How Long-Term Thinking Saved Your Favorite Jeans

Too many companies rely on short-term fixes to address long-term, complex problems. The result is a series of failed attempts at resolving fundamental, underlying business challenges.

I was talking with some former colleagues the other day about a manager we all knew who had recently been fired. Her time in the role was short and now it was over. None of us were really surprised. She was brought in from outside the company to stir things up. And she did. Upper management wanted quick results so she focused on short-term fixes. She was a bull in a China shop. She brought in her own people, boosted the financials by deep cost-cutting, fired long-term employees, and instituted a top-down autocratic management style. She was laser-focused on short-term results and refused to listen to the concerns of employees and other managers. Anyone who challenged or questioned her authority was let go.

As you can imagine, the business results improved but morale dropped sharply. The good employees eventually all left the company and most of the institutional knowledge left as well. The only people who remained were those that were loyal to her and those that were quietly waiting for her to leave. Fear and anxiety became the norm. As a result, company performance ultimately fell off and all of the short-term gains she had made vanished. The company began to lose money and market share. Eventually, upper management had no choice but to fire her. The damage was done.

“You can’t build a long term future on short term thinking.” Billy Cox

Time and time again, I see companies bringing in short-term managers to fix long-term systemic problems. Often these companies have fundamental, structural flaws that need to be addressed. They have complex problems that need long-term, systemic thinking. Consider the examples of Radio Shack, Sears, K-Mart, and General Electric. Each of these companies has deep-rooted issues that have taken decades to develop. For years, leaders of these companies have focused on a series of attempts at short-term fixes. In the end, this short-term mindset has done little to address the underlying, long-term problems.

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Consider a similar company, Levi Strauss & Co. The iconic denim brand reached its peak in 1996 with $7.1 billion in sales. After that, sales declined rapidly. Competition from other brands and a lack of creative and new ideas pushed it from the center of American culture. Young customers were fleeing to newer and trendier “designer jeans.” Levi Strauss was going the way of Blockbuster. It was just a matter of time.

In 2011, a 28-year Proctor & Gamble executive named Chip Bergh took over as CEO. He inherited a company steeped in debt, struggling to reinvent itself in the highly competitive U.S. denim market. Instead of a series of short-term actions, however, he developed a long-term plan to put the iconic brand “back in the center of culture.” Instead of cutting costs, he invested in innovation and a new research-and-development center called the Eureka Innovation Lab. He also went back to basics. He focused the company’s efforts on making the best jeans, especially for women. He purposely stopped chasing other clothing categories that were a distraction. He also became less reliant on retail chains like J.C. Penny’s and Macy’s. Instead, he expanded the network of Levi-branded stores.

What’s even more surprising, is that Levi’s board gave him the time to execute his plan. And, it worked. After six years of implementing his turnaround strategy, Bergh finally saw the results. Levi sales grew by 7.7% in 2017 and by 13.9% in 2018. Last week, Bergh announced plans to take Levi’s public after a 34-year absence from the stock market. Bergh now feels that Levi Strauss has the potential to be a $10 billion company. He stated that “Levi’s lost a generation of consumers in the early 2000s, but today our customers are younger than ever—and we’re gaining momentum as we bring them back.” Long-term thinking brought Levi’s from the brink of collapse back into the center of culture.

“Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.” Bruce Lee.

Stories like this give me optimism. Senior managers of other struggling companies should be able to see the extraordinary turnaround of Levi Strauss and realize the time and effort that was required to make this happen. This is clear evidence of the power of long-term thinking and the patience required to allow these turnaround plans to come to fruition. Maybe someday we will see an end to short-term managers and the illusion of quick fixes.

Long-term thinking saved your favorite jeans. It can save your organization as well.

As always, reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think.

If you are looking for a good book on long-term thinking, you should read Go Long: Why Long-Term Thinking Is Your Best Short-Term Strategy. This book reveals how some of the world’s most prominent business leaders resisted short-term pressures to successfully manage their organizations for the long term, and in turn, aim to create more jobs, more satisfied customers, and more shareholder wealth.

A Good Leader Has Your Back

Strong leaders support their employees and create a high performing culture. Those that don’t create an organization based on fear.

I had spent thousands of dollars of the company’s money to get to this point. It was my first trip to the high power test lab and I was nervous. I was the lead mechanical engineer on a project to design a new electrical apparatus that would be safer than anything available on the market. It would be a breakthrough if we succeeded.

I ran all the calculations. I was confident we would pass the test but I was worried our design might not survive the initial shock wave. An electrical short at 15,000 volts is violent and, despite my calculations, I knew anything could go wrong. I spent the morning getting everything ready for the first test. By noon, it was go-time. There was no backing down.

