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Francis Wade | Escaping a ‘past forward’ mindset

It’s common for managers promoted to CEO to find the job difficult at first. Skilled at producing short-term results, they focus on hitting targets a quarter or a year at a time.

Nevertheless, some top executives discover that part of their responsibility is to articulate an inspiring company vision. Not a mere “vision statement”, but a game-changing, long-term destination which engages stakeholders.

This isn’t easy for a new leader. So in response, many take one of two short-cuts.

The first is to redefine “long-term” as just three to five years. The second involves padding the current plan by adding several years.

These shallow approaches ultimately fail.


During a strategic planning retreat, attendees participate in a number of joint activities. But below the surface something happens, which only a few appreciate.

The authors of Lead from the Future, Johnson and Suskewicz, describe it as a shift to a “Past Forward” mindset. Here’s an explanation.

All managers who reach the C-Suite have proven skills at producing short-term results. This is no accident. Organisations promote individuals who enlist others using the “Past Forward” frame of mind.

It’s one in which executives look to the past in order to plan tactics for the future. In particular, it relies on prior successes and failures to make incremental improvements.

Now and then, in a regular meeting, someone may object to it: “Isn’t there a bigger vision for where our company should be?”

But the query doesn’t go very far. It’s seen as a distraction from the job at hand: interesting, but beside the point.

Skip ahead to when your managers are required to attend the next strategic planning retreat. Inwardly, they groan. It will only steal time away from efforts to meet pressing targets.


As such, most participants walk into your retreat deep inside the Present Forward mindset. Secretly, they hope to take one of the two short-cuts, then return to their “real” work.

Therefore, you must somehow engineer what the authors call a “Future Back” way of being. They characterise it as a particular mindset required to visualise a range of credible, game-changing futures.

But these aren’t the vague vision statements of old. Instead, they precisely define a new destination, which informs a strategic plan.

There is no exact formula to use in every retreat, but having a team in attendance helps. Now, you can rely on the group dynamic in which the shift in a few will carry the others.

To implement this method, I recommend you begin with a deep dive into today’s problems. While this may seem like a rehash of old discussions, there is a big difference. Why? You aren’t trying to find quick fixes.

Instead, you want to diagnose issues in a way that solves them for decades to come. What does that mean?

Many of the nagging concerns your company faces didn’t crop up yesterday. Why? It’s just that prior executives never sought permanent solutions. Immersed in the ‘Present Forward’ mindset, they ‘kicked the can down the road’.

Such was the case with Southwest Airlines. In 2022, it created an end-of-year scheduling disaster which produced millions of cancellations globally. The cause? Updating their IT systems had been repeatedly postponed by short-sighted executive teams.

Your diagnostic exercise is likely to yield similar insights. The truth is, this is a special opportunity to deal with overdue matters by suspending the usual time constraints.

Fortunately, your C-Suite participants have been eager for a chance to do this kind of long-term thinking. Expect to see a release of energy as they behold an end to lingering frustrations.

Also, they will feel what it’s like to work together on a future they own jointly. Despite not being its main purpose, this event fosters a distinctive team-building experience.

But more importantly, the Future Back mindset is hard to achieve and maintain individually. Only the best CEOs can. Most need the presence of a group to sustain it for more than a few minutes.

As such, top leaders thrive in such retreats. Why? For the first time, the C-Suite is deliberating beyond the emergent short term. Using the Future Back mindset, they are all thinking like chief executives.

This takes the pressure off CEOs to be the sole visionaries. For two retreat days they have a Future Back team rather than a bunch of individuals focused solely on ‘hitting their numbers’.

Unfortunately, the transformation is temporary. Therefore, you will need more than a fleeting shift. In my next column, I’ll address ways to concretise commitments before this unique mindset fades away.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To search his prior columns on productivity, strategy, engagement and business processes, send email to

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