Whether you’re working at a startup, a mid-sized company, or an enterprise organization, leaders at all levels typically find themselves stuck at one point or another. I’ve interacted with my fair share of founders and executives across industries, and they all encounter the following: a looming, lingering doubt that keeps their organizations from being great. This doubt often stems from a number of sources — outside pressure, fear that a competitor is doing something better and faster, pressure from the board, a lack of trust on the team, and the list goes on.
There are some challenges that are industry-specific, but for the most part, there’s a formula common among great leaders and great companies: a clear vision, a source of inspiration, and a willingness to evolve.
Set Your Vision and Stick to It
Successful companies are created and redefined in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it’s thanks to a truly innovative idea or technological solution. Other times, it’s merely a basic but significant improvement to an existing product or service. In essence, an entire industry can be redefined by the ability to see something others don’t. This begs the question: Are you positioning your company to visualize the next great solution for your industry? When your industry thinks something’s impossible, will you take advantage of the opportunity to prove them wrong? Remember, on unexplored ground, there’s no competition. You won’t just have the lead — you’ll have the element of surprise, too.
In 2008, when our founding team formed 2U (back then, we called it 2tor), no one thought prestigious colleges and universities would be willing to take the leap and offer their for-credit courses and degree programs online. Our vision and unwavering point of view were met with severe skepticism, but we stayed the course. Today, we have more than a dozen top-ranked schools as partners, thousands of students enrolled in our programs around the world, and the unique opportunity to set the pace in an industry that we helped create.
Source Inspiration Everywhere
Not every founding team is lucky enough to have a product or vision that is as disruptive to an industry — or as transformative. But that’s okay. Ideas are only as good as their execution. Great leaders find inspiration everywhere. They constantly seek to identify and understand industry challenges and, most of all, customer and employee insights.
Hearing your customers’ words directly can give you a fresh perspective on your business. Start by asking a few questions: What are your consumers looking for? Are you giving it to them? When are their needs being met — and when aren’t they? Ask your employees these same questions. You might not always like the answers you hear, but internalize this feedback. Use it as fuel for inspiration. If you can identify the core reasons why your product, service, or people are underperforming, you can fix them. That’s where you’ll find your next growth opportunity.
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
Stick to your vision, but keep in mind that processes and people need to evolve. Individuals who thrived in the startup stage might not be the managers who can effectively drive results in a larger company setting. The product or service that once had tremendous demand may be surpassed at some point by a cheaper, more effective solution. Know your weaknesses and know when to pivot.
It’s so easy to get into a routine and see things the way you always have, especially when you’ve experienced success doing so. But the truth is that the world is changing at a rapid pace; if you don’t quite catch yourself, you’ll share the same fate as companies like Borders and Blockbuster. Although a change may seem small, it can make all the difference to your customers. Don’t be overwhelmed when a problem seems impossible to conquer. Instead, take a step back, think about what matters most to you, your competition, and your customers, and forge a new way forward.
Apple is a fantastic example of a company that continues to evolve its product line while maintaining its vision for beautiful, user-friendly design and brilliant marketing. The result: the most valuable company in the world.
At 2U, after focusing on building strong online graduate degree programs over the last five years, our vision has evolved to leverage that experience and knowledge in the undergraduate space with Semester Online. This new initiative will offer (for the first time) a broad selection of high-quality, for-credit courses online from a number of prestigious colleges and universities.
The next time you find yourself stuck or challenged in a big way, take a step back and remember that it’s okay to start small. Remind yourself why you started in the first place. Let your vision guide you, allow your customers and team to give you inspiration, and recognize that you and your business are always a work in progress.
Jeremy Johnson is the co-founder and President of Undergraduate Programs at 2U. 2U, Inc., formerly known as 2tor, Inc., partners with top-tier universities to deliver rigorous, selective graduate degree and undergraduate for-credit programs online. Jeremy was named to the Inc. and Forbes “30 Under 30” lists. Connect with Jeremy on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
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