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Perform and Transform with a “Play to Win” Leadership Mindset
Discover three ways that courageous CEOs adopt a winning mindset in order to make bold decisions for long-term success.
Perform and Transform with a “Play to Win” Leadership Mindset
Long before the internet, Walmart upended retail with an unheard-of vision: supercenters with every shopping need under a single roof at discounted prices. Its mission was to save people time and money. As online shopping changed how consumers buy, Walmart was faced with a choice: Seek to defend the status quo or adopt a "play to win" mindset and proactively transform their business to serve their customers even better in the digital age. They've opted for the latter.
“There is a cost to inaction,” says Korn Ferry Senior Partner Margie Warrell, a global authority on courageous leadership who works in Korn Ferry’s CEO & Enterprise Leadership Institute. “When leaders adopt a defensive posture and play ‘not-to-lose', their decisions are guided far more by fear of what they might lose versus commitment to what they want to gain or improve. By narrowing their focus to delivering short term results, it puts them at greater risk for being left behind over the long term. That’s not a winning mindset.”
A winning mindset is a feature of what Korn Ferry refers to as Enterprise Leadership, which is the ability to perform and transform simultaneously for greater impact–both within the organization and the world at large. Korn Ferry breaks the Enterprise Leadership mindset down into five components: purpose, courage across and beyond, awareness of self and impact, inclusion that multiplies and integrative thinking.
Playing to win relies heavily on the courage mindset inherent in forging new ground, and Walmart has not shied from the challenge.
“You don’t want a culture of defense where you protect the solutions that you’ve already implemented,” says Tom Ward, Chief Commerce Officer at Walmart. “Celebrate the problems you’ve solved but also be ready to disrupt what you’ve created to make it better.” Recent years have seen the retailing giant make a series of investments to accelerate its e-commerce business, including in AI, automation and creating a tech incubator to ‘shape the future of retail.'
Instilling the value of courage in employees and organizations presents a unique challenge for business leaders. We are wired to avoid risk. People are far more sensitive to what they can potentially lose over what they could potentially gain. And the higher people climb in an organization, the more they have to lose. This can drive overly cautious decision making and trickle down to foster a culture of caution rather than ambition.
Leaders are under enormous pressure to deliver results and meet market expectations. But they must be mindful of the vulnerability created by being too focused on the short term. As Warrell shared, “Incremental, overly cautious decision-making can stymie the experimentation and innovation needed to build competitive edge and transform organizations to be more competitive over the longer term.”
It takes courage for CEOs to make decisions that sometimes have little short-term payoff and to make "bold bets" that put their very reputations at risk. These decisions can also be unpopular. Yet, as Warrell says “Leaders need to be crystal clear about what lies at stake if they fail to take the right risks. Sticking with the status quo and playing it safe has its own risks. They’re just less immediately obvious.”
Reversals of remote work policies are an example of an unpopular decision many companies are making. In the short term, remote work has been shown to decrease costs and increase productivity, but there’s also an unknown level of long-term risk with sacrificing in-person apprenticeship and talent development. This cost of failing to sufficiently develop interpersonal skills is most pronounced with Gen Z, many of whom began their careers working from home.
Leaders calling their teams back to the office, particularly those reversing previous policies, are weathering internal headwinds. Yet their risk/reward assessment is that doing so will ultimately put their organizations in a stronger position in the medium to long term—they are playing to win.
Below are three essential elements needed for CEOs to maintain their Enterprise Leader mindset.
Enterprise Leaders have a clear vision of their mission and the problems that need to be solved to achieve it over the long term.
“Pick problems that are worthy of solving,” says Ward, who keeps his sights on Walmart’s foundational goal of saving their customers time and money. “If it doesn't help the planet or the people you're serving, you don’t want to get up every day and engage with the complexity.”
Consider this: NVIDIA is one of the today’s fastest growing companies because ten years ago, their CEO Jensen Huang said, “We're not a gaming company, we're a computer company.” Refusing to be hemmed in by traditional paradigms has been a winning mindset for NVIDA. If NVIDIA had run their business like every other business, then they’d be like every other business. Today, NVIDIA chips power nearly 90% of generative AI.
Similarly, Elon Musk believed electric vehicles could be mainstream despite the challenges of inadequate battery technology coupled with the lack of a national network of charging stations, which seemed insurmountable to many. There are now nearly 100,000 charging stations in the US and revenue in the US EV market is expected to show an annual growth rate (CAGR 2023-2028) of 18.17%, resulting in a projected market volume of US$161.6bn by 2028, according to Statista.
“Enterprise Leaders believe in identifying and addressing enterprise problems and opportunities, even when unpopular, fear‑provoking or challenging,” says Warrell. “But you have to be clear in your vision for success and be willing to adapt, iterate and forge ahead when the inevitable challenges arise.
“The path to big wins is paved with an enormous amount of failure,” Warrell warns. “Obviously, you're trying to get it right, but in the process of getting it right, you have to also be okay with getting things wrong. The goal is to fail forward.” Being too attached to any specific plan is a set up for failure. Warrell continues, “Leaders need to be courageous in making decisions amid the uncertainties, but it doesn't stop there. They must also be brave enough to change them as they get feedback and move up the learning curve.” Generative AI is an area that is challenging CEOs’ tolerance for failing forward. Everyone is experimenting and trying to figure it out at the same time, and not everything will work. But if you don’t take the risk, you will get left behind.
“At Walmart, we’re solving one of the most complex problems in retail—transforming the convenience of a superstore, which carries everything from apples to Apple AirPods, into a digital storefront so that the nearest Walmart store is in your pocket,” says Ward. “We’re testing a lot of things and moving fast. This means we sometimes get things wrong, but that enables us to learn fast and innovate at speed. We’ve come a long way and at some point, we’ll look back and say, ‘It was a no brainer!’ but right now, we are still figuring it out.”
By setting up systems for continually shortening feedback loops on what is and is not working, you can iterate faster and scale learning across an enterprise. “In a landscape where continual change is the norm, the faster a business can learn provides a source of competitive advantage,” Warrell continues.
Because playing to win carries risk, business leaders need to secure broad stakeholder support by earning trust. “Trust is the ultimate currency of influence,” says Warrell, “which is built and sustained in increments, not grand gestures or scripted speeches.” It starts by aligning your leadership team plus influential people throughout your organization, behind a shared vision. Then you need to align everyone with the problem you’re trying to solve, determining what winning means before you engage in finding a solution. Failing to do so can risk a leadership team pulling in different directions towards different versions of success.
“Enterprise Leaders need to set a bold vision with a ‘big why’ and communicate it clearly and compellingly,” Warrell says. “We are wired to resist the unfamiliar and transformation requires employees to change the way they do things and learn new skills and systems, so they need to be galvanized to get behind the vision.”
From there, you must create a safe space for candid feedback to be delivered up the organization to the leadership team to ensure you have the right information to course correct. “Too often the apple gets polished as it is passed upward,” warns Warrell. “Top leaders need to ameliorate against the natural tendency people have to avoid challenging up or sharing information that risks a negative response.”
Enterprise leaders know that their ability to drive impact expands with their willingness to embrace uncomfortable conversations and take considered risks that forego the short-term safety of preserving the status quo. Building the courage to lead well isn’t a one-off endeavor, but requires practice. “Courage is like a muscle,” says Warrell. “It gets stronger with use.” As such, courage isn’t developed overnight—it is part of the long and often uncomfortable process of mastering Enterprise Leadership.
If you're ready to begin this journey, talk to us and we can share information on our Enterprise Leadership Institute.