Avoid Both of These Ditches to Achieve Successful Leadership (5 of 7)

(This is blog 5 of 7 where I share lessons I’ve learned the last few years as I’ve seen Coaching Actuaries grow from a staff of 5 to 31. In this blog, I’ll identify the two ditches you must avoid to lead well.)

We’re deep into winter in Iowa again, so I’m enduring the cold, wind, and snow. Since I’ve lived in Iowa my entire life (and I’m old), I’ve done my share of winter driving. A hidden ice patch is always around the corner. If you hit a slippery spot it is not difficult to react. The challenge is not to overreact. Every road has two ditches. Obviously, the goal for driving is to avoid both and keep the car on the road, preferably on your side of the road.

Our leadership team at Coaching Actuaries uses this analogy frequently when we make decisions that steer the company forward. When we see danger in our business, it is tempting to make a hard turn to avoid the immediate danger. However, we can turn so fast and so hard we are in danger of going too far in the other direction. So, how can we avoid the ditches?

I mentioned the importance of feedback in the previous entry of this series. Getting others feedback can help us react to the immediate danger with the right amount of correction so we return to the road without overreacting. In our company, there are 4 senior leaders. We try not to make important decisions without connecting as a team. But, sometimes that isn’t enough as we need to include others in the conversation. Most of our decisions are focused on leading our staff. So, making staff decisions without consulting the staff seems like a recipe for disaster.

In Part 2 of this series, I explained the importance of actuaries working together on projects rather than in silos. All my work as a practicing actuaries was for life and annuity insurance companies. That means my work for these companies made a long term impact on the company, for better or worse. The products we developed and the systems we built have stayed with these companies for 30 years now. I know it is easy to feel the pressure for immediate deadlines. I had my deadlines. But, don’t forget that the work you do will be around for a long time. So, staying on the right path and avoiding the ditches is always worth the time and effort. Certainly, missing short term deadlines is a ditch we want to avoid. But, we can’t sacrifice quality that impacts the long term prospects of the company just to meet a short term deadline. So, to avoid making long term mistakes, we must be flexible on short term deadlines.

In short, you will encounter many challenges in your career. These challenges are immediate and important. But, they are often short term in nature. The second ditch is the long term mistake that often is not as visible. So, you want to avoid the short term visible ditch but don’t overreact where you fall into a bigger long term ditch.  

There are many examples from my career I could share where I had a visible short term ditch but a hidden long term danger. Here is one example.

Many of you are familiar with Adapt, our online practice testing system. Adapt started in early 2009 (and recently celebrated its 5 millionth exam generated). From the beginning, we got positive feedback about the Adapt system, even though it was admittedly “clunky”. Like any startup technology, there was a lot of investment and I was feeling pressure to jump start sales, even though they were doing well. I had hired a marketing guy to help. But, he was limited in what he could do because it was difficult to update our marketing pages in a young, “clunky” system. So, he recommended that we convert the system to a different platform, called DotNetNuke, so he could make changes directly. He convinced me of the benefits of the system and we both thought it couldn’t be that difficult to convert from our current system (some of you are laughing!). The decision was tentatively made to convert. My programmer had expressed concerns about the conversion from the beginning. But, right before we made the decision final, he asked if he could share his thoughts again. As he was sharing his concerns, I remembered feedback a friend had given when he asked if the current system was working for the customers. I said it was. His immediate response was, “Don’t mess with it”. Even though this was just friendly advice, it stuck with me. It was enough for me to listen closer to my programmer. After listening to his concerns, I decided not to convert.

Looking back 8 years later, I’m confident this would have been a disaster. DotNetNuke wasn’t a bad system. It just wasn’t what we needed. There was an amazing amount of complexity and technology built into our current system. Even though it was clunky, it was doing its job. So, we decided to put our efforts at improving the current system, including the front end of the website, rather than a complete overhaul.

My friend’s timely advice was fortunate, as was the persistent programmer’s concerns. Getting feedback from two sources convinced me to stay on the road while avoid overreacting and steering into a much deeper ditch.