Whilst being interviewed I was asked what traits make a good leader. It reminded of an exercise I do on the Mercenary to Missionary Leadership retreats.
Scientific philosopher, Thomas Khune, stated that ‘advancement is not evolutionary, but rather a series of violent revolutions and in such revolutions one conceptual worldview is replaced by another’. Khune called these revolutions in worldviews ‘Paradigm Shifts’
As I was explaining the universal life cycle to a client yesterday, the pandemic was a useful example of the latest paradigm shift. Every decade or so, we experience upheavals because shifts happen. As much as we’d like the world to be certain, it seems that the second law of thermodynamics regarding entropy of systems always comes to pass.
A shift is when the world as we understand it suddenly stops working and we go into some sort of emergency event. Examples of shifts I’ve experienced are 9/11, the Great Recession and now we’ve got Covid-19 and the fall-out from that in terms of second and third order effects are yet to be fully realised.
Right now, the pandemic has disrupted our lives and business behaviours but it is also an opportunity to create new beginnings. Winners of the present paradigm however, are not very good at accepting reality and adapting, especially when it comes to giving up power, status and wealth. So, it is vital that whilst the incumbents are wrestling to maintain the status-quo, that we get busy challenging, connecting dots and creating a brave new world.
There are three responses:
- You can create some new ‘things’ to do.
- You can stop doing some things.
- You can recover and adapt whatever you were doing before.
However, in the recover and adapt stage, one has first to recognise and understand why something collapsed in the first place. Then work out what you need to do to make that ‘thing’ more resilient, valuable and sustainable.
Whilst we might not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it will be necessary to adapt otherwise you head into the realm of ‘lessons are repeated until they’re learnt’.
When that happens, the weak point will become more difficult to recover in the future. Moreover; lessons are repeated more often and cost more resources often leading to a slow death. How long organisations bounce up and down from collapse to recovery and back again, depends really on how much money they have to waste.
A better response if you don’t feel adaption is going to be beneficial is to indulge in some creative destruction, get rid of the old and create something new.
When I ask business owners the above question, they’ll often ask me what I mean. So I qualify the question with another one. I ask them:
“Could you go on holiday for four weeks, have no contact with your team whilst you’re away and know that the organisation can still thrive?”
Mostly the answer is a resounding “NO!” READ More
“The biggest paradigm shifts happening right now are ironically the increasing awareness of the existence of paradigms…”
In his Book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’, Thomas Kuhn wrote that advancement was not evolutionary but rather a “series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions” when “one conceptual worldview is replaced by another”.
These ‘paradigm shifts’- a term Kuhn created – are best thought of as a transformation driven by agents of change. Examples of change agents through history include the invention of mechanical automation, electrical technology and more recently the digital revolution. The next paradigm shift, known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will probably be the advance of ‘Smart’ technology which will unleash the potential of communities.
Paradigms themselves are useful as filters for problem solving and decision making within a particular system. They represent the existing worldview. But as Kuhn observed, clinging to the wrong paradigm means you can miss the blindingly obvious. Read More:
This weekend I and other members of the Special Air Service (SAS) association met up for lunch to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Special Air Service. The room was packed full of camaraderie and fellowship. A surviving member of the wartime SAS in attendance, received a standing ovation. Read More:
On November 15th David Stirling, creator of the Special Air Service, would have been 100 years old and next year is the 75th anniversary of the SAS. The ‘Regiment’ as it is known colloquially by its members, was created to counter the threat of Hitler’s aggression in Africa. It was made up of small, highly trained and motivated teams whose strategy was to operate behind enemy lines with the aim of creating havoc, fear and destruction, then slipping away undetected.
I took some time reflecting on what lessons I had learnt, applied and transferred into my life and work as a result of my time being a member of this illustrious ‘Regiment’.
Create the culture and they will follow: The SAS selection process is a highly demanding affair which challenges candidates physically, mentally and emotionally. During part of my selection I was picked to swim across a river first. It was 5 am in the morning in mid-winter. The water was frozen at the edges and we were to swim across with just shorts on. Nobody was sure whether it was even possible to navigate across the frozen, murky looking river. The Directing Staff (DS) thought it better to send one man and if he made it across alive – they’re allowed to lose a few people occasionally – then they would send the rest of the candidates.
