What to Do When Successful Plays Stop Delivering

by: Rick Simmons

How did we get here, and how do we move forward?

This question comes up often among leaders and organizations that have entered liminal space. One of the primary things they notice is that the business plays they have been running for years—often with great success—just aren’t working anymore.

Back in late 2008, when the financial markets were imploding and Lehman Brothers was going out of business, many companies—and their leaders—were in a similar position. During that tumultuous period, I found myself on the top floor of a Manhattan office tower, playing a very small role in a meeting of senior leaders at UBS Financial Services. Among them was the CEO of US wealth management, Marten Hoekstra. Binders were flying. The McKinsey consultants were in the room. I hadn’t planned to speak up, but for some reason I was compelled to do so. I addressed the CEO from the other end of the table, my voice rising above the cacophony. “Marten,” I said, “What are we really trying to accomplish here?”

The CEO looked left, he looked right, and then he said, simply, “I don’t know.” I’d had significant respect for him before that moment, but right then, it escalated considerably. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Marten’s vulnerability, and his willingness to be honest, galvanized the team in the room and generated a degree of clarity that did not exist prior to his answer.

That moment was also significant for telos, as it ratified our name. “Telos,” is a Greek word first used by Aristotle to mean “with the end in mind.” Liberating the energy necessary for clients to reach their aspired destinations requires, first and foremost, an understanding of what and where those destinations actually are. But that clarity, even for the leader of a global Fortune 50 company, can be elusive. At any point in time, one can lose their way. If it could happen to Marten Hoekstra, it can happen to any of us. And admitting what you don’t know to your team can have powerful results. It can serve to help you identify the new plays necessary for the next era.

You can then ask important questions like What was working before? What’s worth taking with us? What do we want to change? How do we do that? to figure out where to head next.

So, when you’re not exactly sure what you’re doing—or even where to go—don’t be afraid to let your team in on your uncertainty. There’s a lot of power in those three little words. Say them with confidence: “I don’t know.”

Our book, Unleashed: Harnessing the Power of Liminal Space, from ForbesBooks, lays out what we’ve learned about providing individuals, teams, and organizations with the insights, tools, and opportunities to reach new heights. Read more about it here.