Chapter 2 Perfect Clarity – How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders


Perfect Clarity

How do you create perfect clarity about your goals as a business leader with an engineering background?

Why Perfect Clarity Matters

There are only two problems in your life, your business, and your career:

  • What do you want?
  • How do you get it?

These two questions are the core of goal achieving. This chapter deals with the first question and addresses where you want to go as a business leader with an engineering background. For this, you require not only clarity for yourself, but also the ability to describe this clarity to other people. This ability is needed because no single big goal has ever been achieved in isolation. For example, Albert Einstein was relatively weak in mathematics. He was keenly aware of this fact. While he developed the theory of relativity, he surrounded himself with a sophisticated team of skilled mathematicians to make sure all the mathematical details would work. The conclusion? Even the greatest minds will fail, if not actively supported by other people.

The twin engines of leadership for goal achieving are vision and connection. A vision describes where you want to go as a leader. Since every big goal requires help from other people, a connection ensures that others support you on the journey to achieve the goal. Figure 2.1 shows why both a vision and a connection are necessary for business leadership.

Figure 2.1 Vision and connection: The twin engines of leadership

If both vision and connection are lacking, you are stuck. Leaders who are trapped in this quadrant typically find themselves paralyzed, reacting to the world around them instead of trying to shape the world together with others. They have no idea where they are going, which coincidentally does not really matter, because they are traveling alone anyway.

If the vision is defined but the connection is missing, you end up in the ivory tower. This situation is characterized by conceptual thinking, detailed plans, and big ambitions. Yet, it lacks support to get things done. Typically, these leaders have developed many strategic plans, but all are now catching (cyber)dust in deep drawers or electronic files. Often, organizations develop peak activity at the start of defining a new strategy. After this peak, the fire to achieve strategic goals quickly burns out, things go back to normal and the usual routines are reinstated. It’s a well-known pattern for big, complex projects driven by government subsidies. As soon as the written plans are accepted and all parties involved have received their money, many of these projects tend to die a slow and silent death.

Leaders who make excellent connections but lack vision operate in a campfire songs organization. This mindset usually becomes apparent at the typical corporate retreat. The management team metaphorically holds hands, sings campfire songs and puts team-building prominently on the map. Since vision is lacking, as soon as the team is back in the office, they continue the friendly camaraderie, but lack any movement toward a meaningful goal. This pattern is often encountered in organizations where the main focus is on pleasing, instead of serving. If you don’t want to rock the boat, you will remain in the harbor. A boat is safest inside a harbor, but that’s not what it’s designed for.

Only when leaders both have a vision and are able to make a connection with others are they able to achieve extraordinary, high-performance results. How do you quickly build a vision and make a connection?

Why Mindsets Are Important to Achieve Goals

In 1998, after several ignominious defeats, the UK Olympic rowing team resolved to change its ways. In preparation for the big event, they agreed to ask themselves one question before making any decision: Will it make the boat go faster? For example, a party tonight? No, it will not make the boat go faster. An additional training tomorrow at 5 a.m.? Yes, it will. This simple, yet consistent approach to decision making provided a breakthrough. They won the Olympics 18 months later.

This success story is an example of a fascinating concept called the psychology of achievement. It tells us that thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions and finally results. Figure 2.2 illustrates this sequence.

Figure 2.2 The psychology of achievement

Here’s what happened to the UK rowing team. With a simple decision of adopting a different mindset with different thoughts regarding decision making, it was possible to take different actions and get very different results. This is how you win Olympic gold. This is also how you eat pizza. Dinner time (thoughts) leads to hunger (feeling), which leads to actions (order pizza), and finally results (eat). The psychology of achievement shows that your mindsets drive results.

Since achieving excellent results is all about mindsets and seems so simple, an interesting question would be why is achieving great success still so enormously rare? After all, if you feed your mind with high-performance thoughts, you generate high-performance feelings, take high-performance actions and, naturally, get high-performance results. Alas, things may not be that easy. Often your thinking is compromised. The first reason is thinking in reverse, where you take the existing results as a basis for future thinking. For example, a company has grown market share in the past 5 years, and predicts its future market share by simple extrapolation. In other words, you use your rear view mirror to predict what is ahead. This, of course, goes well until it doesn’t.