Not wanting to appear timid, I ran toward the ice, eventually collapsing into the blackness below. The coldness stunned my body into a state of shock. I had to fight my way across the ice and sucking mud below, eventually reaching mid-stream where the water flowed more freely. One of the DS asked me how the water was. Trying to look casual I went into a back stroke and attempted to say; “the water’s fine”. I then realised that I hadn’t managed to take a breath yet so all that escaped from my lips was a hoarse whisper. The DS team laughed and sent the rest in.
What makes people volunteer for something like this after all, the SAS don’t need to hire recruitment consultants?
Answer: The culture.
Every organisation has its own unique culture; defined as the set of deeply embedded, self-reinforcing behaviours, beliefs, and mind-set that determine ‘the way we do things around here.’ Talented people like to challenge themselves and are drawn by the ‘Elite Magnetism’. They want to be part of a team engaged in meaningful work. Even to the point of endangering their lives – one guy did actually die on the river crossing.
Culture is often seen as a fluffy, soft component in business. Its powerful benefits are sometimes lost on ineffective leaders. It is however; one of the most important drivers of long term, sustainable success. As Tom Peters famously said:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
It’s not that strategy isn’t important, it is. But a strategy will only succeed if the organisation’s culture can support it.
By the way, we brought the dead guy back to life again. You never leave one of your own behind.
A leader needs courage when leading ACE teams & individuals: A leader might believe that with an elite squad of ACE members he can achieve a lot. But it takes a lot of courage to lead a team like this.
Firstly: ACE means:
Autonomous: the team and its members can act independently which gives it the ability to handle VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) more effectively. An agile business team can react with more clarity and deal with clients more effectively in the moment as they are the eyes and ears on the ground.
Creative: ACE team members are experienced and confident about solving their own problems so they’re creative by nature. Nothing drives creativity and flow states than the act of being creative.
Empowered: Having all this agility and creativity is only an advantage if the individuals can act on their own volition. They are empowered to make decisions which will influence future strategy and results.
A team of us were on an escape and evasion phase of a large multi-national exercise for ‘prone to capture’, Long Range Patrol troops. We were dropped off on a peninsula of land somewhere in the Far East. We were supposedly to move toward a line of hunter forces who were using dogs, infra-red cameras and all manner of trips and trap hazards.
The idea was that we would not actually be able to make it past the line of hunter forces and would spend 24 hours being interrogated. It was around midnight. We were hunkered down in a little hollow and could hear screams and shouts emanating from the hunter forces and captured soldiers. Trip flares interspersed the blackness. I was in charge of the patrol at this point. I was thinking about zigging whilst the rest zagged, in other words do the exact opposite of what the other teams were doing and what the hunter force were hoping for. Our plan; go to sleep.
We slept in the little hollow for a couple of hours and let the hunter force get tired of looking for us. As dawn approached, we made our move. We were so close we could hear the hunter force shouting and soldiers groaning from being in stress positions for hours. We moved off tactically… in the opposite direction.
After a couple of hours we came across a small boat in a cove. We commandeered the boat and keeping low, paddled out to sea and around the line of hunter forces. We made it past, rowed back into land, and hitched a ride with some locals into town. We always carried civilian clothes for such situations, so got changed and went for a few hours R&R. At one minute before the end of the exercise we rocked up in taxis with shopping bags and souvenirs. Around us were lines of dishevelled and thoroughly miserable looking soldiers from several nations. All were sat with hands on heads staring open-mouthed at us.
Our ‘boss’ waved us over and the officer in charge of the exercise asked him who we were. He explained. The officer went purple stifling an explosion of rage. In the heated discussion that followed, we overheard him accuse us of cheating, disobeying orders, missing the point of the exercise, practically everything under the Sun. Our ‘boss’ didn’t raise his voice once or miss a beat, he just explained that what we had done was exactly what we were trained to do and what was expected of us. It took courage to defend us as he did.
It takes a courageous leader to let go of control, to actually allow the team to make their own decisions and furthermore, defend the attacks that come from the status-quo. High performing individuals and teams, the mavericks of this world, are often attacked when they’re busy disrupting the world of comfort zones. But they’re the ones who make a difference.
Who dares wins… But not always!: The founder of the SAS, David Stirling, was convinced that small groups of soldiers involved in covert operations were more effective than whole platoons. He also realised he had a job to reach, let alone convince, the higher echelons of power of his ideas. Sporting crutches for a broken leg caused by an earlier parachuting accident, Stirling climbed a fence into the Middle East HQ compound. Being chased by guards, he eventually managed to come face-to-face with the Deputy Commander Middle East General Ritchie. Stirling did manage to convince Ritchie and after ‘relieving’ equipment from other units the SAS was formed.
