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Leaders must change when they have to, not fear flip-flop label

Leaders must change when they have to, not fear flip-flop label
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First Published: Sun, Mar 01 2009. 10 07 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Mar 01 2009. 10 07 PM IST
As a veteran of the Vietnam war, I can’t see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan or that our country (the US) has the ability to pay for it. Am I being pessimistic?
—Jerry Helmert, Wisconsin
We too are perplexed by President Barack Obama’s recent executive order authorizing the escalation of military operations in Afghanistan with the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops. If that country’s history has taught us anything, it’s that conventional warfare doesn’t work very well—to put it mildly—against the guerrilla tactics of “freedom fighters” defending that unfamiliar terrain. That’s why we hope the President will re-evaluate his position in the weeks ahead, and as he does, we hope too that he will not fall prey to the syndrome that afflicts virtually every leader who has ever stood at a podium to make a bold and defining pronouncement on strategy, as Obama promised to bolster the effort in Afghanistan when he was on the campaign trail.
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Now, it’s hard to know exactly when “flip-flopping” first became a dirty word in the leadership lexicon. But in recent years this choice epithet has been hurled at political candidates on both sides of the fence, seriously damaging the campaigns, for instance, of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, and of Mitt Romney during his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. In those cases, critics made it sound as though revising one’s stance on an issue was some kind of moral failing.
What nonsense. Confronting the possibility that a strategy has gone off course or a position has become outdated is the essence of great leadership. And it is the responsibility of all leaders who find themselves in such a predicament to change direction swiftly, widely communicate the change, and move on without undue pandering or emotionality.
Change happens. And so a leader’s mindset must change, too—under two broad circumstances in particular.
But before we describe those circumstances, a quick caveat. We’re obviously talking here about “revisionism”, but within limits. There’s almost nothing more frustrating than a manager whose opinion changes according to the views of the last person to leave his office.
Just as bad is a leader who changes his views depending on his audience, rolling out one set of talking points for the press, another for analysts, and yet another for employees. That’s nothing but weakness, which enervates the organization and soon catches up with any leader who indulges in the practice.
No, what we’re talking about is appropriate flexibility—the kind that legitimately occurs when a leader’s perspective is upended by new insights, or when the business environment is upended by unanticipated conditions.
For an example of the first circumstance, consider what happened at General Electric Co. (GE) in the 1990s. For at least a decade, the company had an imperative that every product or service had to be first or second in market share, else its managers were to “fix, close or sell” the business. Then a group of managers returned from a leadership-training course—the No. 1 or No. 2 strategy, they said, wasn’t necessarily encouraging GE businesses to grow. More often it was impelling them to define their markets more narrowly. Instead of saying, for instance, “We are No. 1 in Product X,” they were saying, “We’re No. 1 in Product X—with one particular feature”—a winnowing that, for many businesses, could pump market share up into the 40% range.
Almost immediately, GE’s leadership team changed the “first or second place” imperative to reflect this new perspective.
It was announced that every business had to redefine its current markets so that it had no more than a 10% share. The change opened people’s eyes to a world of opportunities in adjacent markets, products and services, and the company’s growth rates increased dramatically.
As for the second circumstance—an upended competitive environment—well we’re living it. Today’s marketplace is changing so rapidly that any leader holding fast to a “defining” strategy is in serious need of a kick in the pants, especially if that strategy is based on pricey brand exclusivity. Starbucks Corp. chief executive officer Howard Schultz is right when he says that the company must reinvent itself and sell items such as low-cost instant coffee and value meals. Granted, Starbucks’ revised strategy could muddy its high-end image, but given the realities of consumer spending, that’s the right sort of flexible mindset the company needs these days.
Now, we’ll admit that it might seem like quite a stretch to start a column with the president and Afghanistan and end it with a discussion of strategy at Starbucks. But the underlying point we wanted to make holds true in both situations.
For any leader, it’s dangerous to allow the perils of the “flip-flop” label to affect decision-making. In the right circumstances, changing your mind is change you can believe in.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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First Published: Sun, Mar 01 2009. 10 07 PM IST