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.

These Four Words Set Great Leaders Apart

“Bad bosses are small-minded. Great leaders are mission-minded.”

The best leaders are great communicators. They understand the importance of clear, concise, and continuous communications with employees. These leaders know how critical it is to get every employee rowing in the same direction. They appreciate the significance of getting employees to recognize and carry out the organization’s mission.

So, why do most companies and leaders ignore their mission statements? The problem is that these statements are typically long, complicated, and boring. They are written by committees and end up sitting in binders on dusty shelves or in cheap frames in the company’s lobby. Few have ever read them and even fewer can recite them. They’re completely irrelevant to the day-to-day operation of the business.

“When everyone knows the mission, there is cadence. When no one knows the mission, there is chaos.”

But, what if there was a better way? What if there was a simple solution to embed the company’s mission in everyday discussions? What if there was an easy way to get everyone on the same page?

This can be done and it’s easier than you think. Let me give you an example.

More than 20 years ago, my wife was a first-year teacher teaching at a small public school in Georgia. She had an amazing principal who was leading that school. The school had a mission to maximize the teaching time for each student. He wanted teachers to teach and not conduct other school business. He found a simple way to communicate his mission, he used just four words. In every meeting and interaction with his teachers, he simply said, “Get up and teach.”

If teachers found themselves grading homework or working on lesson plans when the students were in the classroom, he wanted his words to remind them of what to do. He wanted them to put down their pens, get up out of their chairs, and teach students. Four simple words, “Get up and teach,” was all he needed to communicate the mission.

What’s interesting is that all these years later, my wife still has those words echoing in her ears. Any time she sits down in the classroom and she’s doing something other than teaching, her former leader’s words come to her. If she’s grading a paper or doing some administrative work, she hears his words, “Get up and teach.” So she does. She puts down her pen, gets up, and she teaches because she knows that’s really what she’s there to do. These four simple words have stood the test of time. A mission statement she will never forget.

This is something I have adopted in my business.

I run a manufacturing company called Peak Demand Inc. which I co-founded in 2016. We started this company because we believed that customers were tired of the existing suppliers in the industry. Lead times were long, prices were high, customer support was poor, and the buying process was complex. We wanted to change that. This was our mission.

I chose four simple words to communicate that mission. I remind employees daily that we are a “Different kind of supplier.” Our mission is to provide something to the market that they can’t get from the other guys.

For example, other suppliers take 4-6 weeks to ship their product, we do it in 24 hours. Other suppliers have complex buying processes but you can order our products online and pay with a credit card if needed. If anything goes wrong in the field, the other guys make it hard to get it resolved. We have people on the phone 24 hours a day with the goal of getting the problem fixed as quickly as possible.

We’re different. We’re customer-driven, friendly, and we make things easy. When an issue comes up with a customer, I want my words echoing in the ears of my employees. When they start thinking like a big company, I want my words to remind them. I want them to choose a solution that would be different from the rest of the industry. I want them to be a “Different kind of supplier.” It’s a quick and simple way to remind my employees of what the mission of our company is.

Great leaders are mission-minded. if you want to be a great leader, you also need to be a great communicator. You need to communicate your mission daily. To do this, all you need is a simple, easy-to-remember way, to remind your employees of what’s important. Think about my wife, more than 20 years later, she is still reminded of those four simple words, “Get up and teach.” She’s still following them today even though she’s no longer part of that leader’s organization.

Make your mission statement so simple and so effective that when your employees hear it, they get it. They internalize it. It becomes part of who they are. If you do that, you’re going to build a mission-driven organization and be a much more effective leader.

Can you communicate your mission in just 4 powerful words? Will your team remember it 20 years from now?  Mission-minded leaders answer yes to both these questions.

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

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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.

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.