Stirling’s entrepreneurial spirit worked for him in this situation but there are plenty of times when daring exploits have come to a sticky end. Timing and luck are as big a component of success as ideas and motivation. There were plenty of great soldiers on my selection who failed the course due to injury. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with them, they were just unlucky or they got caught in terrible weather conditions.
Every entrepreneurial adventure needs ample dollops of both courage and serendipity. By all means have a go but get to reality as quickly as possible. As TED speaker and founder of Idealab, a start–up incubator, points out, timing is the biggest predictor of business success.
Don’t take failure personally, just do it cheaply. You’re only a failure when the times you get knocked down overtakes the amount of times you get back up. The SAS motto: ‘Who dares Wins’ is true sometimes, but only if you dare to adapt and keep going in the face of defeat.
Chaos Theory Rules OK?: In the universal life cycle, shifts happen. One day everything seems to be going in your favour, the next minute the bottom drops out your business or the market. Actually, it doesn’t just happen it’s been building up, but not many people bother to take note when the signs appear or even look.
With success comes certain fears and delusions arise to support those fears. So for instance, when the banking crisis appeared on the horizon, people shifted into denial, in fact we’re still there now. But just saying that can make you really unpopular as the whistle-blowers found out as they were being sacked and smeared even though they were right.
The universe is run by chaos theory which is when:
the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
There are just too many variables to be in total control or be able to predict precisely what’s going to happen. An approximate summation of the present can be wildly wrong down the line. The SAS have often had a precise plan of attack which often turned to chaos as soon as they’ve landed on the ground.
That’s why you need to be able to handle VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Volatility, according to McKinsey’s Economic Snapshot for September 2015, is on the rise across the world and is cited more often than anything else as being a threat to businesses. Actually, when execs don’t think volatility is a threat, that’s when they’re buying into the delusion of certainty and when volatility is most likely to arise.
A patrol would always consider the variables that might introduce themselves, when planning missions. They always have an ‘Actions-On’ plan. They try to consider every eventuality and think what could go wrong. They then formulate a set of plans e.g. actions on being ambushed at X … ‘Shoot ‘n’ Scoot’ to RV Y.
Mostly not enough time is spent on the preparation phase in planning of what could go wrong so when it does happen, it hailed as a big shock, which wasn’t really a shock at all; it’s just Chaos doing its thing.
The SEAL of effective leadership: Leadership should be considered a verb not an entitlement. Leadership is vital in fire-fight, you want one person leading the way so that there is no confusion. But these are the signs of great leadership.
Shared: Anybody in a patrol could lead a mission dependent on experience and skills or it’s ‘just their turn’. When you’ve high performing team, everyone is treated as an adult. Rank or position was not that important, skills and experience counted for more. Many an officer had his ear chewed off for presenting a rubbish plan by somebody of lower rank. By sharing leadership duties, it also makes everybody more empathic, you’ve been on both sides of the coin so you tend to be more respectful which boosts overall morale and performance.
Engaging: A team would always be involved at the earliest opportunity as it gave them more time to come up with suggestions later when orders were being formulated. Any errors in communication were spotted because everybody’s involved from the start-up.
Advocacy: Everybody gets a say in what’s happening because collective intelligence is more effective than an individual. Once the orders are being given by the patrol leader, most people already know what’s coming and so it makes the orders easier to remember too.
Legitimate: A lot of wars shouldn’t have happened and a lot of needless suffering could have been eliminated if ‘so-called’ leaders stuck to being morally legitimate. There have been times when a patrol has been compromised by innocents and even though it’s put the patrol in danger, they’ve stuck to their own moral code. You know the risks involved with the work, but you also know how you will act because you’ve got to live with yourself afterwards. A companies values should be meaningful, not just a nice thing to stick on the walls. It’s what you stand for and gives everybody a code of conduct should the poo-poo hit the fan.
Values are important, Enron and now Volkswagen are learning about karma the hard way.
Hearts & minds lead the way: A really effective anti-terrorist operation occurred in the 1950’s. General Calvert of the SAS was asked to intervene in the Malayan Conflict. Normal military tactics hadn’t worked in the Jungle, so Calvert went out to win the hearts and minds of the local Aboriginals. Calvert’s men helped the locals with medical supplies and security.This meant the ‘enemy’ were left isolated and without assistance.