The second thinking trap is called thinking filters. If you ask a person who is not color blind to focus on the color red in a room, she will have no problem finding multiple sources of red. If you change the question and ask for blue next, the assignment will remain easy. The interesting part comes when you ask her to then close her eyes and list sources of yellow in the room. Chances are that she will struggle. The reason is usually not a lack of yellow in the room. This little experiment shows something else: Our conscious mind is a goal-seeking machine. If you ask it to focus on the color red, birds in the sky or intrusive sounds, it will have no problem complying. Yet, in order to do so, it will filter out all things unrelated to the goal at hand. You won’t see yellow, miss any elephants and be unaware of the low hum of the air-conditioning. Your focus will determine which thoughts you allow to enter your mind.

How to Create a Vision

Your role as a leader is therefore to put the psychology of achievement into action and get clarity on the thoughts that help achieve your goals, while at the same time preventing any thinking traps from ruining your success. Of course, this all starts with having a vision. A vision is a detailed picture in your mind of what future success would look like. A good vision can be played out in your head in the theater of the mind. It’s not necessary to see this picture in your mind’s eye as a blockbuster movie. Yet, it’s important to get right as many details as possible. Every man-made item is based on a vision. Even the initial creator of the wooden chair must have had a picture of a chair in his mind first before cutting the first wood. This principle is true not only for building chairs, but also for designing nuclear plants, running beverage companies, and producing paper clips. In the case of the UK rowing team, the vision was simple: Increase speed and be the first to cross the finish line in the Olympics final. For engineers, it can be a bit more complicated. Yet, imagining a new bridge may still not stretch the mind too much. However, in the world of leading a business, things may become much fuzzier. What does success of a company or even team look like? Developing a clear vision in a fuzzy environment is therefore an essential activity for any effective leader.

While striving for clarity around your vision, realize that you will not see how to do it until you see yourself doing it. For example, to increase your own productivity, you need to create a vision of what increased productivity would look like. Typical questions to answer are:

  • What does my ideal productive day look like?
  • What kind of customers will I have?
  • What kind of colleagues will I have?
  • What kind of colleagues will I no longer have?
  • What will I no longer do?
  • What will effective meetings look like?

The next step is to realize that a vision without massive action is just a dream. To make a vision come true, it’s therefore necessary to translate it into goals. This is often done in strategy documents, where a high-level vision is translated into a set of tangible goals. The problem is that getting clarity to translate a high-level vision into tangible goals often takes a lot of time, energy, and paper. I have seen companies with five-year strategy cycles along with a full year of strategy development. Since the speed of change is only accelerating, by the time the new strategy is presented, it’s usually already obsolete.

How to Get Clarity on Personal Goals

How can leaders maintain speed and help translate a high-level strategic vision into medium-term tangible goals? A powerful, yet simple approach is called the quick goal exercise. In 60 seconds, write down your three most important goals with a horizon of 6 months to 1 year. By doing so you will have all the input needed to lead you and your organization to success. The reason is that the three goals you wrote down after doing the quick goal exercise are generated by the subconscious part of your brain. This part of the brain operates in the background, 24 hours per day. If, on the other hand, you would spend a week to come up with your most important three goals, you’d access the conscious part of your brain. This part requires active thinking: It does an idea brainstorm, looks at the existing strategic plans, makes a decision on priorities, and builds a neat spreadsheet prioritizing the most important goals.

The clarity rule around goal setting, however, is very simple: You focus on what shows up in the subconscious part of your brain. The three goals from the quick goal exercise tell you everything about your current focus. What you are focused on gets done. If you’re happy with your focus, carry on! If you’re unhappy, continue working on your goals until the three most important goals are imprinted on the subconscious part of your brain. How do you know it’s there? This is called the 2 a.m. test. Imagine someone wakes you up from a deep sleep at 2 a.m. in the morning and asks your three most important goals. If you can answer this question without hesitation, the goals are firmly imprinted into your subconscious (and you can go back to sleep, with the pleasant knowledge that all is well with your goal focus).

