Leadership, Change, And The Art Of Adaptation
As a CEO, I’ve learned that one thing is certain (besides death and taxes) — change. It’s a universal truth for tech leaders because all of us are either in a position of driving disruption or attempting to protect the status quo in a changing environment. And, to complicate matters further, much of what happens around us is out of our control. However, the good news is that so much is also in our control. We have the power to build a great team, equip them with the right tools and prepare them to deal with an environment that is continuously changing.
Since the goal of most organizations is to grow, it comes as no surprise that operational challenges tend to increase dramatically as a business scales up. One of the biggest challenges for a growing tech company is that what “worked” yesterday barely works today and will likely fail tomorrow. Our systems and processes need to continually adapt to the reality of not only where we are currently, but where we’re going. This can include anything from adequate office space to hiring people with the skills required to meet anticipated business demands to planning for strategic shifts in your industry.
How to adapt: This is an area where it’s usually smart to hire people with a proven track-record in fast-paced, high-growth environments. While some of your early team members may be able to adapt to these new growth challenges continually, it’s usually best to complement them with others who have “been there, done that.” You don’t have to hire fortune tellers, but it’s wise to prioritize real-world problem-solving experience for those leaders who are managing any portion of business operations. Volvo recently transformed its hiring practices to help accelerate its business — an excellent example of recognizing that having the right people is ultimately your most significant business asset.
In business and life, most of us find that we are better together than we are on our own. In the initial stages of a company’s development, the leadership team is usually very tight-knit. As things expand, the sprawl of teams across geographies and time zones tends to separate business functions in a way that can make the leadership team feel disconnected from one another, and from teams within their group. While the temptation at this stage is to get into “silos,” this is when the leadership team should be most visible to each other and, importantly, to the rest of the company. Even simple hallway conversations can go a long way toward making sure employees feel they are connected with the whole business. Jack Welch, the famed former GE CEO, has spoken about ensuring there is trust and open communication with employees, and it’s been my experience that this is incredibly critical during periods of intense growth and change.
How to adapt: In today’s world of technology, it’s tempting to allow things to become more impersonal as we scale. However, there is no substitute for direct human interaction. Depending on the business cycle, weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings among the leadership team are paramount to ensuring each group is clear on overall priorities and issues. The second piece to this is making sure the leadership team is visible and available to the entire company. Whether this takes the form of an all-hands meeting on a quarterly basis or video communications in conjunction with town hall gatherings, keeping a connection between the leaders and the people on the front lines is critical. Employees need to know what is going on in the company to adequately support its leaders and execute on company goals, while leaders need to know the day-to-day challenges their colleagues are facing. Transparency feeds trust, which then allows people to feel that they’re doing meaningful work and contributing to the whole.
Culture is the big target that is often hit hardest when businesses are moving at the “speed of change.” Losing the culture rarely occurs due to intentional action, but far more often from neglect and distraction. The cultural moorings of a company can begin to erode as leaders and people in the trenches are focused on “important” things. It is critical to anchor culture throughout whatever change your business is facing. If company culture fails, you will look up from your desk one day and see that your most loyal employees may no longer be motivated or may have even left the company. We don’t need to look further than Uber to see this. We’ve all watched this company with incredible momentum solving a genuine problem also face a public crisis squarely focused on a crumbling culture. In contrast, we’ve seen companies like Southwest Airlines and Proctor and Gamble withstand economic downturns or other challenges and emerge even stronger.
How to adapt: While the leadership team is always responsible for championing culture, in times of change and crisis, this responsibility rises to a critical level. What’s proven true over and over is that inaccessible leadership lowers morale. Those all-hands meetings I mentioned earlier can be a great tool in retaining and boosting company morale when things are changing rapidly. Encouraging leaders to host team lunches and open forums, encouraging teams and employees to take a break when they need it and rewarding people for a job well done are ways to make sure culture keeps up in the race to business success.
As a startup that’s become a global, public company in about a decade, SailPoint has faced an abundance of change over our history. We have come to an understanding that change is a “when, not if” situation businesses face almost constantly. As tech leaders, we must both champion change and serve as guides through it, because change is foundational to innovation, growth and opportunity. By focusing on what we as leaders can do to help our teams prepare for and adapt to change, we often find a new and greater level of success waiting for us on the “other side.”
This article was previously published on Forbes.com.