Embrace Change by Disrupting versus Being Disrupted
- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 17 of 24 -
Visionary leaders recognize that change is constant. As such, great leaders embrace change with the term “good enough” being stricken from the company’s vocabulary. Indeed, the term “good enough” is a term used by the lazy to justify inaction so companies must disrupt themselves before others do it for them. Such a mindset is necessary because volatility is the new normal and as such only the paranoid survive. Unfortunately, most companies aren’t paranoid enough. Thus, if you’re top-quartile today there is no assurance you’ll be top quartile a year or even a month from now. Indeed, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has created a landscape where change and volatility are the new normal. As such, companies must always be reinventing themselves; otherwise they will become imitators instead of innovators and reactors instead of disruptors. Simply, reinvent yourself or be disrupted upon - change or become extinct.
A change or die mindset – as ruthless as it may sound – must be the attitude that’s embraced by the entire enterprise, starting with the company's leaders. As John P. Kotter stated, “Successful change is 70 to 90 percent leadership and 10 to 30 percent management.” Accordingly, a leader's ability to successfully navigate this ever-evolving landscape will truly dictate winners and losers. Indeed, studies show that one in three companies will cease to exist in 5 years, up from one in twenty 50 years ago. On the other hand, over a 15 year period, founder led companies (which generally have leaders that embrace change more quickly), perform on average three times in terms of shareholder return than all other companies. As such, the responsibility of embracing change and witnessing enterprise success rests on the organization's leaders. Accordingly, leaders can take three steps to ensuring an enterprise successfully embraces change; specifically:
- Build a culture that embraces a continuous improvement mindset
- Create a culture that embraces failure
- Implement a culture that creates “why” people not “yes” people
Build a culture that embraces a continuous improvement mindset
Continuous improvement requires companies to constantly reinvent themselves by taking a transformation always on mindset. Indeed, change, just like death and taxes, is one of the only certainties in life. The paradox is that people don’t like change and oftentimes, take a status quo approach because it is simply more comfortable. As Charles Kettering stated, "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." Indeed, and as Charles Handy noted, “Anything that takes us out of our comfort zones for a while can act as a reminder that the past we are used to may not be our best future.” Throughout history, extraordinary results very rarely, if ever, happened in one, miraculous step but rather in small incremental steps (i.e., continuous improvements). While Olympic medalists certainly look tremendous on victory day, it’s rather the grueling, small positive steps taken over many years that allowed these champions to finally arrive at the winner’s podium. Similarly, enterprises must not let an inspired vision, the daunting nature of change, or the fear of failure replace the need for continuous improvements. Remember, you won’t improve by standing still; and, if you are standing still you are moving backwards. As Will Rogers noted, “Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”
Consequently, top quartile performance doesn’t happen in one, miraculous step but rather by creating positive momentum that comes from embracing a continuous improvement mindset and taking one positive step at time. As Mark Twain stated, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Indeed, winners in today's landscape are those with speed rather than those with size. Consequently, and because change and volatility are the new normal, constant reinvention via continuous improvements is vital to keeping pace with customer’s ever-changing needs and expectations. As such, leaders must create a culture that embraces change instead of hiding from it. Simply, the only way to survive is for enterprises and their employees to have the musculature of a sprinter, the endurance of a marathon runner, and the mental fortitude to embrace a race with no finish line. Accordingly, a transformation always on mindset is vital to success, meaning leaders must never condone a mentality “if it’s not broken, don’t worry about it.” Instead, if it’s not broken leaders must go make it better. Such a mindset ensures organizations are disrupting instead of being disrupted upon. Accordingly, visionary leaders create change instead of reacting to it by building a culture that asks how can we be better than we were yesterday - a notion that can only be answered via embracing a continuous improvement mindset.
Create a Culture that embraces Failure
Equally as important as creating a culture that embraces a continuous improvement, transformation always on mindset is creating a culture that does not reprimand when failure transpires. Instead, a fail fast, fail cheap, and learn quickly mentality should be adopted. Simply, and to overcome organizational complacency, leaders must create a culture that embraces failure. Many enterprises, for fear of failure neglect to create of culture that embraces change. As Thomas Aquinas notes, “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever." Indeed, without a runway for failure don’t expect a runway for success. As such, both change and failure must be embraced, because failure is often the greatest learning tool. As Henry Ford noted, “It’s ok to fail: don't find fault, find a remedy.” As the aforementioned section noted, if it’s not broken good leaders must tell their company to go make it better. Accordingly, leaders must create a culture where it's not only ok to fail but rather that it's expected to fail. Otherwise, change and innovation will be merely pretty words that never take shape or drive lasting impact.
