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Keep the focus on the future Featured

7:14am EDT July 19, 2002
When developing your company's plan and strategy, your focus needs to be on the future. This sounds basic, but many companies spend so much time thinking of and getting mired in the past that they are never able to get themselves into the future.

Use historical events carefully

A company's history has its place in the planning process. Use it to avoid reinventing the wheel or making the same mistakes. However, your focus needs to be on what the future holds and how the business can prosper from it. Use history as a guide, not a basis for the future.

To grow and prosper, you need to forge new paths. At the rate of change in most industries today, historical paths may actually take you backwards. New ideas, concepts and sometimes far-out thoughts can lead you down new paths that can take a company to new heights.

Avoiding the rearview mirror

It is the job of the leader and the management to look to the future and get the rest of the organization pointed in the same direction. They need to help the organization keep the right perspective on the past. This can prove frustrating. Some people insist on continuing to look in the rearview mirror rather than through the windshield into the future.

Recently, I was involved in a situation in which a company had not been performing very well. Management committed to a plan that involved major changes and improvements in the operation of the company -- changes that could have a major impact on future profitability and help ensure a successful business for the employees and owners.

The frustration came when, at various departmental meetings to discuss the plan, much of the feedback and questions related back to how it had been done in the past. Time and again, management refocused the discussion and pointed everyone toward the new plan and the future, only to have someone turn it back to the past.

Especially in situations like this, when the past was not very pleasant, members of management cannot give up. They need to continually do whatever they can to keep the organization looking ahead and focused on the opportunities awaiting in the future.

Learn from real life

The concept of forward focus, like so many other management practices, is not limited to business. There are many examples in nonfiction adventure books. In "South, The Endurance Expedition," about Ernest Shackleton's 1915 Antarctic expedition, Shackleton and his men faced adversities and setbacks that we can only imagine.

Their ship was crushed in the ice, they were adrift on ice flows, they endured a lack of food and consistently wet clothing in extremely cold temperatures and they had no way to communicate with the rest of the world. It was very bleak and the probability of survival was not very high.

But they did survive, for nearly two years, in those conditions, primarily because of Shackleton's leadership. He understood the need to continually develop plans for tomorrow, no matter what had happened today or yesterday. By keeping his men focused on the future rather than on the nightmare of the past, he was able to maintain their resolve and save their lives.

He got them past the initial disappointment of not achieving their original expedition objective and kept them focused on their new objective, getting home alive.

Shackleton's expedition story is extreme. I hope you never face crises and problems of that magnitude.

It is, however, a great example of a leader who understood the importance of maintaining a focus on the future. Joel Strom (jstrom@jsagrowth.com) is director of Joel Strom Associates LLC, the growth management practice of C&P Advisors LLC. The firm works exclusively with closely held businesses and their ownership, helping them set and achieve growth objectives while maximizing profitability and value. Contact him at (216) 831-2663.