Sprinting in Place: Leadership in a Demanding Marketplace

Companies like Apple need to constantly innovate just to maintain their present position. This is the harsh reality that businesses must face in the increasingly competitive global economy. Harvard Business School's Linda Hill has advice for leaders in these challenging times. 

What’s the Big Idea?

When the iPad2 hit the market last March, people lined up for hours outside Apple stores across the country. These customers were excited by reports saying that the second-generation iPad was thinner, lighter, and faster than its predecessor. As if these improvements weren’t enough, the new product was also cheap, costing no more than the now-obsolete iPad. Despite all of the technological refinements and blockbuster demand, Apple had not raised the price for its cutting edge product by even a cent.

The low price of the iPad2 was not an act of altruism on the part of Apple. Rather, it was an example of how global competition has made life harder for many corporations, says Linda Hill, a Professor at the Harvard Business School. Customers today expect steady improvements in products and services but they aren’t willing to pay a higher price. This is the harsh reality that businesses must face in the increasingly competitive global economy. Companies like Apple need to constantly innovate just to maintain their present position.

For managers and executives, the effects of this new environment are profound. Whereas leaders were once divided into “doers,” who focused on execution, and “thinkers”, who focused on innovation, that distinction no longer applies. To be successful, today’s executive has to be both a visionary and a general, simultaneously focused on maximizing performance while also making sure not to miss new opportunities. Hill says:

If you’re going to work in a world where you have to worry about both execution and change and innovation, leaders [should be able to recognize what] one of my colleagues refers to as performance gaps—gaps between where you are and where you should be—and also opportunity gaps—gaps between where you are and where you could be. Those organizations whose leadership [is] always worrying about where you could be and not only where you should be, are much more likely to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities that will come along.

What’s the Significance?
In order to simplify the intimidating number of responsibilities that leaders face, Hill has isolated three imperatives of being a great manager. The first is “managing your self”. Very often, managers find themselves torn between loyalties: to their bosses, to their employees, and to their corporations. While all of those relationships are important, Hill believes that a boss’ primary focus should be honing his or her own skills as a leader.  “Being an effective boss is about managing yourself first and foremost,” she says. “You are using yourself as an instrument.”

Self-improvement means being willing to admit your weaknesses and build upon them. All too often, managers think that admitting their faults will erode their authority. In fact, the opposite is the case. “People aren’t stupid, they know when you don’t know what you are talking about,” Hill says. “Instead of continuing to act like you do know what you are talking about, you might say ‘By the way, these are some things that I know and I’ve been put in this position because I know these parts of the job, but I also know that I have a lot to learn here.’”

The second imperative is “managing your network.” Whether we like it or not, organizations are “inherently political entities” in which each leader is dependent on many other people to achieve his or her goals. Hill says:

The higher up you go in an organization, the more dependencies you have.  You always want to over-estimate your dependencies.  So think about who you’re dependent to get your job done and then you have to ask yourself, have I built the right relationships with those people?  Do they really trust me?  Do we have mutual expectations, can I influence them, can they influence me?  If the answers are no to those questions, then you have not built the right kind of relationships.

While managing relationships depends on the person and on the relationship, Hill believes that a few simple strategies can help you manage your network. For instance, she says that leaders should make a conscious effort to attend professional meetings, join specialized task forces within their company, and even become involved in community organizations outside of the office. In doing so, managers will find themselves working with other community members who not only share their values but also might one day become mentors or colleagues.

The third and final imperative is “managing your team”. This involves setting clear goals and making sure that your employees understand the purpose of their work. Bosses should make sure that their workers understand why their organization matters both to the larger corporation and to the company as a whole. “People really care about the meaning of the work,” Hill says. “Even if you are selling shoes, there’s a purpose for what you’re up to that you can talk with people about.”

Team management also involves building a culture for your team. In addition to setting clear goals, leaders should understand that their team’s culture is largely a reflection of their personal style. If you don’t like group collaboration, chances are that your team will adopt an individualistic approach to work. On the other hand, if you are too oriented toward group decision-making, your team might lose precious time by calling too many meetings. It is critical that leaders understand the limitations of their own preferences, and adjust their leadership accordingly.  

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