The quick goal exercise may sometimes reveal uncomfortable truths. I once worked with a company that had controlled growth as its major vision. However, when I did the quick goal exercise with the CEO, all three goals revolved around financial reporting instead of growth. It turned out the company had just undergone a major audit, which revealed several critical compliance gaps in the area of financial reporting.

How to Get Clarity on Team Goals

If you lead your team through the quick team goal exercise and ask each individual team member to write down the three most important goals for the team, you may get two different results.

One result can be that all team members write down the same goals, in the same order, using the same language. If you encounter this situation, chances are big that you are dealing with a high-performance team, with all members working together to achieve the most important common goals. This scenario, however, is rare: More often, the result is a multitude of different goals. If this happens, you are clearly not aligned as a team and need to have a leadership conversation around clarity. It starts with the question: What are we trying to achieve as a team? Only after having a conversation about this question will you decide on the three most important goals and get team alignment.

Goal alignment is an essential but often forgotten priority. Have you ever seen a group of four-year-old children playing soccer? If so, you may have noticed that the children tend to be clustered around the ball. They are also easily distracted by squirrels, hot air balloons, and ice-cream vendors, and are generally very happy when someone scores a goal somewhere. For the children, it doesn’t really matter whose team scores a goal. They have loads of fun, but accomplish little. What is clearly lacking is alignment. When children grow older, they get better at alignment and start to play the game the way it is meant to be played. Interestingly enough, many professionals need to relearn the lesson of alignment to start working on the same goals in a team. Thinking in alignment is usually a strong point for engineers: All the pieces of a design puzzle must fit together in order to make any new product or process work.

Signs that alignment around the most important goals in a team is missing are:

  • No discussion about individual and team goals
  • Lack of transparency around individual bonus objectives of team members and the leader
  • No team progress meetings focused on the most important goals
  • No reporting on key performance indicators around the most important goals
  • No resource sharing and collaboration among team members
  • Team members can win or lose their bonus individually
  • Vague language of what team success would look like

How to Get Clarity on Organizational Goals

Clarity and alignment around goals are critical to make your vision as a business leader come through. It is also important to ensure that any goal is worthy of your attention. After all, if you put energy in achieving goals, you may want to make your effort count. How do you know as a leader if your goals are meaningful, or, in other words, make the boat go faster?

Great business leaders drive business growth and therefore adopt goals aimed at growth for the entire organization. Addressing these questions will help make growth focus the core of the organization:

  • Will these goals add value in the eyes of your customers? It’s important to contribute and improve the condition of the customer. Keep in mind that value can be different for you than for a customer. If, for instance, you would shorten payment terms for your customers, you may capture more value for yourself, but probably upset your customers and strain a trusting relationship. You must always strive to add value in the eyes of the people who pay your bills.
  • Will these goals improve the profitability of your company? The objective of a business is to get and keep customers in a profitable way. If a goal doesn’t secure or improve profitability, why are you doing it in the first place? Think about it. Did the last quality project really improve the condition of customers in a profitable way?
  • Will these goals make the competition nervous? If you do what everyone else is doing, you are not distinguishing yourself from the competition and you are probably stuck. Following the herd is never a good idea as a leader. Where can you make a radical turn and do something else completely? For example, if sustainability is the current big thing, what can you do to focus on massively improving speed instead?
  • Has this type of goal been achieved before? A pipe dream is a future vision that is neat, pleasant, and totally unrealistic. There is a fine line between visionary ambition and chasing pie in the sky. How would you know if you cross this line and chase a pipe dream? If this type of goal has been achieved by someone, somewhere, sometime, then go ahead. Whatever you want to achieve is possible. If this type of goal has never been achieved, then be very careful. Often, it’s not the pioneers who reap the biggest rewards, but the immediate followers. Steve Jobs made Apple a lot of money by introducing a new, sleek version of an existing MP3 player: the iPod.

