“It’s at the very moment you think your future is guaranteed it becomes a certainty that it isn’t!” – Futurist Jim Carroll
When you speak about the future, you can’t just point to examples of leadership success as examples of the road to success – you need to outline the failures that you’ve seen which led to a pathway to failure. I’ve seen a lot of failures in my career within my client base – it’s always interesting to look back at a talk that I gave years ago and to take a look at what eventually happened with the organization.
I spent some time yesterday in my meeting with 60 CEOs in Houston, outlining the leadership attitudes and actions that can often hold back success – as good examples of the type of thinking to avoid.
First up – Nortel! Remember them – a big, iconic carrier in the telecommunications space! They imploded and filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after a spectacular stock runup during the dot.com years. It was at the very moment they were enjoying the massive sales driven by the early Internet era that they were making the fundamental mistakes that doomed their future.
What happened? Management complacency drove their collapse and looking back, it was evident in one of the sessions I did with them. (The organization booked me many, many times over the years, and was actually the sponsor of one of my radio shows in the 90s called “Ebiz with Jim Carroll.”) In 1994, I was invited to speak at the Nortel Open in Phoenix – at this moment in time, they were sponsoring this tournament on the PGA golf tour. Among other things, I was invited to talk about the future of telecommunication and the ‘telephone’ industry.
One of my key messages was that the technology of the Internet – IP, or Internet protocol – was set to become the backbone of the future telecommunication system and that they had better be prepared; it would play havoc with their existing lines of telecom hardware and software. The change was going to be fast, and dramatic, and might provide them with some extreme challenges in the future.
How was it received? Word got back to me that the CEO of the time, Jean Monty, flying back on the corporate jet to Toronto, was livid with my presentation. Who dared to invite this young upstart in, with such foolish ideas? Fun fact – IP became the backbone of the global telecom system, Nortel didn’t adapt and found the path to bankruptcy.
Next up – DaimlerChrysler. They invited me to speak at a strategic planning meeting in 2006 Germany; my job was to challenge a room of senior auto engineers to think about the disruptive future of the automotive industry. As you might have heard me outline here many times before, I essentially outlined what would become the future Tesla business model and the electric, technology-based vehicle of the future. They laughed at me. Today, Tesla owns the future of the auto industry as legacy companies continue to struggle to catch up.
Motorola? I spoke to them in 2006 – a meeting of their top 250 R&D engineers and leaders from around the world. I suggested that the future of the mobile phone industry was set for some upheaval. I shared that Apple was rumored to be coming out with a phone; that the future was to be found in ‘smartphone devices’ that went beyond simple mobile calling; and that someone was going to nail the idea of extending the functionality of the phone. The general consensus in the room was that they were having massive success selling the Razr mobile phone and that everyone would always want a Razr in the future. They had nothing to worry about!
I remember leaving Chicago, shaking my head in wonder at their attitude. What happened? They were pretty much pushed out of the mobile phone business within a matter of a few short years.
What goes wrong with these situations? (I have many more.) The sins of arrogance, hubris, complacency, future-oriented blindness. I wrote about all this in my post on leadership hubris sometime back.
There are valuable lessons to learn from these examples – but it comes down to this: once you think your future is guaranteed, you’ve become so blinded by your success that you fail to see your potential failures!
And sadly, it happens over and over, all the time.