Leif Johansson, recently retired CEO of the Volvo Group, has a simple and powerful test to track his progress as a leader. In addition to the usual metrics — return on investment, growth in market share, increases in shareholder value — Johansson uses what he calls the “kitchen table test”: At breakfast with his family on Saturday mornings, he asks himself, How easy is it to explain what I have accomplished this week and the decisions I have made? Does my family get it? Does what I say make them proud? Does it make me proud to tell them about it?
Johansson is a prime example of what my co-authors and I call a higher-ambition leader. Higher-ambition leaders seek to do more than outperform the competition. They aspire to win — powerfully and consistently — with their customers, their people, their partners, and their communities, as well as with their investors. They see winning on all fronts as both good business and a source of pride and purpose — a sure way to pass the kitchen table test.
The higher-ambition leaders profiled in our book are not unique. Rather, I believe there are a large and growing number of leaders who share these values and aspirations.
These leaders believe in the value of higher ambition for both personal and pragmatic reasons. On a personal level, they understand that they will feel a lot better about investing most of their waking hours at work, if their work is genuinely making the world a better place.
On a pragmatic level, anyone who has ever tried to run a business, whether a corner grocery store or a Fortune 100 company, knows that they won’t last very long if they don’t go the extra mile to provide real and distinctive value for their customers. They also know that it is much easier to win in the marketplace if they have energized and engaged people working on their team. Finally, they know that business doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When a company is not seen as a force for good, recruiting good people and partners is tougher, as is working with regulators and governments. Conversely, when everyone in the business — not just the CEO — can pass the kitchen table test with their families and talk with pride about their work, employee commitment and motivation will likely be off the charts.
So, the challenge for most leaders isn’t whether they should be trying to excel at providing value to all stakeholders, but rather how to address the genuinely difficult leadership and management challenges that arise while actually making this happen. For example:
- How do you deal with difficult business decisions that affect employees and communities — such as restructuring, downsizing, and outsourcing — without leaving your humanity at the door?
- How do you build the same sense of quarter-by-quarter accountability for long-term success as for meeting short-term numbers?
- How do you develop a winning strategy that distinctively reflects and builds on your company’s core capabilities, values, and purpose?
In the weeks ahead, my colleagues and I will be sharing some of the hard lessons learned by higher-ambition leaders when addressing these types of issues. In the meantime, it would be great to hear about what you and the people you admire are doing to pass the kitchen table test.
This pieces also appears on the HBR.org blog