• January 2011

As We Embark On A New Year, Ask: What Does Your Company Do Best?

By Angela Sontheimer
Managing Director
Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg

Whether you lead a nonprofit or a for-profit firm, the question for leaders is the same: What can you do to keep your organization on top?

For guidance, consider a survey conducted by BusinessWeek.com/Hay Group, which ranked the 20 Best Companies for Leadership. Topping their list was General Electric, Southwest Airlines, IKEA, and Zappos.

What is the common thread?

While these organizations certainly have different leadership challenges unique to their individual industries and cultures, the “best” do share certain key characteristics.

They include addressing leadership at all levels of an organization, moving the focus from execution to strategy, and, above all, continuing to make leadership development a priority—despite the economic downturn and chaotic business environment of the past year.

Here are some interesting findings from the study that tie directly into the LLI curriculum:

  • 64 percent of respondents from “best companies” — and only 35 percent of respondents from other companies — say leadership is expected in their organization, even if the individual is not in a formal position of authority. Think about the transformational leadership that made Little Round Top famous about 150 years ago.
  • When asked about their most critical focus, 81.9 percent of “best companies” said “positioning for the future,” compared to 65.1 percent of others. Think about the strategic advantage of the high ground.
  • The study also revealed that three types of organizations are prominent among the 20 best. These include “modern, learning-oriented, fun workplaces,” such as Zappos.com and Southwest; “complex companies with cultures that are more traditional,” like GE and P&G; and companies that are “collaborative for innovation,” focusing on self-organizing teams and problem solving, such as ABB.

So think about your organization, team, or work group.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you “do” leadership in one or more of these ways?
  • Are you being transformational and positioning your organization for success?
  • Are there ways you can create or nurture one of the three best types of organizations?

I’m confident that you can learn from the “best” to make your organization’s leadership even better.

Creativity rules!

Note, too, that creativity is critical. In fact, according to a May 2010 IBM survey of more than 1,500 chief executive officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, chief executives believe that — more than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision — successfully navigating an increasing complex world requires creativity.

Conducted through in-person interviews with senior leaders and consultants from IBM’s Global Business Services division, less than half of global CEOs believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment.

CEOs are confronted with massive shifts — new government regulations, changes in global economic power centers, accelerated industry transformation, growing volumes of data, rapidly evolving customer preferences — that, according to the study, can be overcome by instilling “creativity” throughout an organization.

More than 60 percent of CEOs believe industry transformation is the top factor contributing to uncertainty, and the finding indicates a need to discover innovative ways of managing an organization’s structure, finances, people, and strategy.

The study also uncovers starkly divergent strategic concerns and priorities among CEOs in Asia, Japan, Europe, or North America — the first time such clear regional variations have appeared in this biennial survey of private and public-sector leaders.

“Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes — and facing a new normal that is distinctly different — it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number-one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future,” said Frank Kern, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services.

“But step back and think about it, and this is entirely consistent with the other top finding in our study, that the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.”

How will you harness your creative energies to enhance your leadership practice?

One of the most creative acts of leadership that I can think of is Civil War leader Joshua Chamberlain’s order to the 20th Maine to fix bayonets on July 2 at Little Round Top.

Our own General Jim Anderson made a similar decision in Vietnam. The acts of these two men demonstrate how creativity in leadership decisions can create bold new options and help resolve what seem to be insurmountable challenges.

In what ways will you “fix bayonets” to create new opportunities and solve problems? Send me an email with your ideas: angela@lincolnleadershipinstitute.com.


About Angela Sontheimer

Sontheimer is managing director of Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, where she is responsible for overseeing operations, marketing, and curriculum design. She is a graduate of Gettysburg College and holds a master’s degree in leadership and liberal studies from Duquesne University.

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