January 16, 2019

Predictive Pathway Thinking: Generalists and the Traits of Growth and Greatness

Sarah Chase

Sarah Chase
Chief Operating Officer and Associate Producer, Podcasts/Alda Communication Training Company

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When you stop to consider the number of challenges that new companies face when starting up, it is a wonder that anyone goes into business at all. The statistics against the success of companies is staggering. For example, in the United States there are more than 28 million operating firms, but only 4% of these entities ever reach the $1 million revenue mark.[1] The perils of people, cash, culture, and the endless hours of time it takes to grow in consumer markets can be overwhelming. Indeed, so overwhelming that nine out of ten, 90%, of all starts up will fail in the first year.[2]

The key question in today’s business world is: what are the traits of companies that are capable of staying the course and surviving not only the financial perils, but also the leadership, operational, and managerial pressures of doing business in the, “networked, team-based, flat, flexible, diverse, and global organization”[3]of an ever-more fast-paced and technologically demanding world? In this post 1990’s dot.com boom and bust era, founders and executives have relied upon waves of organizational theorists and management consultants to help them navigate through emerging behavioural learning patterns, generational changes in culture, rapid demand tech skills, and the seemingly endless onslaught of professional and personal communication platforms - everything from E-mail and Slack to Twitter and Facebook.

Rise of the Generalists

As the corporate hierarchies of the past century continue to fade away, both old and new companies find themselves favoring more democratic and less bureaucratic models. For example, restaurants in Boston have found that so-called “open book”[4] management systems, which allow employees to actively engage in the day-to-day financial decision-making of the company, helps to boost both morale and profit. Such “employee owned business” models are helping to define a new normal in business, where everyone is a stakeholder and takes responsibility for the success of the whole. 

Leading this sort of employee-centric revolution, however, is not an easy task. Leaders must be capable of navigating the ever-changing nuance and subtext of these organizational structures. Specialists managers, those who are too steeped in particular structural processes, are not capable of the mental and operational agility required to handle the daily improvisations of modern business. Where then does one turn to find the “against the grain thinkers”[5], capable of dips, dives, u-turns, highs, lows and everything in between? The ability to manage uncertainty is vital to new organizations, especially if they are to succeed in the modern economy.

In his 2012 essay for Harvard Business Review,[6] global equity investor and Yale Professor, Vikram Mansharamani, quoted the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Mansharamani then compared this to Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” where he said that hedgehogs, “relate everything to a single, central vision,” whereas foxes, “pursue many ends connected … if at all, only in some de facto way.” Mansharamani reasoned that this parable is all about the relationship between the critical thinking styles of specialist and generalists and he concluded that:

 “Specialists with deep expertise have ruled the roost, climbing to higher and higher positions. To advance in one’s career, it was most efficient to specialize. For various reasons, though, the specialist era is waning. The future may belong to the generalist. Why’s that? To begin, our highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can affect each other.”

The generalist continues to be a unique and rare commodity of business professional. This is someone steeped in the successes and failures of the gig economy, improvisational, realistic, stoic, and comfortable at any number of tasks. The generalist is one who easily maneuvers between executive and employee, technician and talent. Today’s generalist has seen the good and bad, made mistakes, grown from them, and survived. Like the fox, this level of generalist is eager for the next adventure - the next company where his or her talents, skills, and deep knowledge can be put to best use and practice.

Predictive Pathway Thinking 

Because generalists are still relatively unique to modern organizational thinking, less is written about what makes them successful. Specialists, we know, are best suited to thrive when conditions are already perfect. The challenge for the generalist, however, is to help bring about those perfect conditions, to be predictive of the unseen variables and to create a pathway for the right conditions to be possible in the first place.[7] Generalists have a way of thinking in predictive pathways, which allow them to take into account multiple variables, which specialists and the less-experienced, cannot.

Hedgehog Greatness

When a generalist and new company merge, magic is possible. This is that rare 4% spark moment, that $1 million plus mould breaking venture, where a founders vision comes to life in real and lasting ways. However, when it comes to sustained growth - the fox must, paradoxically, become more like the hedgehog. A generalist, sensibly focused, can take a company from what Jim Collins calls, “good-to-great.”[8] As Collins explains it:

“To go from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence. It requires the discipline to say, ‘Just because we are good at it - just because we’re making money and generating growth - doesn’t necessarily mean we can become the best at it.’ The good-to-great companies understood that doing what you are good at will only make you good; focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization is the only path to greatness.”[9]

Transformative Foxes

In attempting to understand sustainable growth, there is an unenviable amount of data to sort through. Predicting what will make or break a new company can lead to inconsistent, scattered thinking, which is what will, ultimately, throw the generalist fox totally off the scent of greatness. However, a transformative generalist, one who can transform from fox to hedgehog, will have achieved the clarity of mind to understand what his or her company can do better than anyone else and direct the focus. At this moment, the fox and the hedgehog merge and the generalist undergoes a final metamorphosis. The growth leader emerges.

