Winning the Corporate Long Game

Winning the Corporate Long Game

Winning . . . What can an executive looking for career longevity learn from companies that found their way through repeated cycles of change, disruption, and competition?

Executive success - Joe Jordan
Winning executive career longevity

Start by looking at those who lost the game. Only 74 (15%) of the inaugural Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 companies remain on the list today. A mere 12 of those companies have outperformed the S&P index. Only 11% (54 companies) of the original Fortune 500 are still contributing to the global economy.

Woolworth’s, Eastern Airlines, Blockbuster, General Foods, Kodak, and maybe soon-to-be-added Sears were names on the marquee of corporate success for decades. Their failed strategies make them footnotes in business school case studies. In 2018, 126-year-old GE became a S&P used-to-be.

What causes the great to fail? A Credit Suisse study, cited in an August 24, 2017 article in Money concludes, “the disruptive force of technology is killing off older companies earlier and at a much faster rate than decades ago, squeezing employers, investors, and other stakeholders.”

Really?

The survival or demise of a transnational enterprise has more to do with decisions than disruption. The forces of change in our global economy are unavoidable. How executives respond to those dynamics determines the lifespan of a company—and the longevity of the leader. Executives in companies that employ those forces thrive. Those that fail to adapt are quickly forgotten. Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and Salesforce.com enjoy places of prominence on the S&P today. They, like all of the long-term S&P companies must make prudent, forward-thinking decisions to remain viable contenders.

The difference is determined by decisions. Though slightly dated, a 2010 McKinsey survey of 2,207 executives, found only 28% rated their strategic decisions as “generally good.”  Sixty percent saw bad decisions made as frequently as good. McKinsey concluded, “the proclivity of bad decision making is usually intensified by poor decision-making systems in organizations.” Executive development firm Navalent’s 10-year longitudinal study on executive leadership concluded that 61% of executives appointed to senior leadership roles were not ready for the challenges they encountered. Perhaps that helps explain why over 50% of executives fail within the first 18 months in a role.

The decisions an executive makes to ensure his/her longevity closely parallel what companies must do to survive in an unpredictable and unprecedented market.

Recognize and engage disruptive forces. When executives and the companies they lead encounter the unexpected, they do well to take a chapter from the playbook of Jujitsu. “Ju” means to be flexible, pliable, yielding. Jutsu is an art or technique. Combined, they create a method of using an opponent’s force rather than confronting it with an opposing force. This does not mean executives and enterprises accept the “resistance is futile” message of a Star Trek Borg. It does mean leaders who want more than a shooting star career trajectory must give serious attention to assessing and adapting both the impact and nuance of business evolution. We manage change no more than we manage time. All we do with both is manage the choices that determine our outcomes. Industry changing innovation is disruptive. Downsizing, rightsizing, offshoring, and unexpected terminations are realties of the 21st century. Leaders and companies that thrive in disruption do so by engagement not avoidance.

Release what worked in the past. A powerful mantra for any executive wanting longevity is to look at any situation remembering, “This is not that.” While an acquisition opportunity looks like one completed successfully in the past, it isn’t the same and should not be managed as if it is. Quaker Oats’ highly successful acquisition of Gatorade in 1988 prompted their purchase of Snapple in 1993 for $1.7 billion. Multiple unanticipated factors made this one of the worst acquisition stories in history, and Snapple was sold four years later for $300 million. An effort to replicate a past success in a new environment is an inadequate response to today’s market dynamics. The same job title in a different context, demands a fresh approach.

Re-invent. Re-invent. Re-invent. Western Union used to send telegrams—now it sends money. Gaming giant Nintendo started as a playing card company. IT services company Wipro began by manufacturing and selling vegetable oil. American Express morphed from serving banks, to offering money orders, to creating the first traveler’s checks, to the global financial services and travel company it is today. Executives with successful long game strategies learn how to market their contributions more than their experience. They speak of their capabilities in industry-agnostic terms. Leaders positioned for enduring success are willing to move out of a comfort zone of familiarity to the unknown of possibility.

