12/8/15: Business Acumen

After I finished writing the book, “Touchstone, An Atlas for Organizational Wellness,” I started to think about our business and how well do we really implement this model. I also thought about how we can convert this roadmap into a seminar type course for other companies, not just a consulting tool, but as a actual classroom offering? Why was this so heavy on my mind?

Because given the speed and unpredictability with which the world is changing, a company cannot rely exclusively on its most senior people to make sense of the business environment. Someone who is 20 might make sense of signals very differently from the way a senior executive would. Moreover, people who are not necessarily senior in the hierarchy can become sophisticated about what it takes to get a deal signed in India, to grow a trading business in a new arena, or to evaluate a package of offers in the area of sustainable development.

At Fruition, we have found that business acumen can be cultivated. Several practices are critical. The first is setting an expectation that our people will make connections outside the company, not just for transactions and deals, but also to explore broader issues outside the normal business relationships. As an example, Fruition has conducted an intensive weeklong executive development program at the Fruition Leadership Institute, where senior executives talk with people from a variety of backgrounds — athletes, anthropologists, political historians, economists, and actors.

Businesses also need to open up conversations within the company. In our organization, we’ve held in-depth dialogues where people talk about the business they want to do, the context in which they want to do business, and what they’re looking for from a company like Fruition. Then, it’s important to give people the space to experiment: to construct and implement their own theories, let them get on with it, and be there to support them if they fail.

Another practice, which we ourselves sometimes miss, is sitting back and reflecting: “I tried something. It felt like a risk. What are the broader lessons? What’s going well? What’s not going well? What do we need to change or confront? What do we need?” We just launched a company called PODinar.net, and we are scheduling time to talk about what we’ve learned from this online learning system.

These kinds of conversations can easily go off the rails unless the individuals involved are grounded, self-aware, and confident enough to admit mistakes or ask for help. Therefore, we deliberately invest in people’s personal growth — not in a self-indulgent manner, but in a business context. People with higher levels of self-awareness are less likely to be limited by their own preconceptions when they look at the world around them. With PODinar, for example, we gradually discovered that companies have a much more complex and subtle set of needs and objectives than we had originally expected. Meeting these needs requires a more nuanced and multidimensional approach to the learning.

We want to help our people develop the kind of self-confidence that will allow them to wait long enough to make sense of external subtleties, instead of immediately jumping to an answer or theory. This is often the real test of whether our people are cultivating a more advanced understanding of the external world: Are they willing to wait, to tune out the daily “noise” of press announcements, to stay focused on the long-term fundamentals of the environment, and to act accordingly?

As people at all levels become more sophisticated and strategic in their outlook, strategy can move from an individual capability to an institutional capability. And with that transition, the quality and speed of our business improves as it increasingly reflects knowledge and insights from across the hierarchy.

The ability to gain insight, construct and act upon the mental model of the big picture requires plenty of practice. The essence of the skill is to find patterns from among a wide variety of trends and to posit the missing ingredients that could catalyze convergence. Many great leaders began to practice this exercise when they were younger, in less complex contexts, and over the years they have developed the requisite skills and judgment.

One simple way to begin is by asking yourself a series of six questions, exploring the ideas with colleagues and peers:

1. What is happening in the world today?
2. What does it mean for others?
3. What does it mean for us?
4. What would have to happen first (for the results we want to occur)?
5. What do we have to do to play a role?
6. What do we do next?

Working through these six questions helps executives assess the validity of the company’s moneymaking approach. This is an iterative process that tests the leaders’ mental abilities to qualitatively see how the world is changing — almost always including the perspectives of others. It requires transcending the old rules of thumb that are etched deep in the psyches of many executives, and it means giving up the habitual reliance on precedent that worked for many companies during times of more linear change.

But the ability to perceive trends quickly, or even to make sense of them, will not automatically guarantee success. Rather, success depends on the rigor and discipline applied to the entire process of envisioning the changes, deducing specific actions, and implementing the plan.

Some leaders do this by deliberately seeking out diverse perspectives and listening to a wide variety of sources. They meet regularly with other top CEOs to bounce ideas off one another; they regularly read not just magazines and newspapers. They attend confabs like the annual World Economic Forum. Their social networks are filled with sharp observers who share their intense curiosity but come from diverse backgrounds. Leaders with business acumen are accustomed to informal chats with others, during which they feed their hunger for other viewpoints. They seek out younger leaders who understand how new technologies are being used or who are less bound by past ways of doing business.

Of course, there is a good deal of noise out there, too. Not every conversation will add clarity to the big picture.

In closing, great leaders can stay on point. They build their big-picture view, listen to and sift out extraneous threads, bounce their opinions off others, retest their qualitative hypotheses, and reformulate their big-picture view. This unseen iterative process provides the vital foundation for developing business acumen. Such leaders know that they are responsible for the organization’s ability not just to adapt, but also to choose its course; the long-term survival of the enterprise depends on their ability to learn to see more effectively. That’s the skill you want every single employee to have or at least understand.

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