Is Going With Your Gut Smart Leadership?

Before we get started I have a confession to make.  I’m not the smartest person in the room.  Many of you knew that already.  I am however someone with a good bit of experience leading and consulting to organizations and Boards.  I have learned a few things about smart leadership, decision-making and the power of execution.  Here are some things I want to share for your consideration.

  • Is going with your gut smart?
  • How do you leverage your big picture skills in execution?
  • How do you execute with excellence?

This post should have been sub-titled “How I Learned to Love the Micro-Biome” because it has perfect symmetry with the notion of going with your gut. Not exclusively mind you, but as a critical component of your decision tree.  Now the micro-biome as you may know refers to the microbes that live in the human intestinal tract. They are responsible for digesting the foods we eat.  Interestingly, even though they are bacteria, they don’t make us sick, they help keep us healthy.  Without them, you would starve to death.  Some of our best decisions meet the same fate, when we don’t trust our instincts.

I think we would all agree, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, it matters whether you can achieve the goals of your organization and illuminate the aspiration of your customers.

Downsizing your dreams—-the big picture, if you will–is not the way to go.  Right-sizing your expectations is.  I don’t mean settle for less. I mean be prepared to meet your team where they are and be prepared to advance them to where they need to be.  If as the French artist Gustave Flaubert said, “God is in the details”, then I’m going to trust my gut and only pray at the largest cathedrals.

Would you agree customer networking events need name tags? Right?  Me too!  Funny thing though, in one organization they said they didn’t.  When I asked why, they said, because everyone already knows one another.  To which I replied, if they already know one another, then why are we having networking events?  They got the message.  Big picture. Little executions.

If you are a “big picture” leader, your greatest strength is not trying to retrofit your skills in execution, it is using your broad perspective to ask the right questions of your team.  There is a caveat of course, if you’ve moved to a tiny firm, you may be asking yourself the questions.  So be it.  What’s important is asking the questions and thinking through the issues and the answers.

Likewise, it’s important to realize you have allies–among your peer network, the membership or customer base and ultimately your staff.  Finding people among those three groups who will accommodate you and leverage your big picture skills is critical.

I have followed several industry veterans with long tenure.  Two of them were in the CEO seat for 26 and 39 years respectively.  Where my predecessors gave short shrift to some issues, I found manna for a strategic vision.  An example–an industry is in the throes of seismic change.  One of our customers had been pitching an industry promotional campaign for at least five years with no success.  What are the three most common complaints we hear in today’s data saturated world?  Nobody knows what we do or why it’s important/valuable/vital and we need to do more to promote our business.  That’s exactly what we did.

With lots of collaboration and about six months of steady effort, we launched an educational campaign designed to help consumers connect the dots between the environment and the responsible use of our industry’s products.  Big picture project, with lots of opportunities to leverage the detail level skills of staff, volunteers and members alike.

If there’s any secret to this process it is demonstrating you are in the game. Know the details of the game plan.  Attend the execution meetings.  Ask the big picture, strategic questions.  For our industry campaign, it was asking the obvious questions about how to focus the campaign and the hard questions about the best ways to execute the “grass-roots” campaign we envisioned. More often than not, groups move to “how” far too quickly. Your job, no different than showing “you own the numbers” when it comes to financial reporting is showing your capacity to engage with vital questions and insights.

Be the champion.  The 7 Measures of Success research published by ASAE suggests CEO’s be the broker of ideas for their organizations. I agree, totally.  Using the big picture skills you possess to make clear the strategic imperatives behind your programs and efforts is a vital part of the job.  Helping your members/customers see “behind the curtain” of your plans makes a huge difference to your success.  Our industry campaign offers valued insight.  While the campaign does not necessarily drive buyers directly to our members, it does an outstanding job of driving visitors to the association’s website–where they can learn about our members and the association.  Not everyone fully appreciated that strategy at the outset.  We broke it down for them.

None of this is a guarantee of success.  It is more akin to a compass.  You have to learn how to use it proficiently before it yields any meaningful results.  Failure is inevitable at some point along the way.  Know it. Work like crazy to avoid it. Prepare for it in any case.

Now this is important.  Do not get caught in the trap of separating strategy from execution. It is a myth, that these two processes could or should be separate.  This is a false dichotomy.  This new age invention is based on an age-old joke.  “While the surgery was a complete success, the patient died”.  Far too often, I hear claims of spectacular strategies which failed not because the strategies were bad, but because the execution was poor.

Let me be clear. Execution does not live outside of strategy. And frankly neither does your success.  If you haven’t taken all of the variables of your culture, organization dynamics, demographics, and attitudes into consideration right alongside your strategy, you’re missing a huge opportunity and a huge point of leverage.

Understand, I’m not talking about the pedestrian objections of “we’ve always done it this way” or “we’ll never be able to do this”. I  am really talking about the fine details of what will it take to be successful.  That old saw about “some people being too busy getting it done, to listen to those who say it can’t be done.” is about right.

Let me wrap up by saying this…Big picture leaders delight in seeing others achieve their fullest potential. Our sense of self comes from witnessing the success of others.  Our strength comes not from hitting targets others can’t hit, but rather from hitting targets others can’t see.

  • Take advantage of your “big picture” expertise to ask the critical questions to correct the shortcomings in execution.
  • Find those who will accommodate you.  That is, those who will gladly fly in the shadow of your creativity, innovation and strategic vision.  They thrive on getting it done and you will benefit from their knowledge.
  • Remember that execution and strategy will do more damage held separately than held together.

How do make sure you have the right team in place to support your “big picture” strategy?  So what’s keeping you from your next success?    May it’s your gut.

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