In today’s uncertain times, good business leaders should focus on what is certain in their environment as a key approach to success.
That was the advice given by University of Michigan business professor and management guru Dave Ulrich speaking via by video last Friday at the “China Healthcare Breakthroughs: Transformative Leadership Summit” organized by Forbes China, the licensed Chinese-language edition of Forbes. The in-person gathering attracted approximately 200 industry leaders.
“We can differentiate,” Ulrich said. “We can do things in our healthcare company that let us succeed. We can focus on what we’re certain about and what we do well.”
A starting point is to accept unpredictability. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold. We don’t know what technology will bring. We don’t know what the recession may bring. Because of that future, we have to respond to uncertainty. We don’t want false hope. We don’t want to declare to people that there is hope that we can’t really see, nor do we want to give up hope. Hope comes when we are optimistic that our efforts today will lead to success tomorrow””
“In this world of uncertainty, our strategic focus shaping the future is to focus on certainty. What is something you’re certain about, known for, and good at doing?” he said.
Ulrich compared uncertainty faced by business to that faced by parents. “I happen to have three children, and some of you, I know, have children — one or two children. Ask yourself the question: ‘Do I know what my son or daughter is going do when they grow up? Where will they go to college? What will they study? Will they marry? Where will they live? What will their life patterns be?’”
“When my wife and I ask that question, we don’t really know,” he continued. “We’re uncertain. We don’t know the future. So ask yourself then the question, ‘What are you certain about with my children?’ I am certain that I will love them. I will care for them. I will attend to them, I will be there for them, I will help them. That certainty allows me to be clear strategically.”
“Now think about your company and what you don’t know. Will we be in recession or inflation? How will the East-West tensions be managed? Will they be managed with one way or another way? How will the government regulation be managed around prices and around distribution and product innovation? In the world that we live in today, we don’t know.”
And so leaders can look at values they are certain about as an individual and as a company, Ulrich said.
“I happened to have lunch today with one of my mentors. He’s now in his 80s. It was so interesting. He’s doing incredible work, he’s fresh, he’s vital. And the quote that he had and I wrote it down is just such a great quote. He said, ‘I’m learning every day. That is one of my values. I don’t know what’s going happen, but I know I will learn.’”
“What are the values you are certain about even in a world of uncertainty?” Ulrich poised. “And what are the values your company is certain about? Who can you rely on? Who are your friends? Who are your confederates, who are your allies? What are you certain about regardless of what happens? What beliefs will give you strength? And what are you grateful for?”
Ulrich suggested that leaders should “navigate, manage uncertainty by being certain. It’s an actually really interesting contradiction. We shape the future by being certain about what we know and believe and what we value, and that becomes critical to our success.”
Other event participants included Forbes Senior Editor Alex Knapp; Forbes Midas List member; Nisa Leung, managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners; Innocare CEO Jasmine Cui; Profex Chairman Pavlos Kontomichalos; AstraZeneca China President Leon Wang; MSD China President Anna Van Acker; Gilead Sciences China General Manager Jim Jin; and Bristol Myers Squibb China President Siyuan Chen.
— Russell Flannery