How to hunt for elephants

Two thirds of CEOs believe their organisation needs to get better at tackling problems aggressively. Bounty hunter meets businessman, so to speak...

by Campbell Macpherson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Most organisations will face ‘elephant in the room’ issues from time to time, which staff are scared to raise. Whilst getting tricky subjects out in the open is pretty tough to encourage, it’s this type of problem that can be most debilitating for the business: unsustainable employment contracts, cost cutting difficulties, cramped offices…before the proverbial hits the fan, these ‘elephants’ need to be caught early. 

These ghostly pachyderms come in two forms – external elephants and internal elephants. The external ones often are more easily spotted (especially when they take the form of regulation).  But when the ‘elephant’ happens to be a new entrant in the marketplace, it can be harder to indentify. The camouflage is very convincing…

An example that typifies the stealthy ‘elephant’ is Apple. The music industry didn’t recognise Steve Jobs’ firm as threat until it was too late. Similarly, Polaroid surveyed the competitive landscape and failed to spot a stampede of competitive influences on the horizon. The point is, identifying threats is not easy. 

But whilst your team should be willing to rally together and fight of the threat of ‘elephants’ from other herds, internal issues can prove more challenging. Internal rot be just as crippling if left undetected, and more often than not it is a weakness of leadership that allows the rot to flourish and cause real damage. 

Take employment contracts. Pension deals that are so generous that they effectively remove the incentive for a large swathe of their employees actually to work after a certain timescale are obviously unsustainable. Let’s say there’s median tenure of twenty years, many employees will know they’ve banked a 50% final salary pension and would receive two years’ pay if they were made redundant. That’s an ‘elephant’, and hunting it down will be seen as a cold-hearted management edict, not to mention extremely expensive. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the business.

Cost efficiency in general is a beast that too many firms find it almost impossible to tackle head on. But why leave it to your successor? The only way to tackle issues head on is to ensure you are crystal clear about what you are trying to achieve and involve as many of your people as possible in the elephant hunt.

Involving the entire organisation in identifying the key issues that are holding the business back can be a liberating and exciting experience. However, it requires leaders who are bold enough to make a difference; who will listen and act upon the recommendations of their people; and who truly wish to break down barriers to success.

Are you up for the challenge? If you are, it is time to grab the binoculars and don the pith helmet. It’s huntin’ time!


Campbell Macpherson with Campbell Macpherson & Associates has been assisting CEOs, HRDs and executive teams design and deliver strategic and organisational change since 1997.

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