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Leading a Culture of Innovation as a Growth CMO

Survival of the Most Adaptable: Becoming a Change-ready Culture

November 08, 2014


From Spencer Stuart, written by:
Frank Birkel, Claudia Lacy Kelly and Greg Welch

Excerpts from the attached “Survival of the Most Adaptable”

Although each company’s culture is unique, we have found that leaders of companies that have demonstrated an affinity for adapting tend to share certain characteristics:
• ability to recognize the opportunity in a challenge;
• a focus on the right priorities;
• commitment to clear, candid communication;
• accountability; and
• promotion of creativity and entrepreneurship.

Seeing what others can’t
Rather than reacting to external pressure, companies that are most successful are driven internally to get ahead of a change before it happens.

Keeping an eye on the prize
Leaders who are able to identify and zero in on strategic goals and guiding principles are often well-poised to promote change, ensuring the organization will not get sidetracked by an unexpected event or evolving market conditions.

Understanding what does not need to or should not change can be equally as important as acknowledging areas for improvement when creating a successful and adaptable culture.

Are you really ready for change? Leaders of companies at a crossroads often say they need a “change agent,” someone who will radically alter the organization’s course for the better. However, when actually presented with a change agent, many will opt for the tried-and-true choice, not the revolutionary.  Before pursuing an executive to spearhead a change, the first step an organization’s leaders should take is to determine if the organization truly is ready for change. Here are a few questions leaders can ask themselves before embarking on large-scale change efforts:

  • What is the level of our organizational readiness?
  • Do we have the capabilities to change?
  • Are we doing the right thing?
  • Are we making this change in order to follow the competition or are we acting as industry innovators?
  • Does this leader have a track record of saying “no”? Saying “yes” is easy.

Conversation, not commands
Although vital to any company culture, businesses that are adaptable typically excel at communication. It’s nearly impossible to adapt to change if there is not universal understanding about what that change is and what the organization is going to do about it.

A change-ready culture is flexible, but not without structure. Adaptability will only benefit organizations in the short term unless it’s combined with accountability. Organizations that are most successful at evolving treat change as a starting point, followed by the establishment and ongoing measurement of clear objectives. As the drivers of change, company leadership (and their change management skills) should be evaluated thoroughly. For instance,

  • What does the P&L show in the quarters following the change implementation?
  • Do surveys about employee satisfaction reflect greater happiness with the culture?

Creativity and entrepreneurship
Encouraging creativity and personal ownership among all levels of employees advances the goals of the entire organization.

An ongoing pursuit
In the past, companies could follow the same strategy for 30 years. Those days are gone. The pace of change has accelerated — the market once sparked companies to change approximately every seven years, but now that time has been cut in half, or even less in some industries. A major lesson from those who have created a change-ready culture is that there is no end point. One change may be addressed, but others are always emerging. Great cultures do not stay great on their own. They must be maintained through the consistent efforts of the whole organization and its leadership. Even the best companies can become extinct if their cultures are not nurtured.

Leading a change-ready culture
Here are some best practices shared by architects of adaptable cultures:

  • Find a guru. Identify one or more mentors who have been entrenched in the organization and understand the culture. These inside advisers can help newcomers shorten their learning curve and avoid the missteps that come from trying to exact change with too little information.
  • Form an alliance. Align with colleagues to build trust while also obtaining important insights into the internal dynamics and perceptions that may hinder progress. Leaders who partner with senior functional executives, including the top human resources executive, and other key business leaders are in a better position to secure the acceptance and support needed to execute changes.
  • Avoid a common catch-22 of leadership. If a leader acts too quickly, he or she is perceived as not listening, but if he or she responds too slowly, the leader can be deemed indecisive. Strike the delicate balance between the two extremes to earn the trust of the organization.
  • Win early. Accomplishments at the beginning of a transition, such as a successful holiday retail campaign under new leadership or improved savings from the introduction of a cutting-edge technology, can demonstrate the value of change and set the stage for future adjustments.
  • Encourage diversity of thought. Promote collaboration among a variety of parties. Cross-pollinate teams across functions (e.g., finance and marketing) and backgrounds, such as pairing younger staff with more senior executives so as not to miss out on the full range of perspectives.
  • Steer clear of the wrong people. Having the wrong people in key positions poses a great risk. Change cannot happen when leaders do not possess the skills necessary to adapt. Assess and replace habitual resisters with more open-minded individuals.
  • Generate buzz. Get the organization excited about change. Target orchestrated a talk show-style Q&A session with Jones when he first joined the company and shared the video with his team as a unique way to introduce himself and set a tone of openness. Developed with a colleague in a previous role, he also sent a memo outlining his five working principles in inspiring language made all the more striking because it sounds more like a mantra than a typical business communiqué: “Listen, provoke, love, simplify and believe.”

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