Focus on the Future: Be a Forward-Looking Leader

11 Feb

What single quality differentiates high-potential leaders from ordinary contributors in an organization?

It’s their ability to be forward-looking and focus on the future. To become a better leader or distinguish yourself as someone primed for promotion, you’ll want to develop your capacity to envision the future.
Focusing on the future sets leaders apart. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competency — perhaps one of the most important ones, next to integrity and resourcefulness.

In The Leadership Code (Harvard School of Business Press), Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood and Kate Sweetman reviewed leadership theory and distilled leadership competencies into five overarching roles:
  • Strategist— Leaders shape the future.
  • Executor— Leaders make things happen.
  • Talent manager— Leaders engage today’s talent.
  • Human capital developer— Leaders build the next generation.
  • Personal proficiency— Leaders invest in their own development.
While leadership has evolved over time, these five areas of focus have remained constant as key functions of effective leaders, across all industries. Leaders must be able to answer the question, “Where are we going?” We look to our leaders to envision a future, figure out where the organization must go to succeed, evaluate ideas for pragmatism and determine if they fit the company’s core mission. Leaders focus on how people, money, resources and organizational capabilities will work together to move from the present to a desired future.

To become a strategist, your thinking must be future-oriented. You’ll need to become intensely curious about trends, both inside and outside your organization’s field. You’ll need a systematic way of staying informed and tracking changes. This requires you to engage everyone in the organization and collect new ideas from various sources. Invite everyone to participate in creating a better future.

What People Want from Leaders

Leadership professors Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes, after surveying thousands of people on ideal leadership qualities, reveal that the ability to look forward is second only to honesty as the most admired trait. Think about the leaders you’ve followed or admired. The great ones are visionaries who serve as custodians of the future. You want to partner with leaders who can create a better future.
As we age, gain more experience and move up the organizational hierarchy, our desire for a forward-looking leader increases, according to Posner and Kouzes. While only about one-third of undergraduate college students ranked “forward-looking” among their most important leadership attributes, more than 90 percent of senior executives had added it to their lists.
Some leaders are naturally future-oriented; many others excel as executors or talent managers.  Still others shine at getting things done and making things happen; others bring out the best in people. While achieving great results with people is always rewarding, it’s not enough for promotion to higher levels of responsibility and leadership. To take that step, you must expand your ability to communicate a vision for the future. Forward-looking leaders can spot opportunities in their day-to-day work, and they excel at anticipatory thinking.

How Far Can You See?Do you look beyond what’s in front of you — especially when daily tasks take up so much time and energy? How do you become future-oriented and still handle day-to-day challenges?
While the ability to focus on the future separates leaders from the rank-and-file, many of us fail to understand and appreciate its importance. We devote almost no time to developing this vital quality, which then becomes a huge barrier to future success. The challenge of being forward-looking escalates with each managerial level. Front-line supervisors are expected to anticipate events about three months ahead. Mid-level managers have timelines for more complex projects and need to look three to five years into the future. Those in the executive suites must focus on goals that are often 10+ years away.

How to Develop Future Focus
How do you develop your capacity to be future-focused? Carve out some time each week to peer into the distance and imagine what may be out there.
Start with 30 minutes a day, using the time to learn about what’s going on in your industry, with customers, with the potential future of your products and services. You can read magazines, books and/or online research. Top executives estimate they spend only about 3 percent of their time thinking about, and getting others on board with, the critical issues that will shape their business 10 or more years down the road. It’s simply not enough time.

Sparking Energy for What Really Matters
Here’s the problem: In tough economic times, everyone hunkers down on tactics. They focus on survival and results. Decisions become pragmatic. After a while, however, this short-term approach grinds us down, and we lose sight of the big picture. In today’s difficult times, people need to be reminded of why they are doing what they do — and why it matters. This is when leaders can step up and make a difference. Leadership is more than encouraging high-performance; it’s about reminding people of what they are trying to build and why it matters.
In many ways, leadership supplies oxygen to keep the fires going. When people are mired in day-to-day work details, they can lose their bearings. An effective leader makes a difference by helping people see their role in building a better future.

3 Ways to Grow Your Future-Focus
There are three ways to expand your ability to become more future-oriented and hone your leadership effectiveness. In The Truth About Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010), Posner and Kouzes urge readers to spend time learning about the future through:
1.    Insight
2.    Outsight
3.    Foresight

Insight: Explore Your Past
This exercise that follows will help you connect your past experiences and values with your current work. When you look backward, you can see farther ahead and imagine future possibilities. Look for repeating themes in your life — the recurring messages that keep reminding you of what matters most. For younger leaders, there’s less past to recall; however, it’s still important to use the richness of your life experiences to uncover ideals.
Here are some questions to explore:

  • Identify the recurring theme in your life.
  • To which topic do you return again and again?
  • What story do you keep telling and retelling?

Search your past to find the theme. It will probably form the basis of your core values and higher purpose. When you know more about yourself, your dreams and your purpose, it will be easier to keep this information in mind each time you visualize the future.

