Enhancing your leadership relevance – 1

Sometime last week in Ibadan, I tuned to a local TV station and was just in time for a panel discussion on the insurance industry in Nigeria. The panel of discussants comprised veterans in the industry. Every one of the three of them had either headed or is currently heading an insurance company in Nigeria. It was interesting hearing them talk about current challenges in the industry. For the most part, it seemed that all that two of them could do was to rue the present economic challenges and the negative impact on the industry. They went down memory lane to the “good old days” or what could be termed the golden years of the industry. They spoke ad nauseam on how cut- throat competition was necessitating low premiums that impinged on bottom-line and seemed to be encouraging what they saw as ‘underhand’ practices in the industry.

But one of them was a refreshing difference! His approach brought a unique perspective to the issues in such a way that made me want to hug him if it had been possible on air. He had to remind his colleagues that insurance practice at the time their generation started it is completely different from what it is all over the world today. He gave graphic examples of certain practices that the industry in Nigeria still engaged in that could never positively affect the industry’s fortunes. In particular, he gave the example of an insurance company that he consulted for which had about 130 cars and had 103 three drivers on its payroll! In a world where organizations focus on their main concern and outsource a significant chunk of services, it is evident that this organization was soon going to be a dinosaur if its leaders did not do something fast! He won my heart when he made the statement that many of the last generation of leaders who still head the industry were yet to come to terms with the fact that the operating environment keeps evolving and they also need to correspondingly evolve if they want to remain relevant. While the others saw the problems as those of society or certain government policies that squeezed the funds supply, he simply identified it for what it actually is, the tragedy of a leadership that has largely refused to adapt to the reality of change in its operating environment. The consequence is that they find themselves strangers in a future they were never prepared for but which arrived in spite of them.

The scenario is so deja vu. I hear the same story and see similar scenarios enacted all the time. It is easier to complain than transform. When people complain about a problem, it gives them an opportunity to amplify what is wrong and who made it so. And once the human mind can identify who or what to blame for a crisis, it helps to put the toga of responsibility on someone else while it exculpates itself of any “guilt” and the attendant need and contribution to fix it.

Great leaders think differently. Age is a number and the development of a man’s mind and its function have little or nothing to do with a calendar. Leaders that will lead their organizations successfully into the future would have to learn and master the use of certain trends that will help them and the people they lead to navigate the challenges of a constantly evolving marketplace.

The first trend is the rise of complex challenges. There is hardly any executive today who will not tell you that the challenges faced in his organization are more complex than what they were five or ten years ago! Some of those challenges are caused by internal changes happening within the organization. This is manifested in staff movements, production dynamics, leadership challenges, manpower development issues, etc. Other causes are market dynamics, advances in technology which affect internal processes in the organization. What was trendy last year may have become bad news today because of a more versatile, user-friendly and less costly alternative. We can add shortage of skilled talent into the mix. The demand that this mix places on the leader is a capacity to achieve more with less!

The second trend is the relentless innovation revolution.  Advances in technology only mean that the executive must constantly think on his toes. Just a few years ago, a 250-gigabyte hard drive with a 2GIG RAM on a laptop would have been considered top-of-the-range. Today, it can at best qualify as entry-grade for a rookie computer user! New ideas and inventions are rolling off the creative terrain faster than they can be optimally utilized. A few months ago, I bought a 4TB external hard drive for less than I paid for a 250G external drive only a few years earlier. And the 250G is so bulky I cannot just tuck it into my bag. It also needs to be independently powered whereas the 4TB is plug and play and is so compact it fits into a small compartment in my laptop bag in an unobtrusive way! Everyone wants to be part of the next big thing. But the question is ‘How?’ and ‘At what cost?’ To effectively profit from this trend, a leader must deliberately encourage innovation in his organization not just through a Research and Development department (which sometimes translates to other departments simply going to sleep when it comes to generating new possibilities). Beyond that, there should be deliberate brainstorming meetings where ideas are bandied around with the understanding that no idea, no matter how absurd, is useless! A lot has been accomplished through such ideation processes. If anything, it is the birthplace of many serendipitous breakthrough innovations.

Other ways of weighing in on this trend include deliberate recognition and reward of innovative talent contributions, team tasks on and off-site with a specific mandate that encourages solving familiar problems in very unconventional ways that are more cost-effective and gets more done in less time.

Innovation is not just about acquiring, updating or warehousing information just because this is the Information Age. It is about targeting such information towards problem-solving in very practical, innovative ways that not only ensure relevance but sustainability. The challenge that faces any tabloid publication today for instance should not be how to increase print-run. It should be how to increase readership. To do that in a busy and more competitive world, you will have to make yourself visible on the platforms that your readers frequent and then make them notice your presence there. Lengthy editorial board meetings and back-breaking deadlines would only worsen the situation unless they are geared towards doing less of the old to do more of the new!…continued

Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!