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You may be doing things right, but are you doing the right things?

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Most businesses recognise the value of their reputation among their customers and stakeholders, but I’m constantly surprised at the number of business leaders who think they are doing things right, while failing to appreciate that they’re not necessarily doing the right things!

So, what are ‘the right things’?

Twenty years ago, Peter Drucker observed that ‘Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.’

Since then, we have linked these to efficiency and effectiveness, and to a certain extent, to ‘better’ and ‘different’.

So, our assertion is that while sound management gets the processes right, leadership requires us to step back and consider the ‘right’ goals, rather than just improving on what we’ve always done.

We might liken this to the relationship between a builder and an architect; no matter how refined the builder’s processes become, they can only achieve so much without the more visionary input and guidance from the creative mind of the architect.

Management Leadership
Doing things right Doing the right things
Efficiency Effectiveness
Better Different

Are you getting the balance right?

The balance will, of course, depend on the context. No-one, for example, wants the firefighter called to a blaze to step back, consider whether there might be a more effective way of tackling this type of fire at the risk of delaying the urgent action needed to save lives and stop the fire spreading.

However, there are clearly huge benefits to dedicating time and resources to considering potential innovations. But there’s a time and place for it.

When participants attend Henley Business School’s Executive Management Programme, they have often enjoyed long careers improving the efficiency of their organisation’s operations or processes, but many of them have never had the need or opportunity to take a wider view. Some find the transition to a more reflective approach very challenging.

As with all training, however, the ability to take this wider view and consider the broader perspective usually comes with focus and practice!

Do the ‘right’ goals change over time?

In general terms, the ‘right’ goals are more strategic than tactical, and they aim at the longer-term sustainability of the organisation.

They address the potential for maximising the future opportunity, and take into account the possible evolution of:

  • the market
  • the product range
  • the audience profiles
  • new technologies
  • the stakeholders
  • the culture of the organisation

Over time, what is considered to be the ‘right’ approach certainly does shift. Social trends change, and with them, customer and employee expectations.

A generation or two ago, ‘stakeholder value’ was not a consideration in any business, and neither was it mentioned in any executive learning programme.

But more recently, people have become far more concerned about a whole range of issues that are (rightly) influencing the planning process for our organisational leaders; every board is under scrutiny as much for how it makes a profit, as for how much it makes.

These issues will almost certainly include:

  • diversity
  • environmental sustainability
  • individual and collective wellbeing
  • engagement and the workplace environment

All this highlights the varied approaches taken by different leadership styles, so being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses is vital in establishing how to deal with such an uncertain future, and recognising that there are ‘known knowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ gives us a great capability for dealing with it.

What are the ‘right’ goals?

Doing ‘the right things’ will always be driven more by attitude, mindset and character, but this can be taught. When the entire team works in alignment, it adds up to a set of values that reinforce the functional elements. It is the application of these values that will ultimately shape the organisation’s reputation.

While the meaning of ‘the right things’ has changed with time, in line with economic and socio-political trends, and continues to vary from sector to sector, fundamentally they are likely to include:

  • honesty and transparency
  • fairness and equality
  • empathy and integrity
  • respect
  • consistency and reliability
  • sustainability

From what I observe, in order to be seen to be doing things in the right way, there are three particular areas of planning and implementation that have to be addressed:

1. Customer-centricity

This doesn’t just mean focusing on what the customer says they want.

Henry Ford put it succinctly when he observed that: ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me they needed a faster horse.’ In the words of Steve Jobs: ‘Our task is to read things that are not on the page.’

The point is that in order to be truly customer-centric, and to maintain our competitive edge, we need to give customers what they need, even before they realise that they have a need for it.

2. Loyalty through relationships

In this context, loyalty refers to the emotional attachment formed by employees, customers and other stakeholders as a result of the relationship the organisation has developed with them over a period of time.

It also relates to the need for a mutually profitable, symbiotic connection between the parties, in which trust is the catalyst and underpins every element.

The approach it takes to its employees, and its relationship with the wider environment are becoming important factors in how attractive it will be to rising talent, and so the ability to recruit its future leaders will be directly affected by the way it acts.

3. Infrastructure

As well as the efficiency of the functional processes, the entire fabric of the organisation has to be acutely conscious of the impact it has had, is having and will have on the environment around it, such as the effects on the local population, the roads and rivers, the air and the water.

This impacts its choice of suppliers, the design and location of its buildings and the materials used to build them, the utilities it selects, its recycling policies, and so much more.

Short term versus long term

Doing ‘the right thing’ is rarely compatible with short-termism.

It has often been said that any fool can manage a business and make it profitable in the short term; creating something that is sustainable requires a very different kind of leadership.

So when you think about the purpose of your organisation, I would urge you to think less in terms of targets and more in terms of the legacy you want the organisation to leave to future generations.

How will you and your fellow senior leaders be regarded by future generations when they look back at what you did and how you did it?

If that thought makes you slightly uncomfortable, Henley’s Executive Management Programme will open your eyes; let’s have a conversation and ensure that you will be a hero in their eyes.

Join Narendra at Henley Inside: Executive Management Programme for more information

Narendra Laljani

Executive Fellow
Published 6 December 2021
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