Outsight: Imagine the Possibilities
To be a credible leader, you need to spend more time reading, thinking and talking about long-term possibilities. Develop the discipline to spend more time studying the future. Establish a “future committee” dedicated to collecting ideas, articles, information and resources about trends affecting your organization. Track publications, both off- and online. Circulate these ideas to stimulate discussions and innovative thinking.
For example, The World Future Society recommends examination of six distinct business-trend categories:
1.    Demographics
2.    Economics
3.    Government
4.    Environment
5.    Society
6.    Technology
Improve your understanding of the world around you, not just in your industry. A game-changing product in an unrelated field could impact your customers and their need for your services. No one can afford to be short-term–oriented in a globally connected marketplace.

Foresight: Survival of the Optimists
“Optimists have a sixth sense for possibilities that realists can’t or won’t see.” ~ Warren Bennis, leadership professor
There is a dramatic difference between people who react to roadblocks with a sense of futility and pessimism and those who react with determination and optimism. Psychologist Martin Seligman has validated that the most successful business leaders are inspired by a sense of optimism.
Those who learn to be optimistic about life and work are far more likely to be successful than those who view a current event through the pessimist’s lens. Being optimistic doesn’t mean ignoring reality or the hardships required to get great results. Leaders can define a business reality, yet defy a negative verdict. By being optimists, leaders give people the hope, energy and strength needed to carry on.

The more you understand reality, the more prepared you are to endure hardships and adversity. Optimism, and a vision for what’s possible, supplies the energy to keep going, persist through challenges and come out on the other side.

One of the best ways to expand your potential leadership abilities is to work with an executive coach, who can help you see what you don’t yet see. An experienced coach will stimulate your thinking and conversations about what’s possible.

You Can See Forever
To become a better leader, or to be seen as a high-potential leader, spend more time in the future. At some point, a future focus will permeate your thinking and saturate your communications.

Everything you do and say will remind people of the future you want to create —for yourself, your colleagues, your customers and the organization. You will draw upon your past experiences, your core values and your guiding purpose.

You will become well-read about trends as you study the future and talk with other people about the exciting possibilities. There’s no doubt that we live in interesting times, and game-changing ideas, products and services are popping up all the time.

Being part of the future allows you to contribute to its creation. You can’t do that without taking time to develop your capacity to be future-focused. And you can’t become future-focused without discipline and action.


The Next Level Global Leader: Managers & Social Networks

2 Feb

To get a glimpse of what tomorrow’s young global managers might be like as leaders, take a look at how today’s young people think about communications.

For one thing, they are devoted to connectivity. In a recent survey of more than 2,800 college students and young professionals in 14 countries, Cisco found that more than half said they could not live without the internet, and if forced to choose, two-thirds would opt to have an internet rather than a car. This intense desire to be connected leads to a demand for greater flexibility: Two out of five people said they’d accept a lower-paying job if the position offered greater flexibility on access to social media, the ability to work from where they chose, and choice on the mobile devices they could use on the job. Tomorrow’s young managers will share these attitudes, and workplaces will inevitably become more flexible.

For another thing, social media is quickly overtaking phones and email and becoming the dominant form of communication. Young people are driving this change, with the one-to-one mode of interacting giving way to a one-to-many mind-set. Young leaders will use social media to create a running dialog with their employees and colleagues, issuing constant updates about their projects and ideas. Employees will use it to provide instantaneous input and feedback. Workers, via this medium, will insist on having a voice in shaping the company’s vision and strategy.

The demand for increased connectivity and flexibility and greater use of social media will shape and change companies from the inside out. Companies will need to think hard about these questions:

  • What is the appropriate level of openness? Should employees be prevented from slamming their bosses’ ideas, for example? Should managers be restricted in the kinds of things they can say to or about employees?
  • How much blurring of public and private life is too much? Social media encourages people to mix work- and nonwork-related communication, but some workers prefer to keep their social lives strictly off-limits.
  • How can the company prevent abuse of social media? Things can get ugly quickly — all it takes is one thoughtless comment. Employees and managers need to know that there will be serious consequences for any misuse of this potentially combustible form of communication.
  • When employees from VPs to interns are sharing company information on Twitter, on Facebook, and in blogs while your competition is watching, how do you ensure that your employees understand what information is confidential and what is public?

As companies resolve these issues, management styles will evolve. The days when a leader can confidently say “I know best” will come to an end. Managers will no longer be able to communicate with just a small circle of trusted advisers — they’ll be expected to interact digitally with a much broader range of people both inside and outside the company.

Not every company will be pleased by this turn of events, of course, but those that embrace it will have new competitive opportunities. With knowledge flowing more freely throughout the organization and decisions being made more quickly, the company will be able to react more nimbly to the ever-increasing pace of change.

What’s “cool” when it gets down to work (and life)?

27 Jan

An Italian junior minister has been forced to excuse himself as he said that to get a university degree after 28 years of age is ‘uncool’.

To most of the (so called) normal people in most of the (so called) normal world this would be perfectly ‘normal’. But we all have learned now that common sense is not common practice.

