Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it has been under construction every day for centuries.

So many of the issues we talk about at Executive Platforms events, in this blog, and through our podcast need to be discussed within the framework of a journey, because the destination is not something that will be reached in a matter of days, or weeks, or months, or even years.

In many cases organizations commit themselves to a journey knowing from the very beginning that there will never be a stopping point. A Journey of Continuous Improvement, for example, is the commitment to always getting better and eliminating waste in all its forms, and there will never be a Lean or OpEx or CI program that ever shuts down for a lack of something to make better.

Still, I had an interesting conversation earlier this week that you will hear in an upcoming podcast episode where a senior executive articulated something that really resonated with me and echoed sentiments I have observed for many years now. The vast majority of business leaders operate in a world of quarterly and annual reports. Performance reviews and incentives and career trajectories and even just the normal urge to be like one’s peers  are often directly connected to projects completed and missions accomplished. It can be very difficult to be the person in charge of a ‘Big Picture’ goal that may take an entire career or more to do, knowing that every day you are working in a world that thinks in terms of very finite and specific time increments.

I want to avoid making this article about any one profession or business issue, because I believe this is an idea that will speak to many people in Executive Platforms’ network of senior leaders across many different disciplines and professions, but let me give a few specific examples to paint a picture rather than trying to be so general and universal that I end up saying nothing to anyone:

  • There are many companies out there right now working towards being Carbon Neutral or Net Zero or any of a number of other ambitious and important Sustainability goals, and many hardworking people in those companies are dedicating their working lives to making dramatic changes to how every facet of their business functions, but when we talk about achieving those targets, even the most ambitious companies are thinking in terms of years, and the majority are thinking in terms of decades.
  • There are also many companies that are recreating themselves to embrace Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in a way that nobody was thinking about let alone doing twenty years ago, but that fundamental shift in who the organization is and how the organization acts and engages with its people both inside and outside the business is not a thing achieved overnight. There is no ‘quick fix’ that will make an organization a shining example of DEIB. That can only be achieved through ongoing concerted effort, and —like the CI programs we were mentioning earlier— there probably is no final destination where a company can say it has gone far enough. In always working to be better, more Diverse, more Equitable, more Inclusive, and fostering a greater sense of Belonging, the definition of what is possible is only going to expand as well into new spaces we are not even thinking about today.
  • Is there a Digital Transformation happening anywhere in the working world today that is confident of its end date? Even the small-scale projects built around very clearly defined goals and timelines are knowingly or unknowingly one small step of a longer journey that is impossible to estimate because the future of Industry 4.0 is still being invented. The people who are responsible for portions of that larger and longer journey may be able to benchmark their progress slightly more often against existing quarterly and annual performance metrics than some of the other examples we are giving here, but they have much more in common with the “Open-Ended, Long-Term, Future-of-the-Company” project leaders than with people with well-defined, specific, measurable, and schedulable assignments, roles, and responsibilities.

Leaders responsible for these and other “Big Picture” goals may feel disconnected from their earlier working experiences and set apart from their peers and colleagues who run projects whose results arrive in short order, with all the benefits associated with that. Let’s take a minute and talk about how we can get back to comparing apples to apples even if one side is metaphorically doing the important but normal day-to-day of apple cultivation while the other side is metaphorically growing a new kind of orchard.

Finding Benchmarks at the Same Scale

One of the most common things I’ve heard from people talking about long-term projects is some version of, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

It doesn’t matter if you are spending years fundamentally changing the way your business works, or thinks, or what it produces and for who, you are still putting in daily work to make that change happen, and that can be broken down into easily understood pieces. Start setting small-scale and short-term targets to achieve on schedule and within parameters you set ahead of time. Make them something that demonstrates value. Make them something that you can learn from successes and failures. Make them something that lays a foundation and builds up to a shared future with greater goals. Document what is happening. Set KPIs. Track progress. Find ways to quantify the qualifiable and qualify the quantifiable.

Before you know it, you can start thinking of your role as a series of interconnected, interlocking, self-reinforcing smaller projects that do compare and parallel to some of the ongoing regular work others in your company are doing. They might be doing S&OP for Q4 while you’re doing the Q4 targets for connecting AI-assisted ESG reporting from one division into a larger company-wide data collection effort, but by the time Q1 of the next fiscal year rolls around both projects will be able to talk about what went right and what can be learned from what went wrong in the previous quarter.

