Can Fraternity Leaders Find Inspiration from a Hipster Clothing Company?

Struggling chapters are often quick to blame their underperformance as part of a bigger trend.  “Sure, we only recruited three guys this semester but numbers were down for everyone,” or “grades were down across the board this year, it wasn’t just us,” I often hear.  And as you might expect, chapters that repeat this narrative to themselves remain mediocre.

On the other hand, high performing chapters find a way to defy the trends.  When recruitment numbers are down campus-wide, excellent chapters increase the quantity AND quality of their membership.  When the IFC average GPA takes a nose dive, excellent chapters find a way to increase their scholarship performance.

Like most struggling chapters, underperforming companies are quick to blame their weak performance on larger economic trends.  But occasionally we find a company that refuses to bow to the patterns around them.  From Economist magazine:

Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, is Japan’s biggest clothing company, with sales of $9 billion forecast this year. Whereas many Japanese businesses are ailing because of the stagnant domestic economy, Fast Retailing is flourishing. Last year sales grew by 17%, despite the recession, or because of it: its clothes combine a touch of style with enticingly low prices.

The Economist article offers another lesson in enduring success and leadership transition:

Mr Yanai himself may also create problems. A brilliant strategist with uncanny fashion instincts, he is also unable to delegate, say Fast Retailing executives. He controls all decisions, down to approving samples and colours.

This micromanaging has pushed talented executives to quit the firm, leaving no obvious successor to Mr Yanai, who plans to step down as boss (but remain chairman) in four years, at 65. Previous attempts to cede day-to-day control have been aborted.

It’s too early to tell whether the perceived micro-managing of Fast Retailing founder and CEO Tadashi Yanai will harm the company in the long run.  But this example reminds us of Jim Collins‘ famous observation of clock building vs. time telling.  It would be great to have someone who can tell us the time of day merely by observing the angle of the sun, but how will we tell the time once he is gone?  Clock builders, or leaders who prepare the organization to succeed after their departure, are far more valuable than time tellers.

The article offers one final inspiration for chapters reaching for the next level, the courage to break tradition:

When pressed, Mr Yanai says that he has decided not to hand the company over to his sons. They will be big shareholders with board seats, but will not take operational roles. In this, he once again defies traditional Japanese business practices. Firms that rely on primogeniture, he notes, perform poorly. So, in the long run, do those that rely on a domineering leader.

Breaking tradition isn’t necessarily good, but the courage to abandon an arbitrary one is praiseworthy.

One thought on “Can Fraternity Leaders Find Inspiration from a Hipster Clothing Company?

  1. great article! thanks!

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