When a person realizes that they have a particular strength or have accomplished a particular feat, it is a natural tendency for them to look for ways to put that talent or experience to work. Unfortunately, often that tendency causes them to try to tackle all challenges with that skill/experience leading to a disaster. Remember the old cliché “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail!” Let’s take a look at some examples.
Henrik Fisker prides himself in designing beautiful cars. The former designer at BMW and Aston Martin founded Fisker Automotive in 2007. The first and only model Fisker produced was the high-style Karma, a $100,000-plus plug-in hybrid luxury car with a backup gasoline engine like the Chevy Volt.
While the look of the car is sensational, most other aspects have been a disaster.. For example, Karma was recalled for a potential cooling fan problem that could lead to a fire. In fact, some Karmas caught fire even while parked. Fisker’s battery supplier, A123, filed for bankruptcy. Another nail in the coffin was when Consumer Reports gave the car a failing grade, indicating “The car didn’t always run. I cannot recall a vehicle we ever tested that had this many issues, or had to be flat-bedded away.”
Only about 2,500 Karmas have been made, and production was suspended several months ago. Fisker recently quit, and most employees were terminated as the company prepares to file for bankruptcy protection.
This reminds me of another, more famous auto-guy who too was seduced by his strength; Henry Ford. He was the father of high-efficiency, standardized, mass-production manufacturing; producing only one model with each car being exactly alike. This enabled Ford to get the cost of a car down to the point that the average family could afford one. The idea was right, but unfortunately, Ford was completely insensitive to other aspects of his business.
With time, customers became interested in different styles and models, but Ford struck to his standardized Model T (e.g., it only came in black!). When he finally decided to update the original design, and produce the Model A, he ignored his customers and shut down Ford production for 17 months while the manufacturing changes were made. The fast emerging competitor, General Motors, was making annual styling changes on the fly, and quickly passed Ford in annual sales.
While not in the same industry, Ron Johnson at JC Penny is another robust example. Coming into the CEO job 18 months ago, he was very proud of inventing and making very successful the Apple retail stores. While the approach of never offering any “deals” while selling high-end, premium priced iMacs, iPads, and iPhones worked well with the cutting edge technology products Apple was generating, the super-price-conscious JC Penny consumers fully rejected the “no promotions or reduced-price sales” approach which Johnson implemented within his first few months of arriving at JC Penny.
He completely ignored the notion of learning about the low-end department store market and the likes and dislikes of Penny’s customers; he just immediately implemented what he did at Apple, generating a 32% decline in sales and 63% decline in the stock price. A few weeks ago, Johnson was fired.
So…What are the characteristics that can enable a leader to avoid the kinds of problems we see in the three individuals noted above? Here are my favorites and they are all equally important:
- Paranoia: When I was working for Bill Gates in the 1990’s and the PC business was booming, he only wanted to talk about problems and how to quickly fix them and opportunities that could bury us if we didn’t quickly seize them. That mindset is powerful. With each new situation, the courageous leader clears their mind of all preliminary ideas, and starts sorting things out.
- Curiosity: All aspects of what you are responsible for deserve constant probing for understanding, enabling you to lead the charge in tackling problems and opportunities. Avoid the trap of just assuming things are fine unless someone requests your involvement.
- Humility: No question is a dumb question. Often individuals get promoted and mistakenly think that people at that level should know it all and shouldn’t have to ask questions. You need to admit what you don’t know and continually work to learn more about all aspects of your responsibilities.
- Customer Focus: The customer is truly the king. As you continually probe to figure out how to become more effective and efficient in serving the customer, don’t let your particular talents or past experiences bias your learning.
Leadership is both fun and rewarding, especially if you religiously put these characteristics into practice.
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