Role as Growth Leader

The growth leader has the deep insight of the hedgehog to get results and the cunning skills of fox to make things happen. A growth leader understands what drives people to bolder and better heights and motivates them to succeed for the greater good of the company. In short, the growth leader has figured out the recipe for progress within their company.

The growth leader plays a pivotal role within the company. He or she has the opportunity to completely define the culture for years to come. In considering the types of corporate cultures that are both sustainable and great, six key traits emerge. They are:

1. A strong foundation with an actionable vision

To quote from the musical Putting It Together, by Stephen Sondheim:

“First of all you need a good foundation / Otherwise it's risky from the start / Takes a little cocktail conversation / But without the proper preparation / Having just a vision's no solution / Everything depends on execution”[10]

2. An acceptance of nothing less than excellence in the leadership team

Hesiod, the Greek poet of antiquity once wrote that, “Before the Gates of Excellence, the high Gods have placed sweat.” Businesses that thrive are led by people who are not afraid of excellence and the persistence and dedication that it takes to achieve great results.

3. The nurturing of an audacious challenge-accepting attitude

Think big, be audacious, and set high goals. As Jim Collins describes it:

 “All companies have goals. But there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge– like a big mountain to climb.”[11]

4. An attention to detail for accountable, realistic results

Small things do make a big difference - for both customer and employee:

“Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, pushes on the notion that every employee is the CEO of something. This empowers individuals to take responsibility for their area of ownership, adding a level of accountability and fulfillment that can drive quality.”[12]

5. Fair and equitable treatment of all employees at all levels

Fear and uncertainty are always at the door and no company is a utopia and, ultimately, each employee decides if he or she is being treated fairly. However, when companies take the moral, and not merely legal, perspective to process fairness this will:

“ … not only minimize costs but can also help to increase value, inspiring operational managers to carry out a well-founded strategic plan eagerly or embrace, rather than sabotage, an organizational change. This form of value is less tangible than direct reduction of expenses, but it affects the bottom line nonetheless.”[13]

6. Clear, empathic communication, which stems from an ability to really listen.

The actor, writer, and CEO Alan Alda says, “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.”[14] Leaders listen and they are open to being changed. This opens leaders up to learning about what is coming up ahead, which helps them see new pathways to opportunity.

[1] Harnish, Verne. (2014) Scaling Up, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. Pg. 25.

[2] 242 Failure Post-Mortems. CB Insights. October 31, 2017: https://www.cbinsights.com/research/startup-failure-post-mortem/

[3] Changing Organizational Models, The “New” Organization: Taking Action in an Era of Organizational Transformation. Pg. MI-10

[4] Adams, Dan. Turning the tables on the restaurant business. October 15, 2015. Boston Globe

[5] When business thinkers go against the grain. ZDNet. (November 10, 2009) http://www.zdnet.com/article/when-business-thinkers-go-against-the-grain/

[6] All hail the generalist. Harvard Business Review (June 4, 2012). https://hbr.org/2012/06/all-hail-the-generalist

[7] The secret power of the generalist and how they’ll rule the future. Forbes. (July 10, 2012) https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/07/10/the-secret-power-of-the-generalist-and-how-theyll-rule-the-future/#464aef542bd5

[8] Collins, Jim. Good to Great. (2001). Harper Business.

[9] Pg. 100, Good to Great.

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-836TtoF_5I

[11] BHAG: Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goal. Jim Collins.com (2001). http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/BHAG.html

[12] Box CEO Aaron Levine: To create something special, do sweat the small stuff.Fast Company (Dece,mber 7, 2011) https://www.fastcompany.com/1798504/box-ceo-aaron-levie-create-something-exceptional-do-sweat-small-stuff

[13] Why It’s So Hard to Be Fair. Harvard Business Review (March 2006) https://hbr.org/2006/03/why-its-so-hard-to-be-fair

[14] Alda, Alan (2005). Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned. Random House. 

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