Less than one second after the fault current was applied, my worst fears were realized. The gear exploded violently. Parts flew off in every direction. It wasn’t just a failure, it was an absolute disaster. I had failed spectacularly.

I walked over to the test bay and surveyed the scene. The product was completely destroyed. There was nothing left but a smoking carcass and the smell of melted copper. I knew I had to call my boss and I knew it wouldn’t be good. I would probably lose my job for this. I was discouraged. My days as a design engineer were probably over.

I returned to the control room and called my boss. I explained what had happened. Expecting the worst, I was shocked at his response. He said, “Do you know why it failed?” My answer was yes. He then asked, “Do you know how to fix it?” Again, my answer was yes. Without any emotion, he said, “Well, get back here and get the redesign done so you can return to the lab.”

I knew right then my boss had my back. Instead of chastising me, he had encouraged me. Instead of losing my job, he had given me a new assignment. My respect for him skyrocketed. After that interaction, I knew I had a good boss and I wanted to make him proud. And I did. I returned to the lab a short month later and passed every test. We were the first to the market with this new technology

A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. – Russell H. Ewing

This happened to me more than 20 years ago and I can still remember exactly how I felt that day. I felt empowered knowing I had a boss who would stand behind me even if I made a mistake.

A good manager is a man who isn’t worried about his own career but rather the careers of those who work for him. – H. S. M. Burns

Unfortunately, many bosses these days don’t understand the power of supporting their employees. Too many bosses won’t back up their team members when bad things happen. As soon as anything casts a shadow on the leader, they abandon their people. They don’t want to get in trouble themselves. They are looking out for their own careers. They walk away and let the employee take the fall.

This is the worst type of leader. When something goes wrong, they immediately leave you hanging or worse, they throw you under the bus. They want all the glory, but they don’t want to take any blame for failures. What’s worse is that everyone in the organization knows this and it deeply affects the culture.

When employees know they have a boss that won’t back them up if anything bad happens, they stop taking chances. They stop trying new things. They stop pushing the envelope of what’s possible. They’re afraid to fail. And that fear grinds the organization to a halt. The organization becomes stagnant and good people start looking for other opportunities.

“A bad manager can take a good staff and destroy it causing the best employees to flee and the remainder to lose all motivation.” – Unknown

I will never forget the kindness of that boss. He put me ahead of his own career. I’m sure he caught hell for the delays and expense but, he never mentioned anything to me. He knew I was doing something that hadn’t been done before and there was a chance for failure. He stood behind me and motivated me to get back up again and keep going. In the end, the product was a success and the company was enormously successful because he had my back.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

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The Absent Leader

While most people identify micromanagement as the worst leadership style, there is another type of boss who is equally destructive to an organization, the absent leader.

This is the type of boss who is distant, aloof, or so busy that they don’t perform the basic duties of a leader. Leadership is about being present. It’s about setting the direction for your team and accomplishing goals. It’s also about resolving issues and conflicts when they arise.

When a leader isn’t present and isn’t carrying out these critical duties, chaos reigns.

Absent leaders create a situation where each employee does what they think is best for the organization. Most people care about their company and they want it to succeed but, when the leader steps away, there is not one person guiding the organization. Everybody decides what’s best to do. In the absence of clear direction, the organization will drift further from its mission.

The other problem is that one individual might choose to go one way and another person goes in a different way. This results in the organization getting pulled in many different directions. This creates internal conflict, unnecessary debate, and arguments which wastes precious time and resources.

When there is no leader, or when the leader is silent, chaos takes over.

Another example of this is rumors. When a leader doesn’t adequately explain what’s happening in an organization, especially during times of change, rumors will begin to get started. People will speculate on what’s going to happen. These rumors will run through an organization and do nothing but create worry and waste time, energy, and resources.

Rumors happen when leaders aren’t leading.

There are three ways to avoid becoming an absent leader.

Be present. Be there for your team. Listen to what’s going on in the organization. Walk around the workplace and be seen. Be alert for rumors and internal debates. Understand where people may be wasting energy and where divisiveness exists.

Lead the organization. Set the vision and the objectives. Establish clear boundaries and expectations. Let your team know what the priorities are. Be there to resolve conflicts and make hard decisions. Don’t shy away from your responsibilities.

Don’t stand for chaos. It’s the leader’s job to build a stable, smooth-running business. Chaos should always be the exception and not the rule. It’s good to have debate and discussion but allowing constant infighting and arguments only wastes the time and energy of an organization. It does not put you closer towards your goal. Take a look at your organization and see what’s going on. If there is chaos and confusion, you are not doing your job. You are an absent leader. You might have the leadership title. You might have the corner office. But you are not leading your team and that can be devastating to your organization.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

Do you want to be a better leader?  Sign up for my free leadership newsletter where I share important leadership tips and I don’t waste your time.