Ten tips on how to lead in a disruptive environment

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By Shemin Nurmohamed, vice president of document messaging technologies (DMT), Europe, Pitney Bowes

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I know not to take it personally when my children laugh at photos of technologies that were cutting-edge when I started my career and imagine I’m from the Jurassic Age.  From typewriters and word processors, to PDAs and brick-like cellphones, gadgets that were ground-breaking and innovative at the time have long become obsolete. As consumers, it’s not particularly hard to keep up with the pace of change. Upgrading your smartphone or switching to a MacBook Air is straightforward. But what if you’re a business, with hundreds – even thousands – of employees, a reliable product portfolio and an audience of loyal customers who think of you as they do their favourite pair of cashmere socks – they like you just the way you are?

Staying ahead of change, remaining loyal to your customers and employees and futureproofing your business during times of digital disruption are serious and conflicting challenges facing today’s organisations. When it comes to embracing digital disruption, it’s a case of ‘do or die’, as so many companies have unwittingly discovered.  Some of the stalwarts of commerce have gently faded into insignificance or dramatically self-combusted. Amstrad, Commodore, Kodak, Borders, Woolworth’s, MySpace, Blockbuster Video, AOL and Lucent: all enjoyed their time in the sun and, in their day, were thriving, dynamic businesses with what they felt was a firm grasp on what their customers wanted. But they didn’t account for the explosive impact of digital disruption, and the transformative effect this would have on their customers’ behaviours and preferences.

For the leaders of these businesses, the fallout left by digital disruption was insurmountable. Some didn’t understand its impact; some dragged their heels when it came to implementing change; and some were too wrapped up in legacy culture and strategy, too far along traditional journeys to change tack successfully. Leading a business during digital disruption, navigating the organisation through change requires determinism, a confidence in your own beliefs and a strong and sustainable vision.

During times of disruption, strong leaders are critical in driving a business to successful outcomes. These leaders themselves often need to make significant changes to their own management styles, to adapt to working practices in a digital era, sharing and accepting change. They must inspire and motivate to get the best from their teams, to deliver growth and drive revenue.  I’d like to share with you my ten key practices for successful leadership during turbulent times:

  1. Remove barriers to