To Better Lead and Manage Your Association, You Must Learn to See the Future

Over the past several decades, the business communities and those who study, analyze and coach them have focused on management and leadership.

By Lloyd Shefsky

Businessman holding a glass ball,foretelling the future.

Over the past several decades, the business communities and those who study, analyze and coach them have focused on management and leadership. Admit it! You’ve spent considerable time learning to be a better manager and leader of your association.

See What’s Right in Your Future

Occasionally, thoughts turned to business visionaries. Every so often, along comes a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, a Ross Perot, an Elon Musk, or a Howard Schultz. All are true change-the-world visionaries. They are accorded suitable praise and even reverence, but they are viewed as aberrations, the few among millions.

I’m not here to denigrate the true visionaries. I’m here to tell you that (i) there are many business visionaries whose visions change something less than the whole world; (ii) you can learn to be such a visionary for your association; and (iii) doing so will benefit your association and make you an invaluable leader and manager.

Professor Warren Bennis distinguished managers from leaders, saying, “Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing.”

I would add to that, “Visionaries see what will be right in the future.”

Yes, I am suggesting that you learn to see the future, and I assure you that you can. If that makes you picture me as a swami with a crystal ball and consider not reading any further, please don’t do that. I’m not here to promote magic. If anything, I’m here to bust your crystal balls and to teach you how to see the future despite that.

Not All Futures Co-Exist (Ross Perot)

I don’t think I need to tell you that you and your association would be better off if you could see the future, but “how?” you ask. Actually, your future is readily visible if you know where to look and if you realize that not all organizations’ futures happen at the same time. Let me give you an example.

In my latest book, Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born, I tell the story of Ross Perot. Perot is best known as a candidate for president of the United States, but he was also the founder of two immensely successful computer businesses that sold for billions and a successful real estate investor.

When his kids were still young, every Sunday after church and lunch the Perot family went for a ride in the family car, always winding up at the outskirts of Dallas where Ross had bought sizable desert-like acreage. The kids sat in the back of the car, eyes rolling, as Ross surveyed his land and described the future and what types of real estate would be where: Housing there, stores here, industrial over there. He did so with his military style, seemingly commanding the future to be as he saw it.

Years later, when the property was developed almost exactly as Ross had described, his kids were certain their father had special powers of vision. He did, but likely not in the way that his kids thought. There was no crystal ball. He had paid attention to and understood how other communities developed, how Texas cities in particular were formed and expanded, and what other zoning commissions were thinking and approving at that time.

The Lesson: Perot understood that others had already existed in their own future and had experienced something akin to his and Dallas’s futures. He felt that his Dallas property’s future would be similar, even though separated by distance, or by myriad other details. That’s likely a big part of your reason for belonging to Association Forum—to learn how other organizations have dealt with their futures before similar futures confront you.

Emulate Dissimilar Role Models (Bob Walter: Cardinal Health)

As you observe other successful associations (what I call Beyond-the-Eaves Vision in Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born), some with totally different missions and functions, find a piece or pieces from each that you can emulate and adapt to your situation. Then, apply those, together or separately, to your situation. You’ll find that there are valuable lessons in seemingly dissimilar organizations.

My kids grew up watching “Sesame Street,” and I marveled at the power of their lesson: “Some of these things are not like the others.” People learn early on what is alike and different, and it seems it is often easier to emulate and replicate what is similar to us. However, it is sometimes more meaningful and rewarding to seek similarities and lessons from dissimilar situations:

Cardinal Foods, a distributor to grocery stores, was acquired by Bob Walter. Almost immediately, Cardinal ran into a difficult competitive situation where competitors were seemingly selling to grocery stores at prices Bob could not match.

First impulses might have dictated observing other grocery distributors, who were most similar to Cardinal, but Bob had no access to their operations strategies, so he chose another route. He saw the future by peering laterally at companies who were already in his future. He observed his customers’ (the grocers’) discounting patterns, and the grocers’ customers’ (consumers’) buying patterns. By doing so, he detected patterns, e.g., buying at times when sales ran on certain goods. That let him deduce what his competitors were doing. He came up with a unique way of measuring using algorithm science and armed with that information was able to compete effectively and eventually successfully enough to expand into healthcare products. He soon changed the company name to Cardinal Health and it is now a multi-billion dollar publicly-traded company.

