We tend to assume that what has been happening will continue to happen. Obviously, this future won’t be exactly the same as the past – but it will be some version of the past dressed up as the future. We call this assumed future the “default future.”
The default future consists of our expectations, fears, hopes and predictions, all of which are ultimately based on our experience in the past. Incidents from the past live on as predictions, giving us our default future. Today, the default future for most of us is economic struggle, survival and little opportunity to create.
It’s the job of leaders to create new futures that inspire enhanced performance. This role becomes particularly important in bad times. Leaders who can “rewrite their future” will realize a dramatic elevation in performance regardless of the circumstances.
Case Study: Listening for the future
Malcolm Burns had been named CEO of New Zealand Steel, with a mandate to return the operation to profitability. He planned a series of process improvement initiatives and a round of downsizing to accomplish these objectives. While these approaches helped, they weren’t enough to dramatically change the culture or move past all the tensions, pessimism, and conflict that permeated the workforce.
As Ian Sampson, then head of Human Resources for the plant, told us:
“When you think about it, we were expecting the impossible from the employees. Head count was going down, change was everywhere, and the business was built on shaky technical assumptions. It was widely known that we might close down entirely. And yet we needed people to become proactive, positive, energetic, and to dramatically change their relationships with each other.”
After being exposed to a leadership development process based on The Three Laws of Performance, Burns met with the employees and boldly stated:
“I think we’ve done a lot of good planning and efficiency work, but it won’t get us to success. I now know we need a future that excites us, and I’m not the kind of guy that can do that. I’m an operator. I love making things work, but I’m not a visionary. I can’t come up with that future. I’m going to put together a process that allows everyone to collaborate on creating the future that we need.”
As the audience’s reaction went from surprised to excitement, Burns shouted ‘‘If you don’t think I’m living up to these commitments, tell me!’’
Two years later, when the company’s collective and rewritten future was realized, it had reduced its key benchmark costs by 15 to 20 percent, while increasing return on capital by 50 percent. All this had happened while the workforce was reduced by 25 percent in a positive, constructive, and cooperative manner.
Having fulfilled his mission, Burns chose to move on to his next career challenge. At 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, 600 employees gathered to say goodbye to the man who had not only kept the plant open but also allowed it to flourish. The company kept up the momentum, and today is branded as the world’s only boutique steel producer.
Malcolm Burns of New Zealand Steel was a remarkable leader because he allowed others to build a future that would inspire them. As that future developed, Burns became the walking embodiment of it. In contrast to leaders who create dependency, when Burns left New Zealand, the company was self-reliant and self-generative. The people in the company and community were authors of their own future.
Rewrite your future
Here are specific actions that leaders can take to construct a future that dramatically elevates performance:
- Articulate the default future: What do your past experiences tell you about what the future will look like? When answering this question listen to your gut, don’t over-think the process. The question can also be rephrased as, “What will happen if nothing unexpected comes along?” Your answer to this question will give you a view of your default future.
- Challenge your default future: Ask yourself and others, Do we really want this default future? If the answer is a passionate “no,” then your people are most likely committed to building a new future, rather than letting the default future come to pass.
- Seek new future proposals: Ask people to commit to writing a new future, by speculating on a future that would inspire them. As you come to a consensus, ask the questions, Is this what we want? If not, what’s missing?
- Get counterproposals: As you find people who are not aligned with the future, ask, what is your counterproposal? Get specific suggestions, not merely criticisms of the new future.
- Align your people on the new future: Keep working until people align, until they can believe in and commit to it. The feeling in the room will be palpable when this happens. Stick with the process until the company speaks with a single, passionate voice.
Vistage Speaker Dave Logan is on the faculty at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and is a former associate dean. He is also senior partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, and has written three books, including Tribal Leadership.
Steve Zaffron is the CEO of the Vanto Group, a global consulting firm that designs and implements large-scale initiatives to elevate organizational performance. Zaffron has directed major corporate initiatives with more than three hundred organizations in twenty countries.
Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan are the authors of the national bestseller The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life, part of the Warren Bennis series published by Jossey-Bass.