Leaders must change how they think to keep evolving their organizations and how they perform. This means identifying and systematically evaluating tried-and-true ways of going to market. It means questioning closely-held beliefs about the stark boundaries of competition. And it means focusing on a purposeful culture, open to collaboration.

The need for change and flexibility in today’s business environment is well documented and well studied, as leaders become more clear about the need to rethink sacred truths of past success. But every leader today has the task of translating the concept of the need to change into practical execution for their specific situation. It’s no longer a luxury, but an imperative. The issue is often where to start.

Our research report, based on surveys of 400 global executives, analyzed in partnership with Forbes Insights, led to several valuable new ways of thinking about how to build a company to better compete. We summarized those findings here.

The research made a connection with two key ideas, the first being the importance of establishing new partnerships and unexpected alliances. Surveyed executives indicated an increasing willingness to consider unconventional partnerships as a way to solve new performance and competitive issues. But this can’t happen without attending to the second key aspect: changing how people think and operate in the culture. In order to fuel the sustainable benefits of new ways of working, leaders must foster a culture that nurtures and strengthens breakthrough approaches.

New types of partnerships continue to develop in the marketplace. For example, Kohl's has recently created an agreement with Amazon where consumers who have purchased something from Amazon can return it to a Kohl’s location. Even though they are competitors, the arrangement solves problems for both parties—physical presence for amazon, and much-needed foot traffic for Kohl’s, especially with the millennial customer segment.

These types of new arrangements can only happen when leaders are willing to look within themselves and explore different approaches and new paradigms. Big corporations tend to have tremendous inertia, perpetuating and scaling already existing success, and are often beholden to the unyielding demands of shareholder return. The leaders who can pick their head up and look across boundaries, create more flexible business structures, and innovate their tried-and-true ways of doing business seem to best produce their critical outcomes. They are vigilant about becoming unwittingly stuck in past-based thinking, and do the creative work to find solutions for what is needed today. Nowadays, it’s often different.

But as we’ve pointed to already, companies cannot maximize or even sustain this benefit without building the type of culture that promotes new thinking, innovation, and the focus on people. Investing in people and leadership will continue to become a critical differentiator for companies seeking long-term sustainability and success. After all, people are the true innovators. People are behind the new technology, the emerging AI and machine learning, and the digital transformations.

This came through distinctly in the research. In fact, 60% of the surveyed executives identified talent and capabilities as heavily-weighted priorities for their organization’s success. And 70% cited a unified culture as important or extremely important to achieving their business outcomes. But only 13% of the executives expressed the belief their company’s current culture to be an optimal fit for their business vision. This leaves a gap to be filled.

A handful of key thoughts and ideas can be summarized from the data, all worth considering in the context of today’s circumstances:  

  1. Collaboration is becoming more important than ever, both within an organization’s culture as well as with outside entities previously unconsidered (including competition!)
  2. Today’s leaders must develop the ability to bring together disparate groups to develop new solutions.
  3. Invest in people; they are the true differentiators, innovators, and creators behind every success.
  4. Leaders who fail to develop a unified culture will likely fail to deliver meaningful business outcomes, especially when it comes to leveraging more ambitious and unconventional approaches. 

Even with all the uncertainty and pressure to deliver results, it’s exciting to anticipate what can become possible when people come together to invent new solutions. This happens best when leaders have given themselves fully to making sure their culture is a match for their ambition. It would seem what we most need are leaders who look to their people for the answers, having already nurtured their talent and capability. Leaders willing to go there will likely end up a step ahead.