Never Stop Learning If You Want To Lead In Business
Successful business leaders understand that the learning is never done.
Business leaders love to talk of themselves as all-knowing. Its macho, rewarded and even expected that when you reach a certain level of leadership in business you must have the tools and knowledge to navigate all the challenges that come your way.
I have come to learn that this is just fallacious ego talk. Nobody was born a business leader. We all learn the skills and acquire the competencies and attributes required to succeed at a certain level in business. We all LEARN.
Confession: The past two years have been particularly difficult for me. I have had to pivot my business three times. I have entered into new partnerships, tested them, tested market assumptions and exited the relationships and markets that don’t deliver value. I have had to hire, fire and hire talent more suitable for the destination I was taking the business to, not the place from which we come. I have been investing a substantial portion of my personal wealth in the future growth of the business.
The literature written about the visionary CEO or leader that took the risks in the face of overwhelming opposition and evidence that they would fail makes for gripping reading. However (and take it from me), living the reality of it is a vivid, testing, messy and scary thing.
Finding the end of the earth
There was a time not so long ago when man held the conventional wisdom that the world was flat and that if you dared sail the horizon of the oceans you would fall off the edge of the earth.
Changing direction in your business, pursuing a new strategy, testing new markets, growing your product mix or simply starting a thesis of the business and then testing it is just as scary as pre-historic man daring to sail the oceans in an attempt to prove there was no end to the earth.
So to grow your business and develop yourself beyond your competence requires a willingness to test your knowledge, unlearn old knowledge, embrace new thinking and repeat this cycle consistently to stay ahead of the curve of change.
For entrepreneurs, the end of the earth is markets we know exist, clients we know buy what we sell and the traditional competitors against whom we know how to compete. Our knowledge (things we know to be completely true) is what impedes us in the quest of perpetual knowledge acquisition. Conventional wisdom is conventional because it is universally accepted. That is what makes it dangerous: The comfort of knowing that what we know is accepted by everyone.
Navigating blue oceans
Perhaps the hardest thing about navigating blue oceans is that there simply is no certainty. Neither you, your skills nor your intellect are certain about your fortunes. What you know for sure is that the way things were is no longer how things are. What is certain is that remaining still, whilst an attractive proposition, is too dangerous. The possibility of being left behind by evolving markets, disruptive newcomers and demanding customers is all too real.
Perhaps my most important class session over the past two years has been moving from manager to leader. I have migrated from managing director, involved in the daily operational decisions of the various functions of the firm, to CEO, setting the strategy, hiring a competent skilled team of professionals and keeping the firm enthused about the prospects of the future. I
still find myself meddling in the tasks and functions that the various MDs are driving and my justification is that I was MD of the business through its organic growth into new markets, new opportunities and new territories for a decade, so it is difficult to unlearn this.
If you want to walk a growth path, you have to be able to ask — and answer — these three key questions:
- Why is it so hard to make the shift?
- Why is it so hard to allow yourself the room to develop and grow?
- Why is there such pressure from society to be the perfect business leader all the time?
1. Perfect decision
Much of the literature about leaders that have built great businesses and delivered superior shareholder returns portrays them as cloud-bearing halo-wielding messiahs. The storyline usually involves a courageous and visionary leader who saw things that others didn’t, pursued them and achieved them. Words such as guru, genius or, the one most en-vogue in contemporary business literature, maverick are used to define them.
The stories usually describe a series of events that follow a smooth straight line. And that’s the lie. You live in the day-to-day mirage of constantly evaluating and re-evaluating whether or not you’ve made the right call. You are constantly questioning yourself. Sleep becomes an expensive commodity that you can barely afford in the midst of restlessness and uncertainty.
At a financial level you are under pressure to be prudent with your runway, to maximise the resource of currency. But worst of these you are constantly scrutinised by the hardest to ignore: Your own shadow. Fighting a battle between the man you are and the man you want to be.
I have come to accept that there is no such thing as the perfect decision. Only a decision made perfect. The truth is that leaders make more poor decisions than they do good ones. However the gains from one good decision outweigh the losses from many poor decisions. So I am learning to forgive myself. I am learning that it doesn’t have to be perfect, only good enough. I am learning that ‘perfect is the enemy of good enough.’
2. Perfect timing
This is by far the trickiest consideration in the life of a growing business leader: When should you do something? The answer is almost always ‘yesterday’. When the market is growing and the business is growing you tend to want things done perfectly yesterday.
However you soon come to realise that few things are as demotivating to your people as unrealistic expectations dogmatically applied through a system of performance pressure. If you’re anything like me, you manage the detail and performance management routinely.
You drive your people hard on the matrix that they have to deliver and then expect that they are nimble and agile enough to learn the best ways to do those things daily.
You want the strategy to be implemented at the end of the strategy meeting. You want the product to be launched at the end of the meeting about the product launch. You want the debtors to be reduced and your working capital cycle within your parameters before the
end of the meeting with your finance team.
You want it all. You want it perfect. You want it yesterday.
I have come to learn that just as I am having to learn to work anew so too are my people. Expecting that they are going to drive the perfect P&Ls is fallacious and frankly, demotivating.
Learning is a not a weakness. Literature of business leaders of the modern day needs to tell the truth. The truth is that:
- None of us know with certainty what will work.
- Testing is the only way to know what doesn’t work.
- Failure is part of the process of success.
- Learning is more powerful than knowing.