their organization, are futurists. They stick to their guns where needed, but they have a clear vision of what they want to achieve, what difference they want to make in the world, and they have a timeframe and a metric attached. And when they hit that goal – as Microsoft did ahead of schedule in the ’90s (“A computer on every desk and in every home”).

But when they got there, they needed to restate their bigger vision. Enter stage left visionary CEO Satya Nadella who boldly took Microsoft into the cloud while shutting down the phone business. Why? Because the vision became: “Empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

So Microsoft is a behemoth, and Bill Gates is one of the world’s richest men. But the folks that work within that beast are committed to a bigger goal, the goal of making life better for all of us. And man, I am writing this on Word and life without Excel or PowerPoint? Couldn’t even fathom it.

I have been a disciple of Stephen Covey for over 20 years. And the 2nd Habit – Begin with the End in Mind – holds as true today as it did then. If we lean our ladder against the right wall, we can get busy climbing it.

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