As leaders we’re expected to be visionaries, focused on what’s ahead, building toward a bigger, better future – scaling the mountain to get to the peak. But peak scaling is impossible without all the incremental steps along the way. And tedious though they may be, the negotiation of those steps dictates the future – victorious flag plant, epic fall, or perhaps just a bad psychological ankle twist – and the invaluable learning that comes with all three.
It’s easy to be captivated by the future – it’s not yet real. It’s full of possibility and it’s unspoiled by the warts of practicality. But it’s also a mirage, and can be a deadly distraction to the immediate needs of now.
When my youngest son Jake was learning to walk, he had to master our ancient, steep stairways – a necessary coup, but one with much potential to end badly. One day while I was in the kitchen, I heard him embark on his first solo descent from the second floor to the first. Willing myself to stay out of sight but at the ready to catch him should he stumble, I could hear him saying something after each conquered step – all focus and tentative bravery. As he got closer to the bottom, I heard him warn himself with the words…. “Careful, Caaarrrrreful….”
Yes. Careful, careful. Don’t take your eye off what’s right in front of you. Proceed cautiously. Sometimes it’s just heads down for a while before it’s safe to look up and around and ahead. That’s ok. You’re not going to get to next if you can’t successfully navigate now. That’s not to say you strap on the blinders, although it’s tempting because sometimes the immediate stuff is too hard to look at or listen to or deal with. But make sure while you’re looking down, your peripheral vision is alert, so you notice the subtle landscape changes. If you hear rumblings, take a closer listen. And if there are closed doors, you’d be wise to take a closer look at who’s behind them. Playing professional possum only invites a psychological ambush.
The thing about the future is it happens whether you plan for it or not. Things that once seemed way off in the distance ahead are suddenly behind you. (How does that keep happening?!) The only defense is to prepare for conditions as much as possible and take a good map – preferably one with multiple routes.
- Study the map – Know your success metrics and watch them like a hawk. Financials, for example. Don’t leave that to the financial-types. One month’s neglect could lead to a quarter’s full of catch-up.
- Care for your crew – Never get complacent regarding talent, and don’t ever believe that your key players are easily replaced. They’re not, and their absence leads not only to a culture drain, but a brain trust deficit as well.
- Plan checkpoints – Focus on three things to accomplish by the end of the fiscal year. Make them concrete and measurable.
Beware the barbed wire.
I almost put my eye out when I was five. At my uncle’s farm, I was running headlong behind my brothers, anxious to get to the barn where a brand new batch of kittens were just waiting to be cuddled. What I failed to observe in my pell-mell haste, was their artful duck underneath a barbed wire fence surrounding the barn. So my face met up with some gnarly pricks (the fence, not my brothers), put an immediate halt to my kitten bonding and resulted in a two-inch gash just below my left eye. (I think my Mom is still recovering from that one.)
So now, whenever I look in the mirror, I’m reminded by a barely-there scar to always be on the lookout for the duck-and-miss. You don’t want to be blind-sided by unexpected jabs.
- Storms ahead – What’s on the horizon that has material impact on your current business? Are there category disruptors? Annual planning should include antidotes to these. What skills/talent/capital-adds do you need to retain the majority of your clients’ revenue stream?
- Blue sky – Keep an ongoing list of blue sky “I wish-es.” These should serve as your mountain view – the things to keep on your horizon. Add tangible to-do’s around each to make sure they come to fruition.
- Who’s on your bus? – Keep a list of your current talent worth keeping and find ways to recognize and reward them. Additionally, keep a running list of the talent you want to attract, with an ear to the ground for recommendations from others you trust.
It’s important to have a view of the horizon, but getting to that vantage point requires careful footing on the path forward. There’s no point worrying about how you’re going to scale the mountain if you’ve fallen in a pothole on the way there.
So keep your eye on the future, but be careful, careful along the pathway, mind each step and always be ready to duck. That view is most definitely worth it.