So many teams fail in growth. They blame their strategy, or their tactics, or the market, or bring up some issue about product/market/timing fit was off, or that some people failed at execution and so on. The list of reasons is almost endless for any team. As often as this happens, don’t you wonder if it’s really this random and circumstantial, or if there’s an inherent pattern in this failure? I gotta admit that I do.
I recently had a chance to talk with Les McKeown, the best seller of Predictable Success, who built 42 business before he was 35. I suspected that he had formed a pattern of ideas, so I asked him:
“Based on all that experience, what is the major barrier to growth?” His answer:
Self-awareness, above all else.
When people call me it’s usually because their business has stalled out in some way, or because they’re not getting the growth they should. Understandably, they assume the problem is to do with their strategy, or their tactics, or their product, or their market. And while sometimes it is – at least partially – to do with those types of issue, more often than not the main barrier to growth is their own self-awareness.
I don’t mean by this that all business leaders by nature lack self-awareness – rather that there’s a predictable, recurring pattern in the arc of leadership whereby a prolonged period of success hard-wires the brain into following the same decision-making processes that were successful in the past, even when the circumstances around us have changed. This leads to sub-optimal decision-making at best, and compromise, frustration and gridlock at worst.
The most effective contribution I can make in helping a leader, a team or an organization become ‘unstuck’ is often to help them reconnect with their immediate circumstances – to see how their business has grown and changed, and how as leaders they need to grow and change in response. It’s a bit like helping a parent see that their child is no longer the goofy, vulnerable 8-year-old kid they think of them as, and is instead a beautiful, competent, fully-grown 25-year-old adult – and that they need to start relating to them accordingly.
Whatever the underlying shift is, in my experience once a leader’s self-awareness is re-calibrated and aligned with the new circumstances the business finds itself in, then the other issues – strategy, tactics, market, product – all fall in place much more easily, and to much greater effect.
What I hear Les talking about is this: Until we can see the situation “as is” rather than how we imagine it to be, we can get to work on the important work from going to X to Y. If you or I don’t know what X is, we can’t navigate a path forward. It is important to note that while Les talks about it as “self-awareness”, he doesn’t mean to apply it only to “the leader” as a singular entity. Until *we* understand issues/strategies/situations from every perspective, we miss something. Inside bigger firms, it’s much like seeing the “whole elephant”.
We each have our own limited aperture— what we’re willing to look at, or what we see. Sometimes our area of responsibility in the organization limits our perspectives. Other times, it’s a function of our own lack of understanding. It’s like an elephant. If I were to put an elephant in the room you are in right now (and cut off your olfactory powers and blindfold you for a second) and have you touch it, I could have you describe what you felt and ask someone sitting on the other side of the room to describe what they felt. As you both report it out, the two of you could appear to be in violent opposition. The tail is going to feel different from the tusk; the toes are going to feel different from the back. So one of you is going to say, “It’s smooth,” while another says, “It’s hairy.” Neither is wrong; Both are true. Carrying this back to business, it’s a truth of all cultures that innovate well: when everybody can look at the same picture and see it for what it is, together you can solve that problem. You might remember that I call the process of discovery “Elephant hunting” in Chapter 4 (Question phase) of New How.
Les’ book is appropriately titled, Predictable Success. You can find out more about this business leader and his book, here.
In the meantime, each of us can apply this principle in all we’re doing by asking ourselves the question, “What is really the current state of the “as is”?” — and be open to seeing even that which we don’t like, because only then can we make it better. Only then. Without that truth, we continue to fail.