Of course warfare today is primarily dropping bombs on people and hope you get the odd target. Then we wonder why the locals don’t cooperate.
No matter what you’re doing, whatever business you think you’re in, you’re in the people business first. If you contribute to stakeholders happiness, well-being and personal development, then you’ll win their hearts and minds.
Win the hearts and minds of your potential clients and they’ll buy into you as opposed to just buying off you.
Communication is Key: Two SAS soldiers came across a village in the jungle that had been decimated during a typhoon. All communications were down and there was no way for the villagers to contact the outside world for help. The soldiers got out their radio and slung an antennae high into the trees. Using Morse code they sent a message back to their base in the UK who promptly sent word back to the relevant people in the disaster zone.
The SAS consider communication one of, if not the most important skill. It’s the same in business. Communication is essential and as the NLP presupposition goes,
‘the value of your communication is the response you get back’.
Clarity of Mission: When working with clients we’ll often go into their offices and interview team members. We’ll ask several questions around the subjects of purpose, mission and strategy. We’ve generally found, as Harvard Business Review did recently, that around 70% of employees are not aware of the strategy. We call it the mushroom mentality in the military.
“Kept in the dark and fed on ‘manure’”
In order for a team to reach its potential, they must have clarity on shared goals and purpose. With clarity comes a back-stop as a place of reference. Where individual members within a group can ask themselves “Is this action going to move the organisation closer to the target or further away?”
All systems have an optimum state: With Frederick Laloux’s book, ‘Reinventing Organisations’ hailing self-managing teams as the next big thing and Tony Hsieh from Zappos lauding ‘Holocracy’s’ benefits as a new system of management. It might come as a bit of a surprise to them that the SAS has always operated along similar lines.
Natural systems usually have an optimum size. I noticed when standing on the skids of helicopters skimming the top of the jungle canopy that trees never grow past a certain point. People can operate at the upper end of their performance in a particular size of group. Experience will show you the optimum size of group you should work with.
Hierarchy has a habit of being shunned in Special Forces and for good reason, ego gets involved. Working in small four or five member, self-managing teams has usually worked best. They may bring a group of teams together on a larger project, but post the mission, they break up back into their original smaller units once again.
Familiarity counts: Deep understanding comes from being close and supportive to other team members. This leads to higher performance. Strong relationships form in the Special Forces and it’s a bond that will often last a lifetime. All human systems go through a process of being co-dependent, counter-dependent and then inter-dependent. At that inter-dependent level is where the peak performance is. Having close friends at work according to Gallup adds to life satisfaction to the point that it’s like having a $100,000 raise. Losing a friend at work feels like experiencing a $90k cut in salary. Having close friends at work matters on several levels. It’s not just a support network, it also a trigger of flow states.
Sticky and continuous learning: I was learning long range patrolling skills in the jungles and our instructor was a very seasoned SAS soldier. As the course went on, I soon realised that his considerable reputation was justified. What he didn’t know about fighting covertly in the jungle really didn’t matter. This guy was a ‘Jedi’.
The course culminated with us all going on a long range patrol of several days. Being tactical in the jungle means moving slowly and making sure you didn’t leave any ‘sign’ for a potential enemy to track you with. We’d been out for several days and we’d thrown in occasional snap ambushes to try to catch out anybody attempting to follow us. We didn’t see anybody and so were sure nobody could have followed us. As we finished the seventh day of the patrol, we came upon a place we felt we could lay-up. We proceeded to recce the area. I was lead scout and was slowly circling around the potential encampment. I came upon the Instructor when I was around six feet away from him. He was stood still resting his hand on his walking stick smiling. This ghost had somehow managed to track us, pass around us without us detecting him, then wait in ambush for us.
Whist we were having a beer after the course, I plugged the instructor for as much information and knowledge as I could. He was leaving the jungles shortly as his time had come to an end on that particular posting. I asked him what he was off to do next. His answer? “More training” He explained that you should never become complacent as life is ever evolving. If change is the only constant, then continual training that’s reinforced, that sticks, should be too.
All Players must have ‘skin in the game’: Steven Kotler, Co-Founder of the Flow Genome Project, concludes that risk:
“…causes the mind to stretch its muscles. It creates mandatory conditions for innovation. It trains the brain to think in unusual ways. It trains the brain to be more creative.”
