Blog » Winning in 2019: Thriving in the Age of Uncertainty

Winning in 2019: Thriving in the Age of Uncertainty

Happy New Year 2019As we look ahead to the coming year, a few words sum up what business leaders can expect in 2019 – more chaos and uncertainty.

With the Democrats having won the House of Representatives, the political environment will likely become more contentious and dysfunctional. Tariff wars are driving raw material costs higher. Interest rates and inflation will continue to climb. Fires and violent storms will continue and become even more costly. Continued low unemployment and a rapidly retiring US workforce are creating labor shortages and higher labor costs. The long-lived bull market is showing some initial signs of turning into a bear. Recession could once again rear its ugly head.

This doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of what to expect in 2019. Yet, operating in uncertain markets is nothing new. The Internet and social media combined with continual advances in technology have been turning markets and industries upside down for two decades. Only now, it’s happening more and more to those who have been saying, “Yes, but it won’t happen in our industry.”

Positioning your business to win in a climate of rapid change and profound uncertainty requires three critical organizational skills – focus, agility and constant self-evaluation.

Get and Stay Focused

Despite the chaotic state of so many of today’s markets, all is not doom and gloom. In fact, in the midst of all this uncertainty also lies tremendous opportunity. So much so, that for many organizations, the biggest challenge comes from identifying which opportunities to pursue and which to leave alone.

Chase too many opportunities and you lose focus as an organization, confusing customers and diluting your brand. It also leads to conflicting priorities and inefficient use of time, talent and resources. Market leaders tend to be those who zero in on solving a limited set of problems for carefully targeted customers. No matter how tempting an opportunity, if it doesn’t align with your company’s core competencies and skills sets (or those that could be easily acquired), best leave it alone.

If you follow my blog or have heard me speak at a Vistage meeting, you know what’s coming next – the importance of creating a clear vision of winning for your organization. This lays the foundation for everything that happens, from high-level strategic decisions to day-to-day interactions with the customer. Without a clear destination, your business is like a ship without a rudder, going whichever way the wind blows and never knowing where you will end up.

To create a destination that fully engages employees in helping you get there:

  • Make it meaningful. A destination that people will support requires more than just the financial numbers. You have to define what it looks like when you have won in ways that matter to individuals and teams. Bring it to life. (Let’s be real. The vast majority of your employees are not making day to day decisions while thinking about achieving your EBITDA). Winning must be so clear, it is interpreted as similarly as possible across all employees.  It should paint a picture of success in as much detail as you can create. You also want to clearly articulate how winning will benefit employees and their local communities or the world at large. When you win, how will it make customers’ lives better or help them solve problems they can’t solve on their own?
  • Explain how you will win. Back in the day, management told employees what, when, where and how to do things. These days, employees need the knowledge and authority to make decisions in the moment that align with your vision of winning. This requires educating them about your top strategic priorities, why you chose them, and how they will enable your organization to win. All employees should know the business of your business. How and where do you make money; who are the customers that generate the greatest profit; what should everyone know to make the best possible decision moment to moment? 
  • Explain why you will win. Here’s where it gets personal. Employees want to know why you, as the leader, are so passionate about the organization winning. What is so important about providing your company’s product or service? How does it make you feel when a customer calls in and says, “Great job – we couldn’t have done it without you!” And, when market forces shift, or a competitor goes under, explain why you will still win. What about your organization enables you to continue being successful? 
  • Communicate the destination every day. To stay focused on the big picture (the destination), employees need constant reminders delivered in many different formats. Talk about the goals in every meeting. Post visual reminders around the office. Send regular memos, emails, blogs and other written materials. Ongoing communication will prompt employees to keep their eyes on the destination and also keep you and your team from straying into areas that don’t support reaching it.  

Get There First

If there’s one thing missing in today’s business environment, it’s predictability. Not that we could ever predict the future with absolute certainty. But when the world moved slower, we enjoyed a greater sense of stability. Leaders could make five-year strategic plans with a reasonable degree of assurance that the key strategies wouldn’t change all that much. Product life cycles lasted longer. The only competitors we had to worry about were those in our own industry, or sometimes those in adjacent industries.

These days, one of the few certainties we can count on is that things will change again and again. Moreover, they will change in ways we couldn’t have foreseen or predicted. Prospering in this environment requires the ability to respond quickly and correctly to sudden market upheavals. In other words, get really good at being nimble, flexible and agile.

  • Plan, but be prepared for change.

Operating in chaos doesn’t mean foregoing planning. In fact, it’s more important than ever to have a clear direction and destination. Only now, instead of hoping our destination doesn’t change, we need to accept that it will change to some degree and have a plan in place to deal with it. And not just a Plan B, but a Plan C and D.

  • Change the rules in your industry.

The goal of every business is to lead the way rather than follow behind and play catch-up. If you can’t make the rules, at least be the one to get there first when customer needs suddenly change. How?

  • Stay close to your customers, to the point of inviting them to participate in your product/service development team.
  • Eliminate red tape by forming fast, flexible cross-functional teams.
  • Empower employees to make decisions without requiring multiple layers of management approval.
  • Make sure your first response is the correct one by reviewing and analyzing your decision making process before implementing major decisions.
  • Look beyond your boundaries for competitive threats.

When the company that disrupts your industry could come from way out in left field, it’s no longer enough just to track your obvious competitors. To keep from being blindsided by someone you never heard of or doesn’t even exist yet, gather data from sources outside your industry while asking:

  • What are the barriers to entry in our industry?
  • How long have they been there?
  • What new technologies or processes could blow them away overnight?
  • Who might have the talent, technology and resources to do that?

Self-Evaluate Your Way to Success

Despite the importance of keeping an eye out for new competitors, winning in 2019 will be more about how frequently and how well you evaluate yourself as a leader and as an organization.

As a leader,

  • Are you aware of your internal biases and assumptions about your customers and industry?
  • Are you open to ideas and perspectives that challenge them (in fact, you should insist on them!)?
  • Do you expose your thinking to others so that people understand the reasoning behind it?
  • Do you track what percentage of how you spend your time actually supports winning?

As an organization,

  • How do you make and implement decisions?
  • Where do you get your data from and how often do you check to confirm its validity?
  • How do you improve your ability to respond quickly when plans get off track?
  • Are people open to new ideas and ways of working, or do you focus on maintaining the status quo?

Despite the many challenges we all face, 2019 promises a year of great opportunity. Will you have the focus, agility and self-knowledge to take advantage of it?


Holly is CEO of The Human Factor, Inc., and helps companies achieve excellence by creating clarity on what winning looks like and determining how to get there.

An experienced business leader, behavioral scientist, and keynote speaker, Holly has a rare combination of extensive academic training and in-the-trenches experience working in and leading organizations. She was previously President of The Ken Blanchard Company and a biotech start up.  Her clients include companies of every shape and size from Google to pest control to healthcare, as well as professional and nonprofit associations.

Holly is also a bestselling author. Her newest book, Using Your Brain to Win, was released to international acclaim.

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