During my career, I had the opportunity to work directly under two different Harvard MBA’s- coincidentally both were females. Both of these Harvard MBA’s intellect were far superior to almost everyone I ever known, and I always wondered if they rose to the pinnacle of their career due to their intelligence, their education, or their ability to think strategically far and above the ‘rest’ of us.
During my tenure under these Harvard MBA’s, I felt almost invisible, and became little more than a statistic. From my experience and as we go through our career, as our proposals end up in a pile, and like everyone else we get a raise every once in a while, we’re referred to as applicants, employees, or human resources, and we sense our individuality became buried.
Jack Welch called this feeling of anonymity “being in the pile,” and he recommended thinking as the means of escape. Most people go with the ‘herd’ doing what’s asked of them but not much more. In Welch’s estimation, the key to elevating your business is to go above and beyond expectations whenever someone asks you question or you have a customer or employee complaint.
As Jack Welch wrote, “If you understand that the question is only the beginning, you will get out of the pile fast, because 99.9 percent of all employees are in the pile because they don’t think. If you understand this principle, you will always be given more critical questions to answer. And in time, you will be the one giving out the questions to others!”
I would like to offer five ways to begin thinking your way to the top.
1. Where to think . . .
Today’s work environment is incredibly fast-paced and fraught with demands and huge workloads. Unless you’re deliberately get away from the noise of day-to-day operations, you will never break free. The first step to getting out of the pile is giving yourself permission to disconnect. You have to get away from all the daily challenges by retreating to a space free of any and all interruptions. Initially, you might think that scheduling this time feels incredibly unproductive. However, this is the only way and the beginning to gaining perspective to working smarter and more strategically.
2. Shape your thoughts . . .
In the beginning most ideas lack clarity. Our initial ideas are unclear due to the clutter in our mind. As a leader, challenge yourself to translate your gut feelings into distinct ideas and plans, which you can document and articulate to your team. Next, strategic ideas never come fully formed. As a leader, your job is to test your ideas by asking critical questions. Does the idea proceed from reasonable assumptions? Does the idea align with the mission, core values and strategic vision of the organization? Does the idea make sense given the structure and strengths/weaknesses of the organization? Lastly, thoughts spring into existence with huge possibilities. However, they must undergo tests. For instance, how would the idea actually take shape in your organization? What would it cost to pursue? How long would it take to implement? What significant changes (positive and negative) would impact the business?
3. Stretch your thoughts . . .
Throughout my career, some of the best ideas have come from others. Many times my ideas start out small until we got ahold of them and found ways to stretch them to their maximum potential. Isolated leaders never obtain as much influence as those who surround themselves with an inner circle of key advisors.
4. Land your thoughts . . .
Before an idea can take shape, it must take on a concrete existence. The number one question to ask when landing or implementing an idea is: Who will own it? Who will champion the idea and push it forward? A leader must prepare the way for the idea to touch down safely. This means winning the support of your team and communicating clearly with those most likely to be impacted by the idea’s implementation.
5. Fly your thoughts . . .
If you wanted to fly an airplane, you would begin by taking lessons from an instructor. To fly an idea, you first need to learn from an instructor or a practice flight. Testing your idea on a small scale will expose weaknesses before a major launch. Sometimes the flaws are fixable, and the idea can be reworked. On rare occasions, you may even have an idea that tests out brilliantly on the first attempt. However, other ideas are not feasible in real life and ought to be scrapped. A practice flight confirms that an idea can actually withstand the challenges of real-world application.