Four Questions That Will Shape Your Company’s Future

Convention SpeakerI have spent the last 10 years—first as a young editor at Harvard Business Review, then as cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, now as someone who writes books and delivers lectures—learning from fast-growing companies, hard-charging startups and leaders in all sorts of fields who have won big by changing the game. And wherever I go, the executives and entrepreneurs from whom I learn the most are the ones most focused on the future. What does it take to build an organization—large or small, global or local, serving retail consumers or B2B customers—that is capable of thriving in an environment that seems more uncertain, more unstable, more unpredictable than ever before?

Truth be told, I don’t have a simple five-point program to win the future of business—and I’m certainly not an expert in the specialized world of distributing industrial gases and welding supplies. But I can suggest four questions that leaders in this field (and any field) must answer for themselves as they prepare their organizations to compete going forward. To all of you wrestling with the future of your business and devising strategies to make sure your company is part of the future, here’s what you need to be working on.

Question #1
What ideas separate you from everyone else?

If there’s a core theme at the heart of my take on the future, it’s that the most successful organizations won’t just offer competitive products and services, they will stand for important ideas—ideas that will shape the competitive landscape of their field, ideas that will reshape the sense of what’s possible for customers, employees and investors. For so long, we lived in a world where the strong took from the weak. If you had the most locations, the deepest pockets, the most established brand, you won just by virtue of showing up.

That world is finished. Going forward, the new logic of success is that the smart take from the strong. The most successful organizations won’t just work to outcompete their rivals. They will aspire to redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking. What are the ideas that define your company and its offerings? How are those ideas shaping how you do business? How do you, as a leader, personify those ideas?

If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?

For so long, so many of us have been comfortable operating in the middle of the road. That’s what feels safe and secure, that’s where all the customers are (in theory at least). But as we move forward, with so much pressure, so much change, so many new ways to do just about everything, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere. What do you promise that no one else in your field can promise? What do you deliver that no one else can deliver?

Question #2
Do you and your people care more than everyone else?

Even the most creative and disruptive leaders recognize that strategy and performance are not just about thinking differently from other companies. They are also about caring more than other companies—about customers, about colleagues, about how the organization conducts itself in a world with endless opportunities to cut corners and compromise on values. Sure, new business models allow innovators to transform the sense of what’s possible in their industries. But sustaining performance is as much about cultivating a spirit of grassroots energy, enthusiasm and engagement as it is about unleashing a set of game-changing ideas.

The best companies I have gotten to know, the ones that are most equipped to shape the future of their fields, are the ones that are as serious about the human factor in business as they are about technology, finance and marketing. They realize that they can’t be special, distinctive and compelling in the marketplace unless they create something special, distinctive, compelling in the workplace. As an organization or as a team, your strategy is your culture, your culture is your strategy. In other words, the most successful companies work as distinctively as they compete. Does yours?

Question #3
Do you have customers who can’t live without you?

Indeed, when I visit a company for the first time and try to get a sense of its capacity to win the competitive battle going forward, I make it a point to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can, about its capacity to win the battle for talent. Why would great people want to be part of the organization? Are leaders clear about what it means to be a great person at this organization? Is the company creating the kind of environment in which great people have the opportunity to do their best work every day?

This is an urgent question for companies in every industry, because every industry has customers with a vast array of products and brands from which to choose. Remember, in a world defined by unlimited choice and sensory overload, if you have customers who can live without you, eventually they will. That’s why it’s not enough to satisfy customers rationally. You have to engage them emotionally, to conduct yourself in ways that are unusual and unforgettable. One of the make-or-break challenges for any organization is to become irreplaceable in the eyes of its customers.

Here’s one interesting exercise to size up the depth of your connection with customers. It grows out of a question I heard many years ago from advertising legend Roy Spence, who says he got it from Jim Collins of Good to Great fame. Whatever the original source, it’s worth taking seriously as a guide to what matters in terms of marketplace success.

When Spence visits a client, he makes it a point to ask them: “If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?” Why might a company be missed? Because its products and services are so distinctive, because its culture is so unique, because its mission is so compelling that other organizations can’t come close to duplicating them. Precious few organizations meet any of these criteria, which may be why so many companies feel like they’re on the verge of going out of business.

Question #4
Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

I first heard this question from strategy guru Gary Hamel, the world-renowned innovation expert, and it remains the ultimate challenge for any executive determined to unleash big change in difficult circumstances. In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning. The challenge for leaders at every level is no longer just to out-hustle, out-muscle and out-maneuver the competition. It is to out-think the competition, to develop a unique point of view about the future and help the organization get there before anyone else.

If you believe that what you see shapes how you change, then the challenge for leaders is to see opportunities that other leaders don’t see. But remember: You don’t have to look all by yourself. These days, the most powerful insights often come from the most unexpected places—the hidden genius inside your company, the collective genius of customers, suppliers and other smart people who surround your company. Tapping this genius requires a new leadership mindset—enough ambition to address tough problems, enough humility to know you don’t have all the answers. Nobody alone is as smart as everybody together.

So those are four questions that are easy for me to ask—and incumbent upon you to answer. What’s exciting (and daunting) about the future of business in general, and of your business in particular, is that it’s so hard to predict what it will look like and who will win. But as Alan Kay, the legendary computer scientist, said so aptly more than 35 years ago, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Here’s wishing you good luck as you invent the future of your companies and your industry.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
William C. Taylor Meet the Author
William C. Taylor is cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company and author of Practically Radical. Follow him on twitter @practicallyrad. He will present “Practically Radical: Transforming your Company and Changing Yourself” on September 10 at GAWDA’s Annual Convention.