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March 2011


Leadership Yin-Yang on the Road to Performance Excellence

The current budget situation for the federal government has me thinking a lot about yin and yang: action and reflection, short term and long term, current customers and new markets, and strategy and agility. When it comes to enterprise leadership, whether for a federally funded public-private partnership program like Baldrige or any other enterprise, balance is important. My thinking was further stimulated by the March 2011 Harvard Business Review article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (a former member of the Baldrige Program’s Board of Overseers). Her article is about the need for leaders to “Zoom In, Zoom Out.” Her thoughts are reflected in some of my comments below.

As in the digital device world, zooming in gets you into specific details. Zooming out allows you to see the big picture. To be successful, leaders at all levels need to be able to do both at the appropriate times. Taking action frequently requires zooming in and making sure details are properly addressed. On the other hand, setting aside reflection time allows one to zoom out and focus on understanding the big picture for considering options or future states. Agility is interesting; it requires a keen understanding of the current environment and the ability to project future impacts, with the potential for quick action.

What happens when leaders are always zoomed in, committed to immediate action, and focused on the short term and current customers? They are always looking for quick hits, short-term profit, and immediate fixes to problems. They may miss underlying causes of problems or opportunities for major innovation while making incremental improvements. Many years ago, they could have been developing fancier buggy whips while the world moved to automobiles. More recently, they could have been improving film and cameras for 35 mm pictures while the market was going to digital photography. They could be printing new patterns for designer checks while the world goes to online payments. They could be busy serving current customers and measuring satisfaction with current products while a major innovation is about to decimate their market.

What might be some characteristics of these leaders? They may be very successful in a stable market. They probably rely heavily on existing close relationships with key people. They probably take any setback very personally. They see each setback or crisis as unique, not seeing larger cause-and-effect relationships. They have an infinite number of details to consider and probably micromanage subordinates and situations.

But what about the leaders who are always zoomed out, always thinking about the future and possible future markets? They are looking exclusively for the next big thing and not keeping pace with improvements to current products. They may be frozen into inaction or may be inattentive to immediate needs. They could be losing current customers, while dreaming of future markets. They could be inattentive to current customer needs or desires because they are not engaging with key customers. They could be missing ideas that the voice of the customer supplies and that provide opportunities for building long-term relationships. They could be ignoring blog postings and social media activity that are hurting their organization’s business and reputation. They could be losing current business that will sustain them into the next generation of products and markets.

What might be some characteristics of these leaders? They may see short-term problems as a distraction. Hardened plans could get in the way of important decisions. The agility to change quickly when conditions demand may not be valued because it interferes with long-term plans crafted under different conditions and as part of a multiyear strategic plan. They require detailed analyses before making any decisions. They are not in touch with their key customers or managers who see real-time needs. They are seen as aloof.

Obviously, good leaders are balanced in their perspectives, knowing when to zoom in and zoom out. They are agile, enabling them to be responsive to unexpected events and crises, and yet they have a vision for the future. That vision is shared with employees and key stakeholders. They are engaged with employees and customers and learn from them while also looking for innovations that lead to new customers and markets, going beyond current customer product enhancements and ideas. They are not afraid to act quickly but leave time for reflection. They are mentors to future leaders and concerned about succession planning for long-term sustainability. They are prepared to and do zoom in to address current problems and then zoom out to put the situation in perspective; to see patterns, trends, and cause-and-effect relationships; and to project the impact on future performance.

The Baldrige Criteria provide a systems perspective that encourages a balance between zooming in and zooming out. Item 1.1, Senior Leadership, asks many of the right questions to make sure senior leaders are considering balance, action, and reflection. A recent book, Consider, which draws on Baldrige as one of its sources, puts reflection in perspective for its importance to senior leaders in a crisis-driven world.

So my insight for March 2011 is to keep the yin-yang of leadership in mind. Take some time each week to reflect and get above the daily grind. And as situations arise, pause for a second and ask yourself, “Do I need to zoom in closer, or do I need to zoom out and gain perspective for long-term sustainability?”

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Dr. Harry Hertz, Director
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program

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