Ultimately, leaders as well as those on the ground often learn far more in the valleys than at the peaks. Remember, the lower the valley the higher the peak. As President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.” For example, as an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." As Winston Churchill noted, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Remember, failure is success's best friend. Simply, above market growth, spurred by innovation, requires embracement of change and a culture that promotes failure. Thus, a (1) fail fast, (2) fail cheap, and (3) learn quickly mentality should be adopted for ensuring above market, sustainable growth. Remember, if you don’t have risk don’t expect innovation and if you don't embrace failure don't expect success.
Build a Culture that creates “why” not “yes” people
A culture of "yes" versus "why" people creates artificial harmony, people that protect faulty rules, and a value erosive, toxic culture that holds back change and stifles creativity. Instead, and to be innovative, leaders must be adaptive and never satisfied with the status quo. Just because something has been done a certain way in an organization for years does not mean that it is still the best path forward. Indeed, self-imposed limitations and beliefs create a toxic, stagnant culture that holds most people back. An interesting analogy can help shed further light on this topic. Several scientists performed an experiment in which five monkeys were placed in a cage with several great looking bananas hanging directly overhead yet slightly out of reach. A stepladder was added to the cage and almost immediately, Monkey #1 started climbing up the ladder with great enthusiasm. With the banana nearly in hand the scientists sprayed ice cold water on all the monkeys. Monkey #1 immediately came running down the ladder with no banana in hand. This process continued. Whenever a monkey attempted to climb the ladder and retrieve the banana all five monkeys were sprayed with cold water. After several attempts no monkey dared climb the ladder again. No water was needed. The fear alone that something bad would transpire was enough to keep all five monkeys complacent.
The scientists then decided to replace Monkey #1 with a brand new monkey – one that had never experienced the ice water treatment. Almost immediately, this new monkey saw the delicious looking bananas overhead and attempted to climb the ladder. However, before he got up to the second step he was attacked by the other four monkeys who had previously experienced the ice water treatment. Over time, one by one each monkey was replaced. Eventually all five monkeys in the cage had never experienced the ice water treatment but along the way the environment (culture) perpetuated a myth that reaching for the banana was not tolerated and as such, off limits. Unfortunately, they were protecting a faulty rule, a toxic culture, and a value destructive way of life all without even knowing why. Simply, culture and fear of change is slowly built but once embedded it is challenging to change.
Consequently, organizational inertia is tough to overcome in large part because employees are punished for asking “why” instead of encouraged to “ask why” via challenging the status quo. A response of “this is how we’ve always done it” is unacceptable and will eventually be the demise of a company just as those five monkeys will eventually starve themselves to death before being willing to change and climb that ladder. Simply, if leaders want “yes people” that is the beginning of the end. Instead leaders must be inclusive, ensuring mitigation of groupthink by building a culture of people that ask "why." Simply, inclusivity is not only about having a diverse set of individuals from diverse backgrounds but perhaps more importantly is about ensuring an openness to a diverse set of opinions, thoughts, and experiences. Remember, leaders must create a culture where people feel comfortable asking “why” and not punished for asking the company to think beyond its current boundaries. As Bernard Baruch stated, “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.” As such, inclusivity combined with a culture that creates “why” instead of “yes” people ensures mitigation of groupthink and forms the backbone of innovation, creativity, and success.
Leaders must never forget that change is either going to be done “by you” or going to be done “to you.” People do not like change but in any organization the one thing we know is going to happen is change. Accordingly, leaders must never rely on past success to dictate the future path forward. Instead leaders must (1) embrace change, (2) celebrate failure as the learning tool that it is, and (3) create a culture of people that ask why. Only then will companies rise above the mediocre status quo and emerge as innovative visionaries. Indeed, "It is not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change" so "change before you have to" (Charles Darwin, Jack Welch). Remember, the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Accordingly, embrace change versus having change forced upon you via:
- Taking a continuous improvement, transformation always on mindset
- Embracing a fail fast, fail cheap, learn quickly mindset
- Creating a culture of "why" versus "yes" people
Only then will any organization be able to innovate instead of imitate and lead instead of follow because one is charting their course rather than having others inflict it upon them. Simply, organizations must disrupt themselves before others do it for them by having a disdain for the status quo because only the paranoid survive. Only then can an organization and its people’s potential be fully realized. On the other hand, without change both failure and success will be at best elusive – at worst completely nonexistent. As such, embrace change as the extraordinarily powerful tool that it is. Simply, (1) change or be changed, (2) disrupt or be disrupted upon, (3) innovate or imitate, (4) exceed customer expectations or someone else will do it for you, and (5) become better or become extinct.
Read the other best leadership practices HERE.
24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -
The following article is Part 17 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.
Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).
- INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
- EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
- INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.