Not everyone needs to be a leader, and there can be great comfort in being a follower. In fact, fast follower is a very under utilized strategy in the market today. The fast follower strategy allows you to closely monitor the market leaders, capitalize on their R&D investments, and stay or catch up. But like many strategies and tactics embraced by mbas, it’s often not thoughtful. The fast follower strategy is not the same as parroting. It is not a blind outsourcing of critical thinking or judgement.
It takes a great deal of time and energy to observe, research and understand what another company is doing. So often the critical information behind an action is camouflaged from outsiders for obvious reasons. The tendency to read a book such as ‘Good to Great’ (a really good read btw) and apply remedies as recipes can be catastrophic. Any grafted solution must be verified and measured against your specific situation. In so many cases the differences are large enough to render the recipe nearly irrelevant. One of my favorite professors used to classify these as ‘type 3 errors’... solving the wrong problem.
The other critical element in these endeavors, is the removal of concern for one’s reputation and public image. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this in action recently in very high profile arenas. The presumption that because you are in charge, you are the smartest (whatever that means to you) person in the room only adds to potential errors. If you truly do hire people smarter than you, then you should put trust in that investment. As a leader, you certainly need to own the judgement. But that doesn’t mean that the research and consideration prior to ‘the decision’ should be your’s alone.
Years ago I had the opportunity to spend quality time with a very smart man. Barnett Helzberg took over a family retail business in the midwest and grew it into a giant. I learned a tremendous amount in the days I spent with Mr. Helzberg, but the most powerful concept I came away with was his pension for being the ‘dumbest guy in the room’. Mr. Helzberg hired smart people and he trained them well. He aligned them with his core approach to business and delivering value. He put his confidence in them and empowered them. Hiring ‘people smarter than me’ wasn’t just a managerial posture for him.
Bold decisions and market leading actions are not without risk. Thoughtful and strong follow-through is a critical component of successful judgement, but I think the mistake I see most often in business is the result of arrogance and ego driven decisions.