The Lesson: Walter realized that every transaction has two sides, and often, understanding one side can enable you to anticipate the other side’s future tactics and strategy. Then if the other side of the coin enters the future before your side does, the lessons can be profound.

Perhaps a personal story will help:

When early computers arrived on the scene, I had a vision that my firm would be totally computerized. So, I bought a computer and hired someone to give me “computer lessons.” It didn’t work. Between lessons, I would be traveling or otherwise focused on client and firm matters and forget what I learned by the next lesson.

One day, I was at O’Hare Airport, at a United Airlines counter. I noticed the agent doing her work on a computer and asked how she had learned to do that. She said that United gave her lessons. “Computer lessons?” I asked. “No.” she said. “Ticketing lessons.” One side of my coin was the computer, but I had forgotten that the other side was the tasks I wanted to accomplish using a computer. Seeing how the airlines had entered their future, even though their future was dissimilar to mine, awoke me to do that.

The Past Is Prologue (Rick Waddell: The Northern Trust)

That’s easy, you think to yourself, but how does the very first person or organization to be confronted with a particular future see it before the fact? Another story from Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born may help.

Seeing the future sounds feasible only by peering out into days yet to come, but that’s not the only route. Sometimes, the future is based on platforms gleaned from the past.

Northern Trust is a bank but very different than other banks. The vast bulk of its income comes from asset management fees, not from interest for lending money.

During the 2008-09 Great Recession, shortly after Rick Waddell had become CEO of the Northern Trust Company, many of the bank’s customers couldn’t liquidate their high-yielding securities. They were not bought from Northern Trust, and Northern Trust had no obligation to solve those customers’ problems. In fact, doing so might create a huge loss on the bank’s P&L, which could put Northern Trust’s ownership at risk. It might necessitate cutting executive compensation, risking executives’ exits and ultimately might have caused Rick his dream job.

Of course, all those possibilities would be in the future. Waddell considered such prospects but couldn’t know the future with certainty. Some would say good visionaries gauge future risks and rewards by envisioning the future. I think it’s not always so simple. Sometimes, one can see future risks but must look to the past to measure future rewards.

As part of his deliberations, Waddell opted to look back to the past. He focused on the company’s long-standing culture and principles of loyalty to and support of its customers. Such Retro Vision, one of five elements of vision I discuss in Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born, is a methodology of looking to the past to create infrastructure in the present for decisions that will illuminate or create the future.

The Lesson: Waddell and his team did good homework, and the future risks were clear. The potential reward—including doing the right thing—necessitated looking to the past, which enabled him to see what would be right for Northern in the future. Indeed, the past was prologue to Northern’s future.

Looking to the past is out of fashion. In our fast-changing society, looking back is so yesterday, in every way. Back then, your association was archaic—pen and paper, not computers. But I’m not suggesting you sacrifice modern technology and systems. Keep those; they allow you to keep up with today’s fast pace of progress and change. However, you can also reach back to fundamental principles and cultures that worked in your association at some time in the past. Then you, or someone you select, should work at adapting past principles in the current circumstances.

Use All Your Senses (Ross Perot; David Abney: UPS)

Vision isn’t just visual. It’s maintaining all your senses to be alert and constantly aware of what’s going on around you and around the world. Ross Perot listened to customers and made billions. David Abney, CEO of UPS, spent his first year listening to stakeholders and based critical decisions on what he heard. In both cases, they learned what the future had to be by listening to the input dots and then rearranging the dots to become their visions of the future. Doing as they did will make you a visionary, which can make you indispensable in your association and with its members.

Indirect Senses (Fred Smith: FedEx; Kay Koplovitz: USA Network)

If you can’t use your senses directly, for example if you’re situated remotely and too far away to sense their future, then use indirect methods. Fred Smith, CEO and founder of FedEx, reads incessantly to learn trend patterns globally. Kay Koplovitz, whose USA Network brought us satellite TV, went back to school for a Master’s degree in geosynchronous orbiting satellites.

You Can Be What You “See”

All those people featured in my book, Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born, proved to be extraordinary managers and leaders, largely because of their visions. You can do the same.

About the Author

Lloyd Shefsky is a business consultant, a retired clinical professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the author Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born. You can find out more at www.lloydshefsky.com.

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