Growth Insights for CEOs

Driving Toward the Long Game: Is your Business Geared for Lasting Success?

Posted by Gary Fassak


In business, the road to financial success, it can be agreed, isn’t always paved in gold. Whether pocked with potholes, laden with land mines, or strewn with stones, the goal isn’t just to keep all four tires on the highway – instead, it’s to ensure you arrive at the destination. 

One question that you must continually ask yourself along the way – is your business built to go the distance? Understanding whether you’re playing the long game, or the short game, in business can be the key to weathering the road hazards beneath you, or the storms above.

Consider two venerable, headline-making companies that share the same marketplace: Ford and Tesla. 

Ford Motor Company – which drove its Model T to vehicular sales glory – withstood the financial crunch of the late 2000s without any bailout, and as recently as last year, its earnings clocked in at a level that ranked within the top three most profitable in its history. Further, the company completed a “One Ford” global rationalization that saved billions of dollars. It has articulated a “Ford Mobility” strategy going forward, so it doesn’t get caught in the low-return-to-capital steel bending car business, while the market shifts to Uber and “rent-a-slice” auto models. 

The reward for this? Ford’s stock is at a five-year low. And its CEO, Mark Fields, was just fired.

Now consider a second company. Tesla. With just over a decade under its belt, the Elon Musk-led company has been through multiple capital rounds, has never had a profitable year, and has lost billions of dollars since it started. Further, it has articulated a changing strategy that started with cars and detoured into a merger with a battery company; and even opened up its intellectual property, offering it free – yes, free -- to competition. 

Tesla’s reward? A sky-high stock multiple, hugely favorable press, and a two-year waiting list for its cars. Some voices say its stock price is pure fantasy, but a bullish market keeps driving it into the stratosphere. 

The key difference in these two models? The ability of each company to manage its long/short game. Legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch used to say doing both – delivering today’s high target earnings, while building the foundation for multi-year growth - is the hardest task in business. So, what is the philosophy you’ve adopted in your Company? Are you delivering today’s targets? Congratulations. But, are you doing it at the expense of a bold future, because your attention is focused on the here and now? Or, are you thinking and investing in the future, maybe at the cost of today’s earnings? Or, maybe, like GE for a long time while Welch was CEO – delivering BOTH! While considering this, bear in mind that fewer than half of executives like yourself believe that innovation is a competitive necessity for their business!

Ford tried to do both – the “magical unicorn” of delivering on today and tomorrow at the same time. Ford is an “old industry” company. Making cars isn’t newsworthy or even that interesting. To its credit, it articulated the “Ford Mobility” message, but no one really understood what it meant. It bought bits and pieces – a ride-share company, a new Silicon Valley-based R&D facility, and self-driving car technology. 

Mark Fields certainly talked a lot about the future, and went to all of the “right” events, like the Recode conference. But it was not clear in what the end game was. Wall Street, not understanding where Ford was going, thought the automaker was wasting billions with these new venture “experiments,” and wanted the Company to focus on making big money on cars. 

Tesla took a different approach. Elon Musk had his eyes on the future – the WAY OUT future that it seemed only he could foresee. Helped, of course, by the fact that he had substantial amounts of his own skin in the game, he didn’t worry about today’s earnings. In fact, just the opposite transpired. While any one of a sequence of cash crunches could have sunk the company, Musk stayed the course – following a systematic plan of funding R&D with luxury sports cars that sold for $100k plus, then riding the scale curve down -- to the point where today, Tesla is ready to launch the Model 3 mid-priced car.

On the journey, Musk has used sheer personal magnetism to capture the imagination of Wall Street and the media -- and in so doing, succeeded in getting stakeholders to look past the fiscal strife. Success now seems within Tesla’s grasp --the car operation is scaling up, and it is taking a double-bite out of the value chain by making its own batteries -- not only for cars, but houses and industry, in a sustainable electric home and mobile strategy. And, Tesla today makes more cars than BMW does. Everyone is waiting for the big high wire act to pay off, and a lot of people think it will. 

So, as the CEO of your company, who are you? Are you Mark Fields, trying to play a simultaneous long/short game, making big profits now while betting on the future? Or, are you Elon Musk, forgoing near-term profits in pursuit of a fantastic vision that has a monster payoff but certainly lower odds? Very few of us can play the game like Elon Musk, and very few of us have the sheer intellect and massive determination to make that vision happen.

But, at least we can consider thoughtfully what kind of long/short game we are playing, instead of just letting market forces steer us in a direction. Perhaps for you it’s an 80/20 split (80 percent on today’s business with a 20 percent bet on the future), or maybe even 50/50. You have to decide – that’s why you are the CEO! But don’t be just carried along. Step back, ponder the long/short question, and make conscious choices for your business. Engage your employees, board, and intellectual and insightful outside voices, and look hard at the market for your current products. 

Do you see organic growth in the current space? Or is your momentum slowing? What bets are you going to make on the future? Or maybe the answer is to focus on running up the profits on the current business, and using bolt-on or new vertical acquisitions to build out the next phase of growth for your company.

Carve out some time to think thoughtfully about the long/short. Take control of the process yourself as the CEO, then decide what the balance is for your company – and act with purpose. It might mean the difference between cruising in the fast lane to glory, or being bypassed in the breakdown lane.  

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Topics: Strategic Insights, CEO Business Strategy, CEO Marketing Vision, CEO Strategies

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