Dr. Jaques was a Canadian thinker, psychoanalyst, and management consultant who is best known for developing many of the original ideas used in the classification of corporate culture. One major concept centers on his belief that individuals reach a certain professional level based almost exclusively on their ability to cognitively conceive a future state in time.
He found, for example, that most unskilled workers have the capability of envisioning a day or two in advance, but individuals who make a permanent impact tend to think about future states five or ten years in advance, and even frequently beyond their lifespan.
Looking Ahead Even When the Future is Uncertain
Psynet Group consultants frequently witness this innate capability while administering executive assessments. In these highly projective interviews, leaders often speak in terms of “cascading consequences”, or perceived sequential behavioral outcomes that snowball. For example, some executives are able to discuss their strategic and innovative ideas with respect to step one leading to step two, which influences steps three and four before initiating step five, and so on. These executives, therefore, possess an acute vision for subsequent steps far beyond the norm.
One recently assessed executive demonstrated cascading consequences when he spoke of the unintended ramifications of global warming and its impact on his particular industry. Citing specifics, he described the connection between sick pigs in China and sugar futures in Brazil. During his quarterly earning call, he showed little concern for the funds that appeared to be under performing because he could see several steps into the future. In this case he knew these funds would not only rebound but flourish.
The Bad Side of Quarterly Planning
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a candidate that we evaluated for a C-level role in an organization that was transitioning from public to private. His experience, while robust, was entirely earned in public firms. When asked why he wanted to change jobs, he indicated that his company had plateaued and that he did not see much of a future there — not an uncommon response. When we arrived at the point in the executive interview where strategy is discussed, he was very effective at identifying immediate next steps needed to solve a particular problem or create a strategy. However, when asked “then what”, the quality of his responses deteriorated. It seemed that as a result of spending so much of his career focusing on quarterly earnings reports, he never thought about the long term consequences of his ideas. Instead, his vision of the future consisted exclusively of consecutive 3-month increments.
Envisioning a Successful Future
So, how does future-oriented vision and thought influence executive functioning?
When executives are able to see things in the long term, they start to understand causal chains, multiple causation feedback loops, and potential unintended consequences. This is the case for the executive who noted that several of his employees quit two months after enacting a new initiative. He accurately framed this development as a positive sign — his idea was taking root as he predicted. It generated a certain level of disorganization before effective and lasting reorganization. Moreover, the following 18 months produced an extraordinary turnaround, and he received a bonus that was greater than the salary of his past five years combined.
When Envisioning is the Exception
The significance of holding several years in one’s mind is clearly an advantage. In fact, Jaques believed that the number of years one held in his/her mind was correlated directly with the career level attained. According to our assessment data, however, we’ve found that this advantage is highly relative:
- CEOs should be able to think 6-8 years ahead because they understand cycles and don’t panic when things don’t go well.
- Private equity executives should be able to hold at least 5 years in their minds, which is the lifespan of most investments. They may be able to hold more time in their minds but if they focus beyond that, they effectively create value for someone else.
- Mid-level managers who are not participating in the strategic direction of the firm need to focus on the current year and meeting the KPIs set for themselves and their teams. If they possess the ability to hold more time in their minds, it’s most advantageous to leverage the skill to build their careers to move into a position of greater influence within the company.
First, it’s important to clarify that the ability to hold the future in mind is like a muscle. We start with an innate capability that grows with exercise. An executive cannot decide one day to think long term and immediately do it effectively. However, with a few years of practice, this capability will grow.
Second, if an executive cannot envision or hold an exceptional amount of time in their mind, they are significantly handicapped in the quest to do something great. The fact that this capacity is not needed at the managerial or directorial level, all-too-often executives are erroneously promoted into SVP or C-level titles with little to no ability to function effectively.
Through our executive assessments and doctoral-level qualitative analysis, we help companies discern this capability in both current executives and mid-level individuals with leadership capabilities and future C-level aspirations. Additionally, our process is absolutely crucial for organizational selection and succession planning. The ability to provide insight for our client’s long term vision is the result of constant development over the 50 year history of Psynet Group.