Old dogs can learn new tunes if they want to

by Keith Coats
In times of change, leaders who are prepared to learn will succeed, while those who consider themselves to be learned will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

We live and lead in a sea of constant change. Anyone who needs to be convinced of this reality is most likely just visiting from another planet. However, it is one thing to acknowledge the constant change that surrounds us and quite another to be able to unlearn, relearn and learn in this tumultuous sea of change. According to Alvin Toffler in Future Shock, “the illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

In my experience many leaders are not coping well with the need to change. In fact several are swallowing unhealthy amounts of water as they struggle to stay afloat in the turbulent swells that surround them. After all, attempting to swim in such conditions is certainly not for the faint-hearted or those in need of water-wings!

However, here are four reminders – or perhaps lighthouses that serve to warn of peril - to leaders everywhere when it comes to leading in today’s world.

Be prepared to change

Savvy leaders realise that in such times even old dogs have to change. Learning involves the willingness to review, adapt or totally overhaul our paradigms or the way in which we see and interpret the world. Change at this level is never easy and few leaders are prepared to play in this space. Savvy leaders develop the capacity to avoid the trap of old thinking and behaviour when encountering new realities.

The most common reason given not to change is a personal or organisational track record of success. After all, why change what has or is working, the reasoning goes. It is a compelling type of logic and one which makes it difficult for most leaders to entertain the notion that their past success may just turn out to be their biggest obstacle to future success. Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, has stated that IBM was, “so successful for so long that we could never see another point of view. And when the market shifted, we almost went out of business,” (HBR OnPoint 2005). The trick is for leaders to lead change when business is good. That is counter-intuitive but it is essential in a context where the price to being reactive rather than pro-active is high.

Understand the why driving the change

In other words, pay attention to the underlying reasons driving the change. Understanding the major societal change drivers that underpin the broad-based changes being experienced is one way leaders can better anticipate how to be pro-active rather than snared in a reactionary trap. Savvy leaders look for and pay attention to patterns rather than making ad hoc assumptions based on what is occurring at the surface.

There are three predominant change drivers that savvy leaders always keep on their radar. Firstly, there are the changes that result from technological innovations. Technology drives change and there are examples of entire industries that have been radically impacted to the point of extinction by technological changes. Miss these and you may just not have a business to lead. The challenge for many older leaders, who are not techno-literate, is how to anticipate, understand and contextualise the technology that will impact their specific business and industry. Protecting the ‘old order’ and ignoring the shifts taking place is as naïve as Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” declaration having met with one Adolf Hitler in 1939.

The second change driver is that of institutional and demographic change. You can't understand the future without paying attention to demographics. The composition of a society - whether its citizens are old or young, prosperous or declining, rural or urban - shapes every aspect of civic life, from politics, economics and culture to the kinds of products, services and businesses that are likely to succeed or fail. Leaders, as a rule, frequently miss the boat on demographics and how it informs their own organisations, customers, and constituencies. And it's not hard to see why: most executives aren't trained to make sense of demographic forecasts (there are no courses on demographics at Harvard Business School or Wharton, for example), and the field itself does little to raise its own profile. It has been said that demographers frequently come across like accountants – but without all that sex appeal.

The third change driver is the shift in values from generation to generation. Generational theory offers leaders great insight into leading the new generation and a common mistake made by business leaders is to assume that others see the world the way they do. In the emerging Connection Economy, when it comes to creating competitive advantage and winning the war for talent - product, service and price are all outweighed by the quality of relationship.

Don't wait for a crisis before initiating change

All too often, personal and organisational change is driven by crisis. IBM only undertook deep organisational change when faced with the threat of extinction during the 1990s. Certainly the threat of extinction is a good enough reason to change, but it is not the best time to change. In times of crisis, resources are stretched, nerves frayed, defences are up and perspective is hard to come by.

Furthermore, any change achieved in crisis has to be carefully built on if the initial transformation achieved is to take root and the crisis not merely repeated further down the road. All too often early change initiatives and wins are celebrated prematurely, usually with fatal consequences. Change has many faces and phases and the subtle and not so subtle aspects of change require a willingness on the part of leadership to recognise what they can and can’t do in the changing nuances of the change process.

Don't fear deep change and involve others in the change process

Savvy leaders understand that change is forever part of their leadership terrain. They understand that it is something that starts with them if it is to include others and of course they understand that change is tough.

Keith Coats is Director of Storytelling at TomorrowToday.biz (www.tomorrowtoday.biz).

Useful resources:
HR Future
HR Future is South Africa's only independent, most forward thinking human resource magazine with the richest content wealth of HR related issues on the continent of Africa to help executives recruit, manage, train, reward and retain the best talent.
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