How to Get Clarity on Measuring Progress

A professional gambler once told me you should never count your chips on the table. He reasoned that knowing exactly how much you have won or lost may influence decision making, make you either timid or exuberant, and negatively impact your gambling success. His point was that darkness brings enlightenment. As a business leader, ignore this advice: You will need the maturity to want to know exactly where you are with respect to your goals. Nothing is more dangerous than moving boldly ahead without precise understanding of your surroundings. A cruise missile receives constant feedback and adjusts course accordingly to reach its target. The two elements that determine how to measure progress on your important growth goals are which data you use to measure progress (direct versus indirect), and where you get your data on measuring progress (internal or external). Figure 2.3 shows what the four elements of progress measurement for your goals would look like.

Figure 2.3 Four elements to measure goal progress

There are four ways to measure progress on your growth goals:

  • To measure progress on your growth goals directly using internal data, measure a simple number, such as market share or revenue. This direct, internal measurement is called a confession parameter.
  • To measure progress on your growth goals directly using external data, measure customer intimacy, for example with a satisfaction score. This direct, external measurement is called a smoking gun.
  • To measure progress on your growth goals indirectly using internal data, revert to circumstantial evidence, such as speed of innovation projects, project milestones achieved, etc. The evidence creates an outline, and this indirect, internal measurement is therefore called a chalk outline.
  • To measure progress on your growth goals indirectly using external data, measure your innovation power, for example, by the relative amount of your patents versus the competition’s. You need to go outside and follow a path littered with clues. This indirect, external measurement is therefore called a trail of evidence.

A spider is able to sit motionless for a long period of time, while keeping in touch with every movement in its web with only one thread. This one thread is called a spider line—all the feedback the spider needs to become aware of the arrival of the next meal.

Executive Question

What spider line do you need as a leader to monitor progress on your most important goals and spring into action as soon as a deviation occurs?

Why Clarity on Behaviors Is Important

You will never get the new results you want from the existing behaviors you like. Your existing mindsets and behaviors are perfectly aligned with the results you are currently getting. If you want different results, you need different behaviors. This is true for you, your team, and your organization. The UK rowing team set a new goal of winning the Olympics, identified the necessary behavioral changes as small decisions to make the boat go faster and started to make the goal happen.

As engineers, you’re accustomed to processes that are often very predictable. If a process doesn’t give satisfactory results, you simply tinker with parts of the process until you’re satisfied. The same philosophy applies to human beings. The operating system of a human is driven by mindsets and beliefs. Mindsets and beliefs select accompanying thoughts, create feelings, drive actions, and then create results. To change the operating system of yourself and the people in your organization, you need to start with beliefs, mindsets, and especially behaviors. The reason is that behaviors are noticeable by outsiders and can be changed. For example, think back 20 years ago and consider which of your fundamental beliefs have changed and how this change has influenced your current behaviors. If you have trouble recalling your thinking from 20 years ago, see if you can find an old diary or calendar. You will be astonished by what you find.

As a boardroom consultant and business leader, I have seen dozens of elaborate strategies to achieve goals. The best ones tend to cover clear goals, organizational alignment, realistic assumptions, and progress measurements. Very seldom, however, do they cover the most important topic: behaviors. For any strategy to be successful, there is one question that is almost always missing: Which behaviors will be most helpful to achieve the strategy in the easiest, fastest, and most elegant way possible? In Chapter 5, we will discuss this question in more detail. For now, it’s important to realize that you’re not only a leader, but a role model as well. As a role model, you set clear standards in an organization, not only for performance, but especially for behaviors. The minimum effective behaviors you demonstrate yourself as a leader are the maximum effective behaviors you can expect from others.

Summary and What’s Next

This chapter has shown that, as a business leader, it’s essential to have a vision: a clear idea of what you want to achieve. In order to make this vision happen, you need to translate this vision into goals. To achieve goals, you need to make a connection with others. The best way to build this connection is to engage the subconscious part of the brain, which has to be done with clear personal goals, clear team goals, and clear organizational goals. Finally, it’s important to get clarity on your spider line—how will you measure progress on your goals—and on the new behaviors necessary to achieve your goals.

Now that we have discussed clarity around your goals, we will take the next step and turn to Part III of this book: focus. In the next chapter, we will cover how to apply your unique strengths, as derived from your engineering training, to focus on the most important mindsets, behaviors, and skills to achieve your big goals.