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It’s no secret that the convenience store landscape is undergoing rapid change. Convenience Store News recently reported that competition is coming from all angles of retailing: Big-box chains are opening smaller “express” stores, while drugstores and dollar stores are adding product categories including cigarettes, beverages and fuel designed to lure c-store customers. As I discussed in my last column, these changes have far-reaching implications for individual retailers, as well as the industry at large.
So, what can c-store leaders do to guide their companies toward a successful future? History has shown that in times of uncertainty, the ability to think strategically and navigate change effectively is key to creating a sustainable business.
While this concept might sound simple, true strategic thinking and planning skills are a rarity among company leaders who are more often consumed with the present and near-term goals. In fact, according to Chief Executive Magazine, seven out of 10 leaders are not strategic. The result has been a leadership gap of epidemic proportions that has shortened the average lifespan of corporate entities to just 40 years.
The ability to think and lead strategically is not instinctually developed in the business world. On the contrary, it is a skill that must be actively cultivated and purposefully practiced. Above all, this requires a framework for developing strategic leadership skills. My colleagues and I teach leaders from all walks of the business world to hone their strategic leadership abilities using "The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking." This proven framework was developed based on more than two decades of experience in training strategic leaders and by conducting targeted research with more than 20,000 professionals from 6,000 organizations in 176 countries.
The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking include the ability to: anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn. When mastered and used together, these skills can enable convenience store leaders to help their organizations both adapt and succeed in today’s evolving and increasingly competitive landscape.
Each of these six complementary elements encapsulates essential behaviors and practices that allow business leaders to steer their companies toward sustainability and growth in the face of uncertainty and change. Let’s look at each one in turn:
Rather than focusing on what’s directly ahead, leaders must anticipate disruption by looking for game-changing information at the periphery, searching beyond current boundaries and building networks to help them scan the horizon. For example, take the many music and movie stores that have been put out of business by failing to see that the market was moving online, thanks to companies like Spotify and Hulu that effectively disrupted the industry. What might this mean for your business?
It’s easy for leaders to rely on tried and true solutions, especially when disruption pushes them to the boundaries of their comfort zone. Strategic leaders repeatedly challenge the old way of doing things and encourage different — even contrarian — points of view. Think of Pope Francis, who has been widely praised for his ability to connect with everyday people and accept input from diverse members of his flock around the world. Many argue that his leadership style and willingness to change the status quo have reinvigorated the Catholic Church.
Anticipating change and challenging conventions surfaces valuable facts and figures that must be thoughtfully analyzed to yield actionable results. Strategic leaders compare and contrast these data points in unconventional ways and test multiple hypotheses before arriving at conclusions.
Several years ago, a U.S. food company was preparing to roll out a new line of low-carb products in response to the Atkins diet that was popular at the time. However, the chief marketing officer of the company realized that the customers they were losing were not on a low-carb diet, but rather were diabetic and unable to eat their products that contained sugar. The company switched gears and developed a line of sugar-free products to appeal to this constituency, a move that proved to be more profitable and less fickle than following a diet fad.
Strategic leaders use process and discipline to arrive at a good enough position to make timely decisions and avoid missed opportunities due to analysis paralysis. They tend to frame the decision and approach; balance speed, rigor, quality and agility; and take courageous stands, even with incomplete information. While it can be tempting to make quick decisions based on go/no go choices, truly strategic thinkers insist on multiple options at the outset and make decisions by taking into account both short- and long-term goals.
One extreme example is Chile’s minister of mining, who was faced with a series of serious decisions following the 2010 mining accident that trapped 33 men 2,300 feet underground. Despite pressure to make quick decisions, the minister followed a disciplined process to make strategic choices under incredibly challenging conditions and was ultimately successful.
Strategic leaders must know how and when to align divergent agendas to work toward a common goal while welcoming diversity. Actively encouraging open dialogue among stakeholders and addressing misalignment helps build trust and reach consensus. Whole Foods is a company that does this well. The grocery chain formed self-managing work teams that oversee their own businesses, make decisions and are in charge of personnel for their close-knit teams.
Successful leaders embrace learning in its many forms, whether through interactions with various customers, partners and market segments; experimentation by way of innovation; or ongoing check-in points and after-action debriefs to surface early indicators of success and failure. When armed with these insights, leaders can improve performance and decision-making, both of which are keys to long-term strategy.
Remember when Netflix announced changes to its pricing model a few years ago? The announcement angered customers and prompted many to cancel their subscriptions. Luckily, CEO Reed Hastings was willing to learn from the incident, taking customer feedback into consideration to ultimately modify the company’s business plan.
In the past, convenience store leaders were able to succeed by being great at what they knew best. Today, industry leaders must have a more macro, system-wide approach to leadership, cutting across a variety of areas within their company and beyond. This requires a richer perspective and skill set that comes from practicing the art and science of strategic thinking.
If you’re ready to put your strategic leadership skills to the test, a good place to start is by taking our Strategic Aptitude Assessment.