Three Ways to Adjust Your Current Focus in order to Ensure Future Viability

Focus on the Future: How to Be More Forward-Looking

Every new year brings with it the chance for leaders to set goals to carry the organization into a bright future. But what happens as the inspiration of the new year gives way to the daily grind of business? Time marches on, and the motivation to look ahead may dwindle with it.

Yet, the best leaders find a way to engage in a regular balancing act between executing near-term goals and pursuing a vision for the future. This means taking time on a consistent basis to exercise a forward-looking mind-set.

Are you up for the challenge?

Why Looking Forward Matters

According to The Leadership Code by Ulrich, Smallwood and Sweetman, one of the five key roles of a leader is strategist (Harvard School of Business Press, 2009). In brief, leaders shape the future.

Yet, in tough economic times, leaders often hunker down on tactics. They may focus on survival and results, while allowing decisions to become pragmatic. After a while, however, the benefits of this short-term approach may dissipate as their employees and teams lose sight of the big picture.

In today’s difficult times, people need to be reminded of why they are doing what they do—and why it matters. This is when leaders can step up and make a difference. Leadership is more than encouraging high-performance; it’s about reminding people of what they are trying to build and why it matters. An effective leader makes a difference by helping people see their role in building a better future.

Interestingly, as leaders move further up the organizational ladder, people increasingly look to them to be forward-looking—to spend time and thought on where the business needs to be not today, or tomorrow, but several years in the future.

Think about the leaders you’ve followed or admired. The great ones are visionaries who serve as custodians of the future.

Leadership professors Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes, after surveying thousands of people on ideal leadership qualities, reveal that the ability to look forward is second only to honesty as the most admired leadership trait. On average, 70 percent of workers worldwide select “forward-looking” as a key leadership competency.

Now, how do you cultivate a forward-thinking mind-set?

Let’s look at three additional means of cultivating a forward-looking mind-set.

Three Ways to Grow Your Future-Focus

In The Truth About Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010), Posner and Kouzes urge readers to spend time learning about the future through:

  1. Insight
  2. Outsight
  3. Foresight

Insight: Explore Your Past

When you look backward, you can see farther ahead and imagine the right possibilities for your organization. How so? By reconnecting with your organization’s core values and using these to guide the strategies you develop for the future.

Here are some questions to explore in the process:

  • Identify the recurring themes in your organization.
  • To which topic/s do you return again and again?
  • Which story do you keep telling and retelling?

As you search your organization’s past to find the theme, it will help to articulate the organization’s core values and higher purpose. When you know more about your organization, its dreams and its purpose, it will be easier to keep this information in mind each time you visualize the future.

Outsight: Imagine the Possibilities

To be ready to move into the future, you also need to spend more time reading, thinking and talking about long-term possibilities. This means developing the discipline to spend more time studying the future.

You can begin by establishing a “future committee” dedicated to collecting ideas, articles, information and resources about trends affecting your organization. Then be sure to track current business publications, both off- and online. Circulate these ideas to stimulate discussions and innovative thinking.

As you look forward into these areas, focus on improving your understanding of the world around you, not just in your industry. A game-changing product in an unrelated field could impact your customers and their need for your services. No one can afford to be short-term-oriented in a globally connected marketplace.

Foresight: Survival of the Optimists

Foresight means looking toward the future with a sense of optimism. It means being able to see past the roadblocks to the possibilities.

There is a dramatic difference between people who react to roadblocks with a sense of futility and pessimism and those who react with determination and optimism. Those who learn to be optimistic about life and work are far more likely to be successful than those who view a current event through the pessimist’s lens.

Being optimistic doesn’t mean ignoring reality or the hardships required to get great results. Leaders can define a business reality, yet defy a negative verdict. By being optimists, leaders give people the hope, energy and strength needed to carry on.

One of the best ways to expand your capability for foresight is to work with an executive coach, who can help you see what you don’t yet see. An experienced coach will stimulate your thinking and conversations about what’s possible.

The Future Awaits…Will You Be There?

We live in interesting times, and game-changing ideas, products and services are popping up all the time. Think only of the e-reader, smart phone, or iPad.

Books without paper? Phones that double as navigational systems? Laptops chopped in half, leaving just a touch screen, but no keyboard? These technologies, now so common, were once the ideas of fantasy.

How do you and your organization become first out of the gate on these kinds of innovations and discoveries? The answer, if not the application, is surprisingly simple. If you want to be the leader to get there first, you must regularly exercise a forward-looking mind-set.

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