If you want to tap into the collective intelligence and creativity of your team, they must have a sense of ownership. They must realise that they will also feel the pain of defeat as well as the pleasure of success. Perhaps the banking crisis wouldn’t have occurred if risk was greater for the players involved.
There is something about facing 24 hours of interrogation that just seems to make the mind work in a different, more effective way. I had one client who would regularly introduce a disaster into the mix, such as a looming bankruptcy, just to get the team to ‘up’ their game. It worked until they realised what he was doing.
There is a lot to be learnt from the Special Forces mentality and modus operandi. Creating a culture which attracts the top talent, training teams to be self-managing and innovative, treating people as adults, it all takes a shift in attitude and perspective. It’s worth doing though because it unleashes the passion and potential of your team, which will make your company more valuable and sustainable.
Martin Murphy aka The Performance Consultant
Organisations are being born, growing, consolidating, sometimes evolving, sometimes collapsing and then recovering. Or they can die with the components being assimilated into other things. There are infinite possibilities but all are following a similar pattern, the universal life cycle.
It’s been said that an organisation’s greatest asset is its people. This may be true, but it takes an enlightened leader to guide those people. A leader needs to be able to recognise what reality is occurring in the moment and where the team are heading. Along the way there will be paradigm shifts. When the behaviours that led to success up to a particular point, will not get the team to the next level. Knowing what these paradigm shifts look like, helps leaders generate the appropriate message to inspire new behaviours.
Metaphors, stories and analogies are powerful tools in a leader’s repertoire. A relevant story told by an inspirational leader can cause an immediate shift in perspective and direction. Research by McKinsey suggests that telling meaningful stories which include various themes leads to higher engagement. It makes sense when presenting the case for change, to attend to the various personalities of the audience.
Four points to consider when preparing for a paradigm shift:
Rewards and recognition: Explain how individuals will benefit from successfully completing the new mission; should they choose to accept it.
Creativity and connectivity: Note the opportunity for the team to bond together and tap into the collective intelligence of the group to provide innovative solutions to tackle the challenges ahead.
Support and familiarity: With the possible stormy weather ahead, encourage everybody to support each other as a family unit.
Quality and focus: Encourage a quest for excellence pointing to the team’s ability to design the best products and services, redefining the beliefs about what is possible.
To make the story inspirational leaders should also include how the work will contribute to the larger world, what Simon Sinek refers to as the big ‘Why’. Revealing to the team which paradigm they’re shifting too and why the change of course is necessary, will give clarity of direction.
Here are some universal paradigms to consider:
Setting sail on a new adventure
This is the entrepreneurial stage when a leader may have to galvanise a small team to overcome the trepidation of setting sail on a new adventure. It could be the start of a new business or project, but like any new idea, it takes a lot of energy to create something worthwhile. It demands extraordinary courage, determination and resilience. It is the beginning of a heroic journey of which the spoils will go to the brave. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.”
Growing from good to great
If the entrepreneur survives the first stage of business creation, confidence increases as the product or service attracts an increasing client base. From here, the group needs to become cohesive, focussing on higher standards of aligned performance so that they can achieve greater levels of success. The leader has to help the expanding team programme themselves for success. Systems and training should be introduced to strengthen the performance and culture. A story of going from good to great inspires greater levels of determination as well as boosting pride and esprit de corp. As Jim Collins espoused:
“… it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquillity that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution. Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered.”
Too much of a good thing
Of course as organisations grow, they can become too hierarchical and bureaucratic. Work can become frustrating for the team and leader. It’s usually as a result of thinking that because systems worked at first, adding more will help. The reality is that satisfying the system, not the purpose of the organisation, becomes the overall aim. Now is the time to relax the systems and introduce some autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit back into the company. A leader aware of the universal life cycle will know it’s time for change as the resistance in a formerly successful companies grows. Think about the decline and fall of the Rome Empire. As Marcus Cicero pronounced:
“The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.”
The butterfly effect
A strange thing happens when a caterpillar transforms. Cells within the caterpillar, known as imaginal cells, begin to resonate at a different frequency and act completely differently. Even though they are attacked by the immune system, the imaginal cells continue to proliferate. They then begin to cluster together into small friendly groups, sharing information. Eventually the clusters begin to join together inside what is now a chrysalis. It is believed that when the imaginal cells reach 10% of the whole, a tipping point occurs and the organism realises it is transforming. It gives birth to the Butterfly.
