By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.
It’s easy to see the top of the corporate ladder but successfully making the climb is an increasingly challenging undertaking. After years of rightsizing and delayering, steps leading to the top of ladder are fewer and farther apart than ever. And when you get a chance to stand on them, you better make the most of it—there are plenty of people climbing the ladder behind you.
How can you do that? Mark Miller, who since 1977 has climbed the corporate ladder from hourly team member to vice president of leadership development at Chick-fil-A, the $5 billion fast serve restaurant chain, says you have to raise your game.
“Most of us began our leadership journey utilizing an approach with striking similarities to the game of checkers, a fun, highly reactionary game often played at a frantic pace. Any strategies we employed in this style of leadership were limited, if not rudimentary,” he explains. “The opportunities in our world for leaders to play checkers and be successful are dwindling. The development game today for most leaders can better be compared to chess—a game in which strategy matters; a game in which individual pieces have unique abilities that drive unique contributions; a game in which heightened focus and a deeper level of thinking are required to win.”
In his new book, a fast-reading and accessible business novel titled Chess, Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game (Berrett-Koehler, 2015), Miller describes chess-level leadership strategies—four moves that you can use to make the most of opportunities to climb the career ladder when they present themselves.
Bet on leadership: Winning at chess is all about the development of your pieces. If you attack before you’ve got the right pieces in the right places, a skilled opponent will quickly blow holes in your position. But if you develop your pieces properly, you can build an unassailable position. The same is true as you assume progressively responsible leadership roles: You must make sure you have right people in the right places. That means, first and foremost, taking the time to identify the emerging leaders in your organization and taking an active hand in developing their talents. “Growing leaders grows organizations,” writes Miller.
Act as one: Chess neophytes often pull one piece out of the ranks and move it all over the board in an effort to attack the opponent. The problem is that such fragmented attacks are easily brushed aside or sidestepped, and the neophyte’s myopic focus offers his opponent the opportunity to muster a much more powerful counterattack. In chess, a unified assault involving combinations of pieces is always far more effective. “Alignment multiplies impact,” writes Miller, underscoring the importance of a team effort in business, too. The key to obtaining such alignment is communication, especially in terms of shared values and vision. “You will never really Act as One unless you master cascading communications!” adds the author.
Win the heart: Every piece on the chessboard has its own powers and limitations. The key to getting the most from your chessmen lies in leveraging the power of each piece and not placing it in positions in which its limitations expose it to attack. In business, too, the thoughtful deployment of the members of your team based on their unique talents will enable you to, as Miller says, “unleash latent value and contribution.” Discovering each employee’s strengths and capitalizing on them enables leaders to create win/win situations that not only tap the full value of employees, but also provide them with an opportunity to engage and shine. Leaders who do this win the hearts of employees, while creating competitive advantage. “Engagement energizes effort,” says Miller.
Excel at execution: Winning at chess requires making the right moves at the right time. Chess masters are intentional and strategic, and they never waste a move, if they can avoid it. Waste a move in chess and it can often shift the momentum and a game-winning advantage to your opponent. Execution is just as important. “This principle explains why it’s much better to build quality into the process versus inspecting to remove defects. It explains why preventive maintenance is preferred to downtime due to equipment failure. It explains why training people before they assume a role is preferred to the cleanup often required after they’ve tried and failed,” explains Miller. “Besides, any plan is only as good as your execution. If you don’t execute, you will not win in business or in chess.”
Checkers is a great game—fast and fun, and it doesn’t require a mind-bending amount of thought. But if you plan to be successful leader—better start thinking like a chess master, instead.
Queue it up: Chess, Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game by Mark Miller