Sandra was a first-generation business owner. She worked hard for more than 25 years to build a solid company that served customers well.
This was a business that would provide for her family financially, both now and in future.
Or so she thought.
But a business marauder suddenly appeared in the form of new technology that threatened to put Sandra’s company out of business.
Her hard work and her future could be wiped out in the next 36 months unless she took some quick and powerful action.
Sandra was frozen. Her ways of leading and doing were solid – but they were limited, confined to running the business the way she knew how, to what had worked up to this point.
Unless Sandra acquired agility in her leadership, she would not be able to move forward. She could become part of the 90% of executives who currently find themselves and their business obsolete.
If you are an executive or business owner, I can guarantee that technology and other marketplace changes will affect how you lead. You may have a shelf life of just up to approximately 36 months if you don’t have the agility required to work with change. This is about how long it takes before we experience the spiral that results from not shifting with change.
And this happens a lot with excellent leadership.
You are successful for a period of many years, and then suddenly, changes emerge that demand an agility from you and a way of operating that are foreign to your context. These changes and challenges leave you bewildered. You become frozen and overwhelmed, or you dig in your heels and insist on leading in the same way you always have.
You can’t tough this one out. Change is not going to go away.
Sandra had led well. Her company had been a solid contender in the marketplace.
But she was in trouble now. She called me because she couldn’t seem to move forward as she faced this new development.
Having shown herself smart, capable, and competent during her entire tenure, she agreed that the competition was real, but she couldn’t seem to muster the higher gear required to begin wrestling with new structures and processes. She hoped her company product would still be greatly loved by her loyal clients, and wondered if the business simply accelerated some tried-and-true strategies with more sales staff, if she could help the company remain viable.
She couldn’t. The changes Sandra would need to make in order to remain viable demanded a new approach – and an agility to make it happen.
When we met, Sandra pulled out a drawer and showed me several unused strategic plans. She admitted that she had never been able to take the time to figure out how to practically apply any of them. It seemed like there was never enough time, and fulfilling customer orders took precedent over all else. She said that this had served well enough in the past, but she now knew that she needed to take some sort of action fast, in order to save the business from crumbling.
Sandra exhibited what I see in a lot of seasoned leaders.
When one has led for many years, she can become accustomed to focusing on what is working well, and forget to check the horizon for what is coming ahead.
Changing conditions in the marketplace, in the economy, in politics, and in disruptive technology (and more!) can dictate that a leader pay attention. Many, however, just dig their heels in to work harder at doing the same thing, rather than to evaluate strategies and approaches that will best support these changes. This can quickly result in trouble spotted too late.
Sandra was certainly in trouble, admitting that she might need to do differently, but that she didn’t know where to start. It was clear that she not only needed a quick medium-term plan to respond to the looming competition, but that she would also need to develop more behavioral agility in order to flex and adapt to needed transitions and change.
Sandra asked if I wanted to see the strategic plans stored in her office. The latest one was dated two years prior.
“That’s too old,” I said. “These days, you want to revisit and update your strategic plan every year. Changes are coming too rapidly for an older plan to support the future.”
We got busy and went through a quick strategic planning process to accommodate the next 36 months. This plan would need to be clear, concise, and it would need to be actionable. I didn’t want this one to sit in a drawer.
Once we had the 36-month plan in place, Sandra and I worked on a medium-term action plan designed to meet the impending competition.
We were on a tight timeline to stay out in front. With coaching, Sandra was able to develop the necessary agility to execute the plan well.
Those in charge find they operate best if they have someone to help them with this. Tackling a new plan requires not only focus and buy-in from all involved, it also often demands that we operate in new and novel ways to support the future.
This is agility – the one thing that will keep us current in our leadership.
Leadership agility is “the ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions. Only 10% have mastered the level of agility needed for consistent effectiveness in our turbulent era of global competition.” (Joiner and Josephs, Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change).
It follows that agility is necessary in company teams and in the entire enterprise, as well.
Acquiring agility demands not only new or improved direction and actions, it also asks that we develop the necessary mental and emotional capacity to implement these actions.
This is why 90% of those in leadership fail. As rapid change and complexity continues to emerge, a lot of very fine business owners and other executives fold. It isn’t from a lack of desire – it’s from a lack of understanding how to meet change effectively and to make the personal leadership shifts necessary to do so.
Back to Sandra: I’m happy to report that after we rolled up our sleeves and quickly got going, she was feeling confident about her direction, her company’s future, and her ability to meet it successfully. We hit some bumps as she expanded her agility, but we laughed a lot and she grew exponentially, setting up the company to meet the future successfully.
Sandra noted that not only was the process rewarding and energizing, she also enjoyed less stress – a great bonus. She decided to invite me to help coach her team and other key players in agility, at that point, as part of her succession planning.