This analogy is a great one for leaders who want to guide an organisation to the next level of success. This is not a quick fix and relies on lots of little changes of beliefs and behaviours which build up over time. It is a time for deeper connection with customers to understand what they really want. Helping people collaborate and contribute more of themselves to the whole to enable something completely new to evolve. This paradigm shift occurs after the present business has reached a threshold point of growth and has to look for new ways to pivot the business. People may not realise the best is yet to come but as Buckminster Fuller wrote:
“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
Leaning into the slope
Invariably shifts happen. System thresholds are reached, disruptive innovations appear on the horizon and increased competition arises. If an organisation is unprepared and the leader is unable to accept reality, the first line of defence is usually denial. The financial crisis was just such a story in the beginning.
At this point an enlightened leader knows that now is not the time to be shrinking back into a comfort zone. It’s time to face reality and rise up to the challenge. Those that did at the beginning of the latest recession, we’re more likely to weather the storm.
When a skier navigates down a tricky mountain pass, they realise that they must lean down the slope otherwise their skies will slide from beneath them. So too the fell runner traversing the rocky scree slopes and the boxer who’s opponent is advancing. You can’t lean away if you want to stay on your feet, you must advance if you want to survive. As Seth Godin informs us:
“Discomfort means you’re doing something that others were unlikely to do, because they’re hiding out in the comfortable zone.”
Discovering diamonds in the dirt and gold in the grit.
When an organisation is heading toward a systemic challenge, mental flexibility from the leader is essential. When the doo-doo has hit the fan, problem solving leaders know they must attend to various aspects all at once. But an enlightened leader will also encourage some of the team to look for the opportunities. There is always balance in the universe. For the Chinese, crisis and opportunity are represented by the same symbol.
Some great companies were formed during economic recessions. If Kodak had ‘leaned into the slope’, they might have realised the potential of digital photography which one of their own people had discovered. Even in the worst of times and in the darkest of places, you can find hidden gems. Of course you’ll miss them if you don’t programme the mind to look. As John F Kennedy encouraged:
“In a crisis, be aware of the danger but recognise the opportunity”
Endings are the new beginnings
Some philosophers believe there is a whole other realm of potential from which we and everything that exists, all arise and return to. Endings are inevitable. Sometimes it is necessary for a leader to kill off a project, product, department, idea or even a business so that new ventures can grow. If Richard Branson hadn’t let his music business go, he probably wouldn’t have got the airline off the ground and with the later paradigm shifts in the music business, more than likely would have lost everything.
If a business closes, all the ideas, experiences and learning that was created, will move on to become part of something new elsewhere. Nothing in the universe is ever wasted. In the cycle of life, death plays an integral part. As Cheryl Strayed described:
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
The great turnaround
Once the reality of a collapse has been accepted by a leader it becomes time for the great turnaround talk. A time to galvanise everybody behind the recovery. It feels similar to the setting sail, entrepreneurial period. High risk inspires engagement, a clear vision and mission inspires boldness in the face of imminent disaster. There are many examples of businesses that have been able to claw their way back from the brink of death to become successful and profitable enterprises once again.
Apple, was at one stage on the brink of bankruptcy and borrowed funds from its nemesis Microsoft, to survive. It later became the most valuable company in the world. Fed-Ex’s boss Frederick Smith had to gamble his last $5000 in Las Vegas to pay off a fuel bill. Lots of companies go through desperate times and have had to take desperate measures to become great companies later on. Steve Maraboli explains that:
“Happiness is not the absence of problems it’s the ability to deal with them.”
Lessons are repeated until they’re learnt
It’s important for a leader to recognise what type of challenge they face and be able to design appropriate solutions. Of course in most instances, there is a temptation to plaster over the cracks. When a system has failed, patching up the system will still not allow you to overcome the systems previous limitations. Most people believe that humans are scared of change. That’s not quite correct, people make small adjustments continually so they can stay in the same place. But sometimes a fundamental transformation is required.
