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Why Ambition and Aims go hand-in-hand with walking towards your fears.

Two business icons have been in the news recently. Both could have played it safe. Both chose to go after ambitious goals and were celebrated because of it.

Bob Iger has left Disney. He increased Disney’s profit from $2.5bn to over $10bn in the 14 years he was CEO. He could have sat on Disney’s huge back catalogue of classic films. Instead, his strategic insight was to realise that content was still everything. Iger bought Pixar and Marvel Entertainment. This was an ambitious goal which has paid off nicely for Disney.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, passed away. His legacy is more controversial. Still, he achieved an ambitious goal of putting people first, at a time when this was not the norm.

Both Iger and Welch set ambitious goals at a time when both businesses faced tough challenges.

I see executives and global managers every week who face this same choice. Their function or team is in a tight spot. The culture is slowly turning toxic. It’s starting to affect operations or customer satisfaction. In this situation, stronger executives have the inner power to shoot for the stars; weaker executives shoot for an acceptable minimum.

One international marketing team asked me to work with them when the dysfunctional team dynamics could no longer be ignored. Within 10 months the leading executive turned it around into first, a functional team, and then a high-performing team. His ambition was not satisfied with this. The team was nominated for, and won, an international award for excellence in marketing. That’s ambition delivered.

A global sales function in a different company had just ended a record-breaking year, with sales up a massive 24%. The leading sales executive could have sat back, set a few “stretch goals” for the next year. Instead, he used the success as a springboard to create efficiencies across global functions by bringing the sales, operations, and manufacturing functions together to figure out how they could serve customers better. The result was a 15% rise in sales in the following year. The combined effect was 42% more sales revenue in two years.

These ambitious successes sit in stark contrast to the mediocre aims of most managers. Mediocre managers set mediocre aims, like reducing employee turnover by half, increasing customer satisfaction or employee engagement by a paltry 5%, or raising operational efficiency by another such mild number. As the old saying goes, only the consistently average are always performing at their best.

What stops people from shooting for the stars?
There are many factors but the key one is: vulnerability. A weak manager secretly does not want to be in a vulnerable position.

The global marketing executive in the example above said at the end of our project, “It was hardest on me.” That’s true. When it was still a dysfunctional team, he had to listen to some toxic, nasty, mean, angry feedback. If you ask for feedback in that situation, you have to be prepared for discomfort.

Weak managers fear being vulnerable. Strong managers don’t have better answers. They have courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s recognising the personal fear and still moving towards the unknown.

We all have fears, nerves, and anxieties sometimes at work. To conquer our fears, we have to face them. You can’t go around, under or over your fear. As leaders we must learn to walk towards our fears; because they are never as big as they appear. It’s one of the best ways to experience rapid growth.

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Leading this product launch has taught me to be effective doing what I find naturally easiest – using trust and supporting people each step of the way. It augments my chances of making sure future product launches are as successful as this one.

MN Vice Director - Medical Marketing Europe

This process allowed people to re-appraise how this [senior team of managers] group was functioning or, rather, not functioning correctly. The tendency for each member of our group to see himself as an isolated beacon of excellence – which acted against the vital need for cooperation between members – were eased and communication is already becoming more 'normalised'.

RS Senior Director

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