My grandfather used to say “you either study or you go to work”, and it was clear to all of us in the family that the job he had in mind, should we did not succed at school, was the one on the building site as carpenter. He used our success at school as an opportunity to escalate the social ladder, and it was clear for all of us that there was a sort of conventional limit on the time we were allowed to spend at school, at least in the same class. We learned early the software (what involves heart, mind and soul) and the hardware  (what invokes our body) of achievement, creating and enhancing competencies, not complaint, not being lazy. We have now a full generation living in a sort of ‘limbo’, delaying as much as possible their entrance into the jobmarket.

Without getting to the extreme of Margaret Thatcher, who once said “Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 26 can count himself a failure in life”, we need to start injecting a new cultural  message in our society. We simply need to stop listing and thinking about all the excuses and the reasons that bring us to the non-performance, to start concentrate on what is needed to perform well. We have to stop to be there sitting and waiting for someone  solving problems for us and become proactive on our destiny.

This is the only way to take real ownership about our life afterall. If we do not do it, personally, who should do it on our behalf?


18 Jan

Go back on board, DAMN IT!

This is the firm and assertive order given by the captain of the Italian Coastguard to what appears to be a coward and confused captain who just made his ship sunk for a very stupid and naive habit of sailing too close to the coast. If it wasn’t for the fact that the ship was a cruise ship, and that there were more that 4.000 (!) people on board, some of them tragically dead – we do not how many yet as we write as there are still some hopes to find someone of the missing persons still alive – this event would have been remembered as one of the many stupid things that happen around Italian coasts. The drama is that this conversation risks to represent a good (although tragic) example of what leadership can look like. Not just in Italy of course, but with a strong perspective from the Italian point of view.

Clearly we cannot generalize, one man alone does not represent either the positive or the negative aspects of a Nation or of a style, but it is very interesting to observe a number of elements out of this sad story that can still, nevertheless, teach us something about ourselves and about human behavior in general. I will try to summarize them:

1. The captain of the boat is responsible for the people that travel on his/her boat. No discussion about it. And captain Schettino’s poor attitude during the disaster was exposed to the entire world through the dramatic phone call with the coastguard who ordered him back to the ship to coordinate the rescue. His coward and vague responses to the stringent questions on the current situation which were asked by the Coastguard captain De Falco (his name means Hawk in English, for one of the many funny jokes of this tragedy where Schettino means roller-blades, like the ones he probably whish to had to escape fro this situation) generated a strong and firm reaction from Mr. De Falco “Go back on board, damn it!”, and what is this if not the perfect answers for the human need of revenge towards those cowards we all meet in our daily life? Towards those who, consciously or not, ignore our request for help, from the irritating customer service operator who takes advantage from being hiddeng and protected behind a phone, to the silly and idiot desk clerk we all meet sooner or later in our life?
Captain’s De Falco bluster contains all ours blusters, also those inner ones without an audience or without success.

2. We all like Mr. Wolf’s approach (do you remember Pulp Fiction?), the one who is in control. This is the essence of leadership, being in control and solving problems. Interesting enough a lot of people’s reactions on the web to captain’s De Falco stringent orders was ” it is easy to be in control while you are in the safe of your room shouting orders at the telephone to someone who is trying to manage it in the middle of a disaster”. We – as Italian I mean – are again divided between two parties, the ones for the hero (captain De Falco) and against the perfect escape goat (captain Schettino) and the ones who say that is too easy to judge, we are all human beings, etc. etc. In his own village, the one where he is now under house arrest, young people opened a banner in from of his house saying  “Captain do not give up”.  The fact is that we all, as human beings, always need heroes and anti-heroes.

3. Italians do it better. At the end, why did the ship sail so close to the coast and to its shallow waters? Because the captain, who is told to have a big ego by his own company – let’s admit, as many of us in this country –  wanted to do a “bella figura” with either the chief steward or a blond girl who were on the bridge. “La bella figura”, the beautiful figure, a typical Italian expression that means making a good impression, in  a sort of an aesthetic sense. And once more we have confused what is beautiful with what is good and impressing others, getting appreciations sweeps ethic aside. Leo Longanesi, an Italian sagacious writer once said that Italians prefer openings to maintenance. This marries perfectly with our strong attention to ‘non perdere la faccia’, not to lose face. Our strong attention to personal reputation in the public.

4. I must admit this, if I was on the Concordia Ship with my family I would have been in big trouble. Is this because we would have panicked or because we do not know know how to swim in case of emergency? No, it is simply because I do follow the given instructions when in a dangerous situation, assuming that the one who is giving me those instructions is fully trained and knows exactly what to do and what to say. So I would have gone back to our cabin, as suggested by one of the officers as clearly seen in a video, with all the potential dangerous consequences of this decision. How many times have we seen leaders giving wrong instructions that have caused disastrous consequences?  Business books are full of horror stories of companies brought to disaster because of the wrongdoing of its leaders.

For a country made of saints, poets and sailors, probably in the past we knew how to sink better, but the fact is that poor leadership, generally speaking, seems to be our weakness as a country. It is not that we do not have leaders, but we clearly seem to have an issue with choosing them, balanced by the generosity of our people, represented well by the inhabitants of of Giglio Island, where the shipwreck survivors landed, who in the middle of the night gave their 1000% to support them.