Of course a good way to recognise the lesson is for a leader to enquire if this type of thing has happened previously. Problems do and will return. Moreover; the same problems will become more frequent, will stay longer, be more painful and eventually lead to collapse. As Aldous Huxley wrote:
“That men do not learn from the lessons of history is the most important lesson of history”
Brave new world
As we’re on the Aldous Huxley theme, entering the brave new world is a necessary component of an evolving business. A lot of traditional businesses have had to evolve in order to survive the passage of time. Sometimes, one must experiment as if standing at the beginning of a corridor. So many doorways present themselves, but you have to step into the unknown to uncover the reality behind every door. That requires courage. All systems have an optimum state, they all reach a limit to growth and so bold leaders have to look for new ways of doing business and create new beginnings. As Peter Drucker realised:
“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision”
A lot of nature has a fractal element in its design. Fractals are patterns which contain within them self-similar patterns in varying degrees of time or size. If you think of a tree, you see the trunk and then at appropriate points you get a branch forming. Then another branch emerges which also looks like the branch it originated from. If you’ve ever stepped away from an oak tree, you might notice that the pattern of the whole tree resembles the pattern within each leaf.
We humans, being a part of the natural world, also tend towards pathways of behaviour which have self-similar patterns. Whilst working with clients and researching patterns of behaviour within business systems, a Universal Life Cycle (ULC) emerged. As I realised this I began to see the ULC in human relationships, careers in my coaching clients, the economy, and businesses. In fact I’m still looking for somewhere it doesn’t apply. The benefit for leaders and entrepreneurs in understanding the ULC pattern, is that they can predict what optimal behaviours are needed at each step of the life cycle to boost the performance of their business.
It’s said that when you’re about to climb a mountain, you can see the whole mountain in front of you. As you begin to climb the mountain, you lose some perspective. Even at the top of the mountain, you can’t really grasp the whole mountain as an observer.
Employing a guide who owns a map and a compass helps you maintain perspective enabling you to climb the mountain with more predictable success. So here are the directions to the top of the mountain of commercial success. Obviously every business is unique and their time lines differ, but they’ll all follow this general pattern.
In the initial stages a budding entrepreneur notices a challenge and designs a solution. Either a product or service which can help people feel better or which will remove a frustration for potential clients. This stage is very important because it’s easy to become overexcited about an idea and waste resources on the set-up without doing enough research. Everybody who attends the Dragon’s Den believes in their idea. But not many of the ideas are chosen on the show and even if they’re picked; a lot fail the due diligence process behind the scenes.
It’s useful to remember great ideas might not necessarily make great products to sell and conversely great products might not appear as good ideas in the beginning. The entrepreneur has got to assess if there is a strong need by enough people to part with their money in exchange for their product or service. If so what’s the best way to do that? Who is the target audience? Where are they? How do you get in front of them? How would you describe the niche? Time spent in preparation is time well spent although that might not be the entrepreneur’s strongest skill.
Once you’ve done the research you can then crystallise your ideas into a proposition. That is what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it and why you feel compelled to do this.
If you do this process early on, it gives you a lot more credibility when you talk to potential investors and clients. Remember the Socratic influencing pattern is made up of three components; ethos, logos and pathos. You’ve got to appear credible. You must present a reasonable case and arguably the most important part, you’ve got to appeal to people’s emotions. This is done by having an inspiring reason for doing what you’re doing. Focus on the value you will add to people’s lives and when you’re really clear about that, use it in your promotion later on.
Next you’ve got to package your product or service so that it is easy for people in your target audience to find and more importantly get their hands on it. Most people feel nervous up front mentioning costs, but if it is suitable you might want to be up front about the investment needed by your potential clients. By packaging some of your offerings clearly into several categories means you save time speaking to tyre kickers.
People suffer from an overwhelming amount of information and if you come across as clear and succinct, it feels like a welcome release from the hard work of researching for a suitable product. Packages are easier to not only remember but easier for people to pass onto their friends who might be in the market for your products and services.
Now we move into marketing. The usual path is to get business cards printed, design expensive brochures then possibly, moving into more creative ways such as video presentations. There is a continual evolution going on in marketing. If there is somebody out there selling the ‘how to’ of a particular system, it usually means that that system has been out for a while. Be innovative and come up with your own ideas because it will make you more noticeable. Think Richard Branson and his antics. Whatever you think of him nobody can deny he’s in the public eye a lot and he probably hasn’t got a business card.
Your aim in promoting should be to engage, entertain and educate. Entertaining clients makes you more memorable and educating them will make them also experience value by associating with you. You can also refer back to your proposition plan and use that in your marketing material and elevator pitch. Stick to the K.I.S.S. principle in elevator pitches. ‘Keep it sublimely simple’. There is nothing stupid about simplicity in a complex world. As Einstein proposed “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough”.