Tangible, timely takeaways are produced when the Big Picture is broken up into its components that are done incrementally over a long period of time, and that also keeps the open-ended and long-term projects grounded in reality.

Communicate to Educate and Shape Culture

One of the things that should be done with that steady flow of results? They need to be shared outside the immediate team dedicated to working on the long-term project. Ideally, it should be shared enterprise-wide, and perhaps even outside the company to external partners, stakeholders, and shareholders.

Another of the universals that connects the people responsible for ‘Journeys’ is the need to win the hearts and minds of others. No one leaders makes a company more Sustainable or Diverse or Efficient or Digitized. You have to take concrete examples and show them to others to illustrate what you are doing, why it is important, and how others can help. In the end, you are going to be changing the organization’s culture from top to bottom as part of the journey anyway, and that doesn’t get done with a decades-long big picture destination in mind. It will be done with regular updates of what is actually changing for the better at a local and immediate level, and why that is going to make a positive impact on everyone. In many cases the people put in charge of the ‘Big Picture’ projects were chosen specifically because they have been identified as being great at the soft skills of Change Management.

Another nice benefit of being given a mandate to talk about what you are doing with others is that you remain connected with your peers focusing on normal operations even if your responsibilities have moved into something broader and deeper and more likely to transform over time. Knowing what your colleagues are doing becomes part of your job to help them do better and be better.

For leaders who may feel pressure to demonstrate how they are contributing to the business’s success on a quarterly and annual basis as their peers do, these metrics, connections, and rhythm of communication, collaboration, and education is the perfect way to continue championing yourself and what you bring to the organization at large. You will have quarterly and annual results to share, and you will be sharing them throughout all levels of the business and across all departments.

Take the Time to Celebrate Progress and Milestones

We began this article talking about the disconnect some leaders feel running long-term projects in a world of quarterly and annual results. Why don’t we flip that on its head for a moment and celebrate being freed from the constraints of a Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4, year-in-review mindset. If something is going to take years to do, how incredible is it from time to time and say, “Where were we at the start of our journey? Where are we now? Where are we going to be a decade from now?”

There are not a lot of people responsible for day-to-day functions of a business who get to talk about twenty years ago and twenty years from now as part of their actual role in the company. It is for the ‘Big Picture’ people guiding the way along their particular Journey to set the landmarks and waypoints of their long-term timeline and tell people when something remarkable has happened, is happening, or will happen.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” according to  Augustus. What I love about that quote? He said that more than 750 years after the founding of Rome, which had been the capital of a small kingdom and then a powerful republic before becoming the seat of Imperial government under his rule.

I don’t expect most readers to be Roman history buffs, but I do think most people have a picture in their mind of Rome. It wasn’t built in a day, but Augustus transformed it into a marble-clad world capital two thousand years ago. The Colosseum wasn’t built by Vespasian until more than 50 years after Augustus’s death. It would be another two hundred years before Rome was ringed by Aurelian’s walls. A hundred years after that saw the first Old St. Peter’s Basilica built on the Vatican Hill by Constantine, which was torn down and replaced by the Renaissance-era St. Peter’s Basilica of Pope Julius II we know today almost twelve-hundred years later.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Rome has been under constant construction for 28 centuries with no signs of slowing down, and there is something remarkable to talk about in every one of those centuries, every one of those decades.

Your company’s Journey —whatever it may be— will not be achieved in a short timeframe, but there is a grandeur in tackling something that big, that important, that long-lasting. There are ways to break it down and make it line up with what other people in the company have to offer when needed, but it should be acknowledged and celebrated that the open-ended projects are where legacies that will outlast us all are created through years of steady effort. Recognize the scale of it, and appreciate the progress and milestones you get to have a hand in that only people on a journey similar to yours will ever get to experience for themselves as you do.

In a world of quarterly and yearly reports, the journeys are what matter in the long term, that shape the future and change everything over time. Compare apples to apples if you need to along the way, but only in the service of the greater goals. Not everyone gets the chance to work on something that will last long after their time in the company has come and gone.

The journey is what you will be remembered for. Be sure to enjoy it along the way.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.