The era of hope built on a house of cards. The promise of unending growth and prosperity. Where optimism was a drunken elixir for modern risk-takers: Creative financiers. Serial entrepreneurs. Corporate refugees. Global markets.
Followed by a rude awakening in 2008 – and a long, cold shower since.
All of which has led us to reflect on what endures and what doesn’t – and the role of corporate culture change in today’s global companies.
If it feels to you like the basic premises of your business are in a Richter 7 quake, you’re not alone. Premises such as: “A good business idea will always flourish.” “The smartest will always win.” “A great strategy will beat the competition.” “Self-reliance is king.” “The past is the best predictor of our future success.” All of these are being tested in companies with very sound and proven track record of success.
The events of 2008-09 remind us of the fragile belief we can control our world. Influence – yes. Control – no. Cause-effect works perfectly on a far grander scale than we can imagine. Many of these premises are good business practices. However, they are no longer sufficient for running a profitable, successful, sustainable business.
OK then, what IS secure, enduring, reliable? If change is the one constant, where is the center? What is our touchstone? What keeps hope alive when business success is crumbling?
There is no permanence to ideas, products, or business. If you define success as having the right answer, the right strategy, or the right product, you are playing a shell game. Our systems and economies are increasingly built on the unknown – there is no history that can predict where we’re headed in an age of technology and global competition. What endures is the power of collective vision, imagination, hard work, and relationships.
I believe we are at the dawn of a new era for true leaders. Now more than ever, people need leaders not just to manage the balance sheet, but to bring confidence, courage and unwavering clarity in the face of increasing uncertainty and change.
These leaders know how to stand their ground in the moment, do what is right, and create positive expectation in spite of pervasive negativity by our media and world. They learn from the past but don’t get stuck in it. They look beyond technology or Wall Street or politics by focusing on people – not just saying people are important but living that reality. They build great teams and educate their stakeholders of the invisible arm that turns “soft stuff” into hard results.
The need to learn new ways of leading through increasing uncertainty doesn’t erase the need for sound business practices. It builds on it. No amount of morale or happiness among workers can substitute for a relevant business model and good management. But that is ticket-to-the-game territory. The winning secret sauce is how you help people navigate chaos and make sense of the complete overload of information and choice we face in our business world today.
To build a business that is focused, excited and energized in unknown territory is to truly lead.
The laws of the natural world can provide lessons for this era of leadership:
1) Seasons are constant. Within seasons we see both change and constancy. In a study of temperature data since 1850 there has been about a 2 degree variance in our overall global temperature. Only 2 degrees in approximately 150 years! There’s a lot of sameness and certainty in that … at the same time the variance between summer and winter feels like a lot of change.
2) Everything seeks balance. Day is gradually replaced by night. A crowded forest burns to make room for new growth. Mix cold and hot and you get a “Goldilocks feeling” of just right. If we have learned anything in the past 2 years, hopefully it is that unending upward growth is not the nature of our world. What goes up must come down. Business is not an extreme sport. The art form is to ride the mid-line so it feels “just right.”
3) Nature cooperates. In nature, nothing exists unto itself. As humans, we often forget our dependencies. We come in the world unable to survive on our own. Competition and territory battles exist, but symbiosis and partnerships are the norm. Becoming part of a larger system creates more strength and survival. Even hungry lions and elephants forge a temporary alliance at the watering hole by day, even if at night they are hunter and hunted. Alliances and partnerships strengthen your ability to deal with the “forces of change” in almost every industry.
4) Gravity works. Gravity ensures things move in a flow – the weather, the oceans, the migration of birds. Are you swimming upstream or letting the boat carry you? Too many people work too hard at something they don’t love. When an entity is in natural alignment with its purpose and the environment it lives in, things happen more easily. And when someone else’s gravity bumps into yours from time to time, it’s just a friendly reminder that we are not alone. Get your business into the “flow zone” by being honest about what you’re really good at and pruning what doesn’t work.
If you want to lead confidently into a new era, may we recommend a few good practices:
1) White space is not empty. The cat spends more time watching than chasing its prey. Productivity isn’t always a straight line. Find space and time for tuning into what’s really going on around you. This is a discipline that serves you in a frenetic pace of life, helps you become clearer about what to respond to, what to let go, and creates internal peace and well-being. Further, the latest neuro-science research proves that if you want to lead strategically – not reactively – you need to cultivate time that isn’t simply reacting to the day-to-day fires and crises of the moment. Spend time away from your office. Have lunch with someone who inspires or interests you. Read a book or material outside your industry. Pursue an artistic endeavor that makes your creative juices flow, especially if your work doesn’t provide that outlet. Get outside. Sit still and breathe. Walk slow. Smile a lot.
2) Broaden your definition of success. Life may be hard, but metrics don’t have to be. In business, your destination should be in focus, but the landing can be soft. Measures of cash position, P&L and revenue are important to stay afloat. But measures like how much people are learning, developing themselves and others, being engaged – that is what signals to people that the journey and the destination are equally important. It’s no secret that a healthy, viable business is dependent on engaged, creative, happy people. And successful, happy people draw greater success to their corner of the world.
3) Partner. Surround yourself with people who are invested in one another’s success. Being a leader can be lonely. People rely on you for answers and guidance – but who do you rely on? Find people who lift you up, challenge you to be better, make you think in new ways, believe in you, and are committed to your success. Spend time with people like this every week.
4) Plan for the future, stay rooted in the present. Imagination is a unique gift of mankind. But too often obsessing about the future creates fear, pressure to predict success based on fragile assumptions, and clouds our ability to see what’s needed right now. Remember nature’s lesson about balance? Planning must balance excitement and possibility (iPod, sushi, women’s best friend Spanx) with imagining “what can go wrong.” Like a hi-def movie drains your laptop battery, brain science proves planning is a very taxing activity. So when you are thinking about the future, minimize distractions and you will be more clear-headed – literally.
5) Grow someone. We are trible at our roots. Building strong connections is still crucial today – within teams and with outside stakeholders. Needs are met more easily through people we know than through strangers. So ask yourself: Who are you keeping a wing out for? Find at least one (preferably several) people whose success you unconditionally, unabashedly support. Pay it forward, pay it back. Teach something you’ve learned. Pass on the goodwill you received from someone, to someone else.
Leading in a new era is not that different from good leadership in any era:
The willingness to initiate, to guide others where they cannot on their own, and to be fearless in the face of obstacles.
Which brings us to the ultimate enduring idea: When you get to wherever you are going, be sure the people you made the journey with are those you want to celebrate with.
Life is short.
Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert and co-author of 2 books including the brand new “Culture Builder Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide for Assessing and Changing Corporate Culture.” She specializes in teaching companies and leaders how to align and transform their corporate culture to maximize profitable growth, productivity, and innovation.