If a start-up has made it past the initial stages and is confidently attracting clients, then it’s one of the few businesses who do make it, meaning it’s a good idea. Now is the time to make it great. As the business grows the entrepreneur has to programme the business for success. This means making great service, delivery, communicating, promoting and everything else a habit.
It will mean that the business is transforming and when a business transforms from one level to the next, it will see a drop in performance temporarily. No business follows a straight line so nothing to worry about here. The entrepreneur now has to learn to lead and in doing so has to let go of some of the responsibilities of fire-fighting and routine operations.
Note that some of the original team might become disillusioned at this point and leave. From becoming a close knit group where the entrepreneur was sat next to them, members of the team are now not able to demand the leader’s attention as they once did. This can be a knock to their self-esteem which influences them to move on and is perfectly normal at this stage in the evolution of an organisation. This can be negated at the preparation phase if the entrepreneur understands the ULC and clearly communicates his vision of the future. Forewarned is forearmed.
Businesses usually employ systems at this point and introduce levels of hierarchies to manage the increasing workload. This has the effect of unlocking more potential, boosting profits and its happy days. It is a good time to think about selling the business because it will look like an attractive proposition on paper.
However; there are other effects of introducing complexity into the organisation. These features are often used to hold the team accountable and, as opposed to helping the team, they eventually begin to inhibit the team’s performance by introducing increasing levels of guilt and fear. The aim of the team morphs into satisfying the system and hierarchy as opposed to satisfying the clients. This takes some of the passion out of the work and as the team expands, the culture begins to become diluted.
Real time feedback is a feature of peak performance that helps people get into ‘the zone’. However feedback, delivered once a quarter is a bit pointless, especially if it’s negative. The systems should be designed to be helpful in the moment not as a tool for managers to beat people over the head with later. Helping team members to self-monitor their own performance leads to increased ownership and responsibility. It’s a subtle difference in the use of systems which makes a considerable improvement to the culture and business results.
Likewise, extra lines of management usually serve the same roles as parents, teachers and managers during the rise of industrialisation. It might come as a surprise that terms such as incentivising and depreciation originated from the slave trade. Keeping meticulous records of slave productivity were the forerunners of modern management techniques. So it’s no wonder that as the organisation becomes more complex with ever more levels of accountability people learn to distrust their intuition and dismiss their insights in favour of ticking a box or passing a performance review. This leads to disengagement. The manager’s response tends to be to implement more systems because it worked originally. Eventually systemising to stagnation, the business hits a wall especially if a new innovation or challenge raises its head.
Some investment is needed to help the team overcome the growing pains of the business. Think about how one would magnetize a piece of metal. One rubs a magnet along the piece of metal until all the molecules begin to point in the same direction. It’s the same with the team. Instead of following the path of systemising to stagnation, programme the team for success too. This means creating a clear vision and strategy that people can use to help them in their decision making. It means improving people’s self-awareness so that the culture shifts from egocentric to ecocentric. If this isn’t done then the entrepreneurial spirit will leave the organisation and that’s a problem for the next stage.
So the leader now has a great lifestyle business but it’s becoming a bit frustrating and possibly a bit boring too. Instead of sitting back to enjoy the fruits of his labour, the leader finds himself being drawn back into dealing with the administration and problem solving. Things that they dislike and shouldn’t be doing.
This frustration is because all systems have an optimum state. After a period of fast growth the business will hit a ceiling of performance. More systems will not help, what’s needed is for the organisation to transform from being great to exceptional.
The main challenge at this stage is fear. The ego is only scared of two things, not getting what it wants. When it has what it wants, it then becomes afraid it will lose the ‘it’ that has been acquired. An exceptional business will overcome the fear of being entrepreneurial again and look to platform itself. It will look for new markets, new products, new partnerships, new channels and generally experiment with innovative ideas and productise emergent assets that can create more wealth.
Here the entrepreneurial leader has to have a great team in place so that the leader can go back to being able to see the whole mountain and know what needs to happen at each place of the lifecycle within the various new departments, products and businesses. Exceptional companies are aren’t afraid to share the glory and rewards by developing the entrepreneurial spirit within their own organisation. Creating a platform for success and sharing resources within the group means that great innovations will not walk out the door.
Archimedes said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This should be the role of the inspirational leader of an exceptional organisation. With a light touch he should be able to inspire great things to happen.