Steven's Blog

exceptional leadership

Be the Success Exception

Exceptions are “exceptional” by definition, and always exist no matter how rare. Just because research in organizational change shows a strong correlation between certain factors of success and failure does not make these axiomatic. My most successful clients make themselves the success exception, and you can too.

In my experience, I have never seen any dramatic change of any significance gain widespread cross-organizational enthusiasm before implementation, but have often seen such change succeed nonetheless despite lack of initial buy-in. So I advise that action first, buy-in later works, as long a you do things right. There is no need to delay change to seek buy-in.

Reading some of my work on the topic prompted a friend of mine in academia to push back, sending me a list of failure factors in organizational change from academic research including “failure to create cross-organization enthusiasm and a lack of local leadership buy-in.” I don’t doubt the research, but in my world real success trumps all else.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not knocking academic research, much of which ends up packaged for non-academics in popular business books authored by elite business school gurus. We can learn from these. But just think about it for a moment. If the insights of all these gurus are all that is needed, how come they are still working for wages at a university rather than becoming fabulously wealthy in business for themselves?

Business school students still study Harvard guru Michael Porter on strategy, and they should. I respect Michael Porter’s contributions to research and to the world. At the same time, I bear in mind that Michael Porter’s private strategy consulting firm Compass ended up inauspiciously filing for bankruptcy protection. Even excellent research has its limitations.

Some years back, the head of strategic planning for a major Japanese bank contacted me to ask which is the best strategy development methodology to use. At the time the bank was using a famous one developed by yet another Harvard guru, and management had come to doubt its effectiveness after some years of lackluster business results.

“Just use some kind of method. Doesn’t matters which one,” I told him. Strategy is about having a vision of the business in the future and working backwards from there. The methods out there, including well-known ones and the ones you make up yourself, are just different ways of doing the same thing.

This bank executive’s problem was not one of strategy method though. It was leadership at the top of the bank, and no approach to strategy no matter how sound can serve as substitute for effective leadership.

The executive frowned when I told him that. Looking dejected, he sighed and said he could not take my answer back to his bosses who had insisted he find a better approach to strategy to fix the bank’s problems. The reaction of his bosses he imagined and appeared to fear seemed only to further make my point.

I once told a successful client of mine that she really ought to be looking at growing her business much faster than what she had been targeting. She told me however that too often she had seen other organizations similar to hers compromise their culture and values in pursuing growth. She did not want to end up compromising her organization’s in the same way.

“Unlikely you would,” I told her, emphasis on ‘you.’

“None of the other organizations have you as leader,” I explained. “You are good enough to defy the odds.”

She was, and she did. Exceptional leadership is always the wild card that produces exceptional results.

Conventional wisdom never applies to the unconventional, and best practice is only an excuse for mediocrity. Treat business research with healthy skepticism.

Conventional wisdom never applies to the unconventional, and best practice is only an excuse for mediocrity. Treat business research with healthy skepticism. Click To Tweet

And remember. Just because your putative peers have mostly failed at something doesn’t mean you will too. If you look, you will find success exceptions. You’re smart enough to be one yourself, as long as you have the gumption.


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