What is the difference between great leaders and posers? This may sound harsh, but the truth is I’ve witnessed far too many people in positions of leadership that wouldn’t recognize an opportunity if it hit them squarely in the face. If you cannot recognize, attract, and acquire opportunities you should not be in a leadership position. Just this week I’ve observed people in leadership roles who failed to recognize opportunities, or perhaps even worse, took too long to make a decision and let an opportunity pass them by.

We have created legions of risk managers posing as leaders when what we need are more leaders who understand how opportunity adds value, shapes culture, attracts talent, and brings about transformative change.  In today’s article let’s take a look at the opportunity as a key success metric.

What better time to discuss opportunities than now? The message I want to deliver is this; opportunity, timing, and leadership are inexorably linked. So much so, that if you don’t think that timing is everything – think again. Even a cursory review of current events shows it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a politician, investment banker, CEO, or just an average citizen when it comes to making a simple decision, managing a crisis, or attempting to capture an opportunity, timing is everything – timing is leadership.

I’ve often heard people quip they would rather be lucky than smart. While intelligence and good fortune are certainly both valuable traits to possess, neither of these traits holds a candle to having a great sense of timing or having a sixth sense for seeing opportunity where others do not. Luck is a hit or miss proposition, and we’ve all known many a brilliant underachiever. However it has been my observation you’ll rarely come across someone who possesses a great sense of timing, or a nose for opportunity who is anything other than successful.

As the verse from the old Kenny Rogers song goes “you have to know when to hold em’ and know when to fold ’em.” There are a few times in the life of every professional where staggering opportunities will present themselves. The question is not whether these opportunities exist, but will you recognize them as such when they cross your path? I believe one of the key differences between leadership mediocrity and excellence is the ability to not only recognize opportunities but to also possess an understanding and willingness to seize said opportunities. Exploiting opportunities requires you not only possess vision, but also a corresponding bias to action (and a bit of courage as well).

Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for leaders to be opportunists (we have way too many of those), but to be opportunistic in how they view the market, talent, culture, change, strategy, etc. An opportunist evaluates everything from a perspective of what’s in it for me? They are rarely concerned for others, and doing the right thing often takes a back seat to anything that advances their cause – rationalization and justification abound in the world of an opportunist. By contrast, opportunistic leaders seek to use timing and opportunity to advance others over themselves. They look at things through the lens of what will best serve those they lead, what will best advance the mission, what constitutes doing the right thing, what’s in alignment with the values and vision, and what advances the greater good.

I would urge you to keep this in mind – rarely will you come across a static opportunity in the sense that it will stand idle and wait for you to act. Significant opportunities are not only scarce, but they typically operate on the principle of diminishing returns. Put simply, opportunities are time-sensitive. The longer you wait to seize the opportunity, the smaller the return typically is. In fact, the more likely case is the opportunity will completely evaporate if you wait too long to engage. Keep this thought in mind; when opportunity knocks – answer the door.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I watched people miss great opportunities due to a poor sense of timing. Not too surprisingly, people who possess a poor sense of timing usually don’t even understand timing is an issue. How many times have you witnessed someone holding-out for better talent,  a higher valuation, evolving markets, technology advances, or any number of other circumstances that either never transpire, or by the time they do, the opportunistic advantage had disappeared? I’ve observed the risk-averse take due diligence one step too far, the greedy negotiate too long, the impulsive jump the gun, and the plodders move too slow.

As the saying goes “timing is everything.” The following list contains 5 suggestions for how to spot and evaluate opportunity:

  1. Alignment: The opportunity should be in alignment with the overall values, vision, and mission of the enterprise. Any new opportunity being evaluated should preferably add value to the core, but if not, it should show a significant enough return on investment to justify the dilutive effect of not keeping the main thing the main thing. The core should be used to align, but not necessarily to exclude.
  2. Advantage: No advantage equals no opportunity. If the opportunity doesn’t provide a unique competitive advantage it should at least fill a void bringing you closer to an even playing field. Be careful however not to fall into the trap of “me too” innovation – don’t copy; create. Instead of leveling the field, think about tilting the field to your advantage, and where possible, the creation of a new field altogether.
  3. Assessment: Is the opportunity affordable, feasible, adaptable, and most importantly, is it actionable? An opportunity that cannot be implemented isn’t really an opportunity – it will likely be just another very costly distraction. Conduct your diligence before you pull the trigger, not afterward. A ready – fire – aim approach to opportunity management usually fails to hit the target. That said, don’t be guilty of moving too slowly. Be decisive; cautious yes – hesitant no.
  4. Accountability:  Keep in mind great ideas are not always the same thing as great opportunities. Ideas don’t always have a corresponding vision, nor do they always contain a framework of accountability which helps to ensure certainty of execution. For opportunities to become reality they must be viewed through the lenses of organizational awareness and personal responsibility. Any new opportunity being considered should contain accountability provisions. Every task should be assigned and managed according to a plan and in the light of the day. Any opportunity being adopted must be measurable. Deliverables, benchmarks, deadlines, and success metrics must be incorporated into the plan. The opportunity must be detailed and deliverable on a schedule – it needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Any opportunity not subjected to sound principles of leadership will likely fail.
  5. Achievement: Opportunities are great, but achievements are better. If any of the four items above are missing the outcome will be an unrealized opportunity, or an opportunity squandered and lost. The smart game is not played for what could have been, or should have been, but for what was achieved.

The proverbial window closes on every opportunity at some point in time. As you approach each day I would challenge you to consistently evaluate the landscape and seize the opportunities that come your way. Better to be the one who catches the fish than the one who tells the story of the big one who got away.