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Five tips for leaders trying to change their business to deal with disruption

For the leaders of incumbent brands in disrupted industries, the challenge is immense. Regular operating model changes and complex transformations strain workforces as they juggle running and changing the business.

Some businesses, in industries like the media sector, face a desperate need for turnaround and business model reinvention to avoid extinction.

It’s a tough environment for employees. Fairfax and Channel Ten are recent examples that have been in the news, but many others have a desperate fight for survival on their hands. The retail sector is similar and the “Amazon impact” is yet to fully make itself felt in Australia.

Sadly, employees are often the ones to suffer through down-sizing and fear of an uncertain future. Yet the engagement, productivity and commitment of key talent to a strategic vision for change will often define success. Leaders play a pivotal role in making this happen.

Leaders have an opportunity to rival disrupters through transformative qualities that excite the workforce and drive productive action and commitment.

Here are a few things that leaders of large incumbent businesses can do to enact the power of their people during organisational upheaval:

1. On your feet, crack the whip

Incumbents often originate from a one or two-horse race. Running neck-and-neck or a length or two behind, there was a decent crowd turning up but jockeys weren’t flogging their horses hard, despite their potential. They accepted a win or place.

Things are different when competitive threats arrive. It is the age of digital; the age of the disruptive entrepreneur. It’s time to create a sense of urgency and a culture of change at pace. Embed the sense of urgency in language and behaviour. This will drive people to purposeful action and away from wasteful navel-gazing within the comfort of status-quo.

Leaders and middle-managers can’t get complacent. There must be an ongoing focus to make your old organisation feel, think and act like a start-up that continues to re-invent itself.

2. Speak the truth but give adequate context

Innovation is sexy but hard. Cost-reduction is the opposite. It is OK to talk about cost reduction but focus your message on what it will result in.

For example:

  • So we can offer customers better value for money
  • So we can continue to invest in our people and our business
  • So we can invest more in what customers really want

Or as Alan Joyce once said to unions and the public during a tumultuous period: “if we don’t cut costs, Qantas won’t exist.” A hard truth aimed at making it more acceptable to “take one for team”.

3. Start the renewal journey and bring others with you

Your strategy for change and improvement must be compelling and ignite a vast band of followers to jump on board. The only way they’ll do this is if they’ve been somewhat involved in designing the future. Use design thinking to co-create the strategy, shoulder-to-shoulder with your best people, from mission-critical workforces; not just formal leaders, but the best salesperson, most innovative product manager and future-focused technologists, among others.

Involve people from mission-critical areas to determine how your change effort will be implemented, as well as the strategic design, and you’ve got a greater chance of retaining your most valuable people and getting their best performance during the change process.

4. Deliver hope and pragmatism

In the face of intense organisational upheaval, inspiring, authentic leadership is more important than ever. Employees seek meaning in their work and a degree of certainty or at least excitement in their futures as they tend to get bogged down with minutia and threat of loss.

Leaders hold the power to shape perception and make sense of what they do and where they are going. Leaders impart wisdom, knowing that after every down, there is an up. They don’t sugar-coat it. They acknowledge the tough times while also directing lines of sight to the long-term, brighter vision – but that vision must be realistic and achievable, or else no one will buy it.

5. Tap the vast power of the sub-conscious, emotional mind — also known as ‘hearts’

The biggest mistake we make is thinking people are rational.

People make decisions every day based on bias, intuition, preconception, inspiration and every emotion on the spectrum. Some leaders view this as a problem. Others accept reality and use it to unite and motivate themselves and others.

Define an innovative, realistic strategy then communicate it as an inspiring — even abstract — vision for the future of the business and its people. Obama won an election, not because of great policy but because of mantras like “Yes We Can” and posters that simply said “Hope”, appealing to the hearts of an audience seeking change. Trump achieved the same with “Make America Great” and “Drain the Swamp.”

Industry disruption sparks painful organisational change processes. When times are tough, people yearn to get behind a vision. Give them hope beyond disruption.


This article was first published in Business Insider Australia 25th Sept 2017 


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