Changing Times a Tough Test for Execs

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Let's pretend you're back in high school. It's Scholastic Aptitude Test time, only now you're a top telecommunications kahuna.

You're supposed to have a pretty good handle on these telecom answers. But instead of a verbal and math focus, at age 18, the thrust is on keeping up with a changing landscape and planning for the future.

Each part of this new exam is similar to the others in terms of material tested, but each area remains a unique and separate review of your talents. Just like high school-but different. The test is tomorrow.

Remember, we're talking about a scale that reaches as high as 800, for a perfect score on each section.

Part I of the test will be adapting to the changes in your business. That's the equivalent of the SAT's verbal section, and you've been hot with words since you were three years old, so there's hope there of something better than a 500.

You'd feel better if there was more time in each day and you could've kept up with your trades a bit more, or forced through a few more changes in your company and your industry. But you're relaxed.

After all, fast talking can get you through this part. Heck, when in a trade show booth, with three execs from who knows where, you can bedazzle the bejesus out of them.

But deep down inside, you really don't know the material. You really don't know the subject matter, even though most of the time you paid attention. It's just too much, "adapting to the changes in your business." Just what exactly what does that even mean?

Yet, the real challenge is Part II. This is the equivalent of the math section, which this year will query your knowledge of "planning for the future." To put it another way: you're in charge of your company's (and industry's) future, and what are you going to do with it?

There was a time, back in high school, when planning for the future meant taking this damned SAT and filling out a few college applications, selecting a school and spending the next four years learning about how new influences (and new substances) affected your body.

This time, however, planning for the future means simply trying toget it. "Planning for the future" means figuring out the ever-more-complex myriad of technological, distribution, legal/regulatory, personnel and administrative issues that just get more and more complex every time you visit a trade show. And frankly, you're pretty worried. In fact, you're just worn out and overwhelmed. You wonder how your working parents did this so well so many years ago-before cell phones, fax machines, e-mail, computers, broadband, convergence, pagers, interactivity and hundreds of thousands of added complications.

A score of 500 looks good on this part of the test, and 400 of that comes from just writing your name correctly on the form.

So what's the point here? Never before have there been so many corporate leaders flying by the seat of their pants. It's just scary. Particularly in telecommunications, the changes have been coming so fast and the future is so vague, that most of today's top-level leaders just don't get it and most don't know how to get it.

Even the smartest of the smart are stumbling. Look at Bill Gates [of Microsoft] or Joe Collins [of Time Warner Cable]. Both got overwhelmed and failed to see the ramifications of their actions. In fact, in his recent statement, "Microsoft will not be broken up," even Gates' surrogate, Steve Ballmer, showed the same signs of being overwhelmed.

It's hard to keep up with today's business and the volume of information necessary to do so.

Our company's numerous visits to the Silicon Valley and to 10 or 11 trade shows a year show that the playing field is simply full of executive after executive who just doesn't know where the industry's going or how to get there. These folks don't know what's happening now and or where to take it next. It's just too much to keep up with, and it keeps getting worse all the time. And these are smart people.

The days, the weeks, and the months just aren't long enough, even if you spend all of your time, to get the information you need to make the best decisions. Meeting after meeting is filled with non-answers and vague references. Speech after speech is without firm positions and without substance. Is it the TV or the PC? Or both? Or does it matter? What are the trends? What are the challenges? The opportunities? And more challenges?

Granted, this could be said about each preceding generation, but never before has the wealth of information and the wealth of stimuli been so overwhelming, and never before has the pressure of competition been so intense-and so intensifying.

The backlash from Wall Street's older generation is perhaps one sign of the frustration surrounding these changes and the uncertainty about the future. So many in that group were simply overwhelmed by the changes, and by the control that the new changes took over their lives (and their money). In response, they pulled back their investments. And retrenched. This will continue to be the case as long as people continue to feel overwhelmed.

Note, too, that these paradigms are not just aimed at the telecom sector. One could single out execs in just about every other industry, including the government, who are looking at all the changes and wondering what to make of it.

So, what to do? It's not about giving up, that's for sure. Months spent searching, questioning some of the wisest and best in the business, suggest the following. And note that the list below isn't a cure all, but these days we all need every tip we can get, and these may be a few:

  • Pay attention to what the customer wants. If the customer suggests a change in course, err on that side.
  • Don't rely too much on the blinders or one straight-ahead vision. Try something different. Be ready to change course.
  • Don't get too hung up on the technology.
  • Act quickly. It's a fine line between doing your adequate homework and moving too quickly, but remember, the competition is out there and time is more and more of the essence.
  • Be ready to acquire or to ally.
  • Study and watch for trends. Quality conferences and trade magazines are important tools in this endeavor.
  • Build a balance. Making good individual priorities is a huge part of this.
  • Get away and disconnect. A weekend in a great place can do more than many weeks in the same old environment, wherever that is.
  • Hire and keep good people.
  • Let those good people do their jobs.

Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman of The Carmel Group.

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