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The Quarterly Leader vs. The Visionary

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

Most of us have seen the value in achieving a short-term outcome, whether it be finally painting that room in the basement or paying off a credit card; we have also experienced the impact of a long-term reward, whether it be losing that bothersome 15 pounds or investing in a retirement account. There is a time and place for short-term achievements and for long-term goals and often, small daily activities compound to reach future potential. The challenge is when short-term outcomes contradict the long-term goal: cashing out your 401k to offer a down payment on a new home may meet several short-term objectives but could ultimately erode the long-term plan for retirement.

There is increasing pressure for leaders and organizations to earn quick results, outdo the competition, and prove themselves the best, practically overnight. Unfortunately, the long-term damage can be disastrous not just to the bottom line but to the merit of a company. According to AESC's Executive Talent magazine, a research study conducted by McKinsey shares, “Among the firms we identified as focused on the long term, average revenue and earnings growth were 47 percent and 36 percent higher, respectively, … and total return to shareholders was higher, too. The returns to society and the overall economy were equally impressive. By our measures, companies that were managed for the long term added nearly 12,000 more jobs on average than their peers from 2001 to 2015.” Organizations such as Enron, WorldCom, and Paine Webber are just a few examples of teams that were so eager to reach a short-term outcome that they imploded from the inside out.

Despite our historical knowledge of companies past and the practical evidence of planning for the long-term, there remains a standard that company leaders must prove themselves quickly or become irrelevant. Leaders are incentivized with quarterly bonus structures, experience tension from shareholders, and must comply with mandatory progress check ins. Combine this pressure with the average number of years an employee remains in a job (approximately 4) and you get a short-term leader, someone who will do whatever it takes to get the numbers up and then right before the proverbial shit hits the fan, they move on. Short-term leaders without a focus on the future, look for fast and easy ways to turn up results such as: layoffs, budget cuts, efficiency programs (ex: standard operating models), hiring external consultants in the place of full-time employees, and adhering to all political protocols even to the detriment of their team. The one and only goal is to move the dial up and then move on to the next role or company. However, their success is fleeting and by employing any of these listed techniques without a connection to a long-term strategy, all of their ruffage is at the expense of the employees they leave behind. Here are some common examples of the impact a short-term leader can have on a team or an organization:

The examples above happen in companies all of the time, however, there are typically enough long-term leaders that can safeguard an organization to some degree. The Enron’s and Paine Webber’s of the world are examples of what happens when an entire company is managed and led with a short-term mentality.

Now, let’s look at an example of a long-term leader: Howard Schultz, former Chairman & CEO of Starbucks had a long-term goal. He combined his commitment to an integration of quality coffee and a European-like romantic aesthetic with a passion to create a space where employees would be treated with respect. Schultz was rejected 242 times before his idea was accepted. He challenged the norm because he knew there was potential to be better. Employee benefits included: stock options (the first privately owned US company to offer stock options to part-time employees), retirement benefits, health insurance (even for part-time hires), and college tuition reimbursement. He implemented extensive training programs and reinforced the value of the customer experience.

Starbucks is now a multi-billion dollar company that has expanded its reach internationally and their annual revenue has been on an upward trend since 1994. Schultz served as Starbuck’s CEO for 13 years and then came back to serve another 9 years after two different short-term leaders stepped into the role with a focus on a fast uptick that ultimately led to a dramatic decline->the biggest decline Starbucks saw during Schultz’s tenure with the company. Indra Nooyi, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates are just a few examples of other visionary leaders that exist today. Below are some examples of the impact a long-term leader can have on a company (and perhaps the world):

The first step to organizational transformation is awareness. Many companies preach long-term goals but hire and develop short-term leaders. I fully believe there are thousands of leaders that have the potential to be visionaries, they simply need someone to believe in them and a few good tools. Bill Gates attributes his jumpstart to the fact that his middle school was one of the few during his time that had a computer. He reserved time every week to use the computer and learn the programs which eventually led to his love of technology and the rest is history (literally). As we engage in a new normal, this is an opportunity for companies to take a very close inspection of their key players and determine what tools or access they need to help drive the organization and its people toward the future.

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