Torchbearers are industry leaders that both innovate and outperform their peers financially. But how do they do it? The 2015 IBM C-suite Study offers a few insights on the habits of these high achievers.

  • They focus on customers over competitors. Torchbearers aren't satisfied with providing a "good enough" experience or product. They concentrate on pleasing their most sophisticated, demanding customers, ensuring that their offerings are truly best-in-class. And compared with market followers, torchbearers get more intelligence directly from their customers than from their competitors. Torchbearers effectively use their customers as their peripheral vision, to understand threats and trends that others may miss.

  • They're obsessed with information and data. Torchbearers are more likely to be using technologies like cognitive computing and predictive analytics. They use data to guide their long-term strategy and their day-to-day decision-making. And the data they care most about comes from their customers.

  • They pay more attention to new or adjacent markets. Torchbearers are less likely to be taken by surprise by a new competitor, because they've taken the blinders off. They take notice of interesting experiments that seem to be only tangentially related to their own businesses. They learn from others' trial balloons, then apply that knowledge to their specific challenges.

  • They're more open to new business models. Torchbearers are more likely to be using platform and open business models. This gives them a better chance of becoming a vital and strongly connected node in an industry network or ecosystem – and making it that much harder for them to be cut out.

  • Torchbearers are more likely to have adopted decentralized decision-making. In other words, they've put more scouts on the front lines, which means more decision-making happens closer to the customers. That allows potentially market-altering information to be acted upon more quickly.

  • They're truly collaborative, both with partners and customers. For torchbearers, partnerships are a way not just to increase sales, but also to learn about new markets, new customers, and new ways of doing business.

Not everyone is destined to become a torchbearer. But almost anyone can learn from their leadership. By beginning to emulate their practices, market followers can begin to wrench their focus from their own internal capabilities to embrace a more expansive view of customer desires and new opportunities. And make the transition from fast follower to market leader.

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