With apologies to Warner Brothers for appropriating their title, most of you know the story line of this Sandra Bullock film. The movie, based on the real life of the Baltimore Raven's lineman Michael Oher, chronicles his rise from homelessness to football stardom. Of course, the title alludes to the position Oher plays, as one of the primary jobs of an offensive tackle is protecting the quarterback's back—the blind side—when dropping back to pass. If the tackle does his job, the quarterback gets to stand in the pocket and good things usually happen.
If the tackle doesn't do his job, though, the best-case scenario is that the quarterback is forced to scramble. More often, the quarterback gets crushed, resulting in stalled momentum, the loss of the ball to the other team, or even catastrophic injury. And while this picture is imprinted in the minds of football players and fans, it is time for organizational leaders to get a better grip on what being "blind-sided" is all about, too.
Let us say that based on our experiences working with senior managers, we do think that most executives can describe the competitive ways their firms can be blind-sided. For one, when they try to install their vision without proper environmental analyses, they are often sacked by reality. (For evidence, all one has to do is look at the American automakers throughout the '80s and '90s.)
Unable To See the Entire Field
In addition, if leaders get so myopically focused on direct competitors that they fail to see potential entrants, they can certainly find themselves scrambling. Just ask the traditional agricultural lenders how the equipment makers assumed current market share. Likewise, if leaders pursue unsustainable growth strategies or fail to see the implications of their competitive strategies, they are certainly exposing their blind sides. Just ask Toyota (TM) or AIG (AIG).
History is filled with companies hobbled or destroyed because of an inadequate job of protecting the blind side. And to be sure, being blind-sided in this respect, just as in football, can result in struggle, loss of momentum, and impairment. Moreover, avoiding being blind-sided in this arena is clearly an executive function.
But in our interactions with various organizational players, we are convinced that too many fail to see the entire field. In using the football metaphors, a senior executive told us he definitely understood the idea of scrambling—and many of you can relate.
Becoming a "Big Ugly"
Another organizational leader said he needed someone to protect his blind side, and many of you also sympathize with this perspective. But this is where you are a bit off track. You aren't simply the quarterback in this allegory. Although you may prefer to align yourselves with the signal caller, one of your primary obligations is to protect the various stakeholders in and around the business. You don't need a great offensive tackle—you must become one. Why? Because you have employees at every level in your organizations who are trying to maintain a home while sending kids to college. You have stockholders who are trying to ensure a decent retirement while enduring the costs of a parent in a nursing facility. And making sure they aren't blind-sided is a crucial component inherent in your responsibilities.
We repeat: You don't need a great offensive tackle, you must become one.
Senior leaders, you are the people in the organization with the time, information, and charge to examine trends and create strategies to make sure you aren't blind-sided. We have made many managers unhappy in our consulting when expressing the belief that if your group is blind-sided, it's in large measure your fault. But you must accept this responsibility if you are willing to assume the mantle of leadership. And to do that job fully, you must augment the vision and glory of playing quarterback by joining the ranks of the "Big Uglies," as lineman are often referred to (a term of endearment). It may not be as sexy for you, but your organizational stakeholders will become your most ardent cheerleaders.