No stranger to opportunity, failure, and innovation, Richard Branson wisely reminds us “Every success story is a tale of constant adaptation, revision, and change.”

Lasting Impressions

Lasting Impressions

Impressions. You create one in seconds. A poor one can follow you for a lifetime.

Impression
Impressions matter.

From early childhood, parents teach the importance of making a good first impression. Few of us realize how quickly impressions are created, how long they last, and how difficult they can be to dislodge from someone’s

mind.

An impression is an idea, feeling, or opinion you create about someone or something—often without conscious thought. For professionals and companies today, like giving attention to a brand, the impact of first—and last impressions can’t be under-emphasized.

Some argue, “Look at billionaires. They don’t care about impressing people.” Yes, from Mark Zuckerberg’s characteristic T shirt and hoodie to Bill Gates’ mop top haircut to Sergey Brin’s “I’m still a geek” look, the uber-wealthy do sport some intriguing styles. And when you are a member of the Forbes Three Comma Club, you can dress any way you want. Until then, impressions matter.

Corporations that understand the importance of impressions jealously guard how a company name and logo appear. Surveys, focus groups, and market analysis are an integral part of any marketing effort to determine the impact of an impression before it is attempted.

In many situations, our impressions have little, if any tangible evidence to support them. The Association for Psychological Science reports that a series of experiments by two Princeton psychologists determined that an impression from a face is formed in a tenth of a second, and subsequent longer exposures don’t significantly alter the “first impression.” Research found people judge trustworthiness the quickest, and over time, those judgments don’t change.

That unfortunate reality is compounded when the first impression is created online. Jeremy Biesanz, Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia worked with more than 1,000 people exploring the accuracy and bias of first impressions formed under varying circumstances. Biesanz discovered the accuracy of impressions varied little between mediums, but impressions formed on-line tend to be more negative than those created in-person.

Another study found that after a first impression is formed, people tend to hang on to the impression, even after they are given facts that contradict what is believed. Add to that our universal tendency toward confirmation bias (seeking and assigning more weight to evidence that supports a conclusion) and all of us are forced to give at least some attention to caring about the impressions we create.

This does not mean professionals should shift their attention to impression management. Whether a company or a professional, manage your brand well, and you will have less difficulty managing the impressions you create.

Here are three areas where impressions matter.

Thanks to social media, you no longer have a separate personal and professional life or presence—you have a life and anyone, anywhere can dig into it and draw conclusions about you without every meeting or interacting with you. A casual scan at LinkedIn profiles shows glamour shots, people with their children, a Hollywood character’s photo (likely in violation of a copyright), wedding photos, a shirtless weightlifter, or someone slugging their way through a Tough Mudder. Facebook images and postings often leave little room for interpretation. Like it or not, you must be conscious of what your social media presence says about you. For companies, managing social media impressions is as much about watching what others say about you as about managing what you say about yourself.

A quick search for resume images will give you dozens of examples of documents that quickly create an impression that even a great interview could have trouble erasing. Knowing that words comprise only six per cent of how we communicate, relying on a resume to create a first impression is a risky proposition, at best. A well-written resume focused on defined outcomes should reinforce an impression—not be the first attempt to create one.

The first few seconds of an interview are crucial for creating a positive impression. Mishandling the innocuous, “Tell me about yourself” question can set an interview on a course that will be difficult to correct. Assuming a business casual dress code or becoming too informal during an interview can easily cause the conversation to derail. If you are the interviewer, resist your inherent tendency to make a judgment in the first seconds of a meeting and spend the next hour looking for evidence to convince yourself you are right. As you draw mental conclusions, ask yourself, “What am I missing?” or “How could I be wrong?” or “Where is there evidence that disconfirms my conclusion?”

Malcom Gladwell reminds us, “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.”

Company, executive, or professional, the impression you create is fragile. Handle it with care.