“Move more. Assume less.”
This was the response of a CEO friend when asked about his success in turning around a consulting firm on the brink of extinction twenty-two months earlier.
Don was retiring, and he was reflective.
“In the early days we were determined to meet the market at its point of need. That was our mission. We loved to use words like agile and innovative to describe our approach. We believed our successes were the result of an ability to be in the right place with the solutions to our clients’ concerns. But we’d forgotten that foundation.”
When asked about earlier attempts to right-the-ship, his tone was almost one of disbelief.
“We knew we were losing ground; so we sat around in plush chairs and nice conference rooms and discussed go-to-market strategies that were really about how to get the market to come back to us so that we could keep doing things the way we’d always done them.”
Don’s view of leadership was rooted in two deeply held beliefs.
First, that success depends on listening, and figuring out a way to respond to the challenges and opportunities you uncover.
“Ignore what you hear, or rationalize that the concerns are unfounded, and you’re dead…because someone else will hear, and respond.”
For the consulting company Don had been with for twenty-four years this meant listening to the target audience with absolutely no agenda.
“We had to change…I mean completely rethink and often reinvent the way we approached operations and processes. Success of the past actually made this difficult. We assumed we had things completely figured out. But the marketplace had changed, and we’d missed it.”
There are plenty of variations on this theme; but wherever the way we do things today is based on an assumption that the way we’ve always done them is the only way to fly . . . well, we all know what happens when one assumes.
Combine this view of listening with Don’s second personal belief, and you catch a glimpse of what makes him an extraordinary leader.
“I believe the individuals I work with — inside as well as outside of the organization — and by extension, anyone touched by our organization should be better for having had that experience.”
He anticipates the reaction of his audience.
“I know what you’re going to say. Pie-in-the-sky fluff. But I believe it. My team knows I believe it. Call it corny if you want to; but we share the mission. Move to the market. And the only thing we assume is that the market will be a better place because we’ve been there.”
Don is right, of course. Many will scoff. Sure that might work for Google or some venture funded start-up; but it doesn’t feel practical for a professional service firm.
On the other hand, while this may not be the conversation we’ve always had…what if it turns out to be part of a prescription for what ails once great companies, organizations and even communities.
And all we have to do is move more (toward each other), and assume less.