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The single most important skill for successful business leaders

At a time of accelerating change, your longevity depends on how well you time your leap from a flattening growth curve to a more promising arc. According to the president of Capital One Financial Services, you should consider three variables before making a jump.

The single most important skill for successful business leaders
[Photo: Leo Manjarrez/Unsplash]

How do you measure a leader’s success? Traditional metrics center around growth, revenue, and profit generation. But at times of rapid and significant change, it’s not just how fast you go but how well you jump. How well you make the leap to a new growth curve may ultimately determine your long-term success. But there are good jumps and bad jumps. By managing a few key variables, you can make sure to jump from the right place at the right time in the right way.

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The concept of growth curves is not new. It begins slowly, then climbs rapidly, and eventually flattens out as the market matures. Get in too late, and you won’t reap the rewards. Move too quickly, and you will find yourself stranded. Stay too late, and you will watch your advantage slip away. To keep growing, you have to jump to a new curve at the right time.

Growth curves used to last a fairly long time. Past leaders were often lucky enough to have a single curve last their entire career. But we live in a time of rapid change. Growth curves don’t last very long anymore. Jumps have become more important than ever.

Many of the most successful contemporary leaders have been able to make consistently successful jumps. Steve Jobs jumped from computing to music to phones. Arianna Huffington jumped from politics to news media to health and wellness. Oprah Winfrey jumped from talk show host to network superstar to media mogul. Jeff Bezos is perhaps today’s best example of a leader making successful business jumps, from books to “anything” to web Services… to whatever is next.

We stand at the early stages of a new industrial revolution–the Artificial Intelligence revolution–that is evolving at an exponential, non-linear pace. The current revolution has the power to fundamentally reshape almost every aspect of daily life. No one will be exempt. Leaders cannot ease their way into the future. With their current business models at risk, they need to jump.

What makes some executives more successful in jumping? From my observations and experience, I believe there are three critical variables to being a successful jumper: Reimagining your Boundaries, Selecting your Timing, and Executing at Scale.

Reimagine your Boundaries

Existing businesses have self-imposed boundaries that are constrained by the scale and technology limitations of the past. Astute leaders start by questioning these self-imposed boundaries along two critical dimensions–Industry and Product.

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The new revolution is currently removing barriers between adjacent industries and reshaping them, removing middlemen, obsoleting experts, and upending our prior concepts of minimum scale. New technology and capabilities are also allowing innovative leaders to rethink their products from the ground up, not merely to “digitize” or automate their existing product or manual process.

In the auto industry, there has historically been a clear separation between the process of buying a car and getting a loan. At Capital One, we had built a very successful business financing a customer’s auto loan. Given the rapid changes in technology, however, we saw an opportunity to jump to a new curve–a new way of doing business. We decided to help customers “Find and Finance” their cars in a seamless and integrated way. We launched Auto Navigator in 2015, blurring the boundaries of buying a car and finding a loan. Through proprietary technology and data, we also reimagined our product boundaries to help customers make dynamic and informed decisions on the car they wanted to buy, the dealership where they wanted to buy it, and the financing options on their car loan–all before they stepped into a dealership.

Select your Timing

Successful “jumpers” in business are rarely the fastest to make the jump. History is littered with companies that rushed into markets too early. Too early and the market won’t be ready. Too late and the competitors will have already staked their claim. Think of an Olympic ski jumper–the winners are seldom the ones that focus on speed alone. The brilliant ones focus on the timing of their push-off, as well as their entire positioning throughout their jump, and they make it look effortless. If skiers only thought about going fast, without a care for their timing and positioning, they might not even make it down the hill!

Much of the technology the iPhone would use was widely available more than two decades before its release, including the touch screen, wireless connectivity, and handwriting recognition. With all of this, you would think the iPhone would have been released much earlier, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t until 2007 that Apple would release its groundbreaking product. Why did they wait? First, the timing was right. Not only was the technology available and in good working order, people were ready for it. Second, their position in the market was right. Apple positioned a flawless product well above anything else out there.

Execute at Scale

In the end, you can have the best ideas and plans, but true success comes from great execution.

Getting an entire organization to jump to a new growth curve is hard. Successful organizations are optimized, often functionally, to efficiently deliver the existing product. According to a recent survey conducted by Capital One, 61% of executives say that successfully transformed businesses have built multifunctional teams that have strong technical and business capabilities. The new growth curve needs new talent, new structures, new ways of working. In fact, 95% of executives cite finding new ways of working as important in achieving transformation in 2019.

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The organization needs to innovate at scale. A major danger for leaders is to resort to a “bolt-on” strategy. They may buy or create a new business unit that is aimed at the future and “bolt it” to the side of their organization–then not take the next step of actively changing the existing organization. To jump to a new growth curve, innovating in a few select places in an organization is not enough. Leaders need to be all in, and execute at scale.

At Capital One, in order to build and launch Auto Navigator, we had to create an entirely new way of working. We introduced new talent and skills into each team–human centered design, software engineering, data science and product management. We cross-trained our existing talent to become fluent in the new capabilities.

We ensured we’re making the jump together–executing at scale.

Every leader today needs to be adept at transformation. This means more than managing top-down initiatives and large-scale technology development. It means creating a culture of entrepreneurship and empowerment.

If you want to truly measure the success of a leader today, don’t just look at how well they run things. Look at how well they jump.


Sanjiv Yajnik is President of the Financial Services division at Capital One, and serves on the Capital One Executive Committee. He created Capital One’s innovation space in Plano called the Garage, and he himself holds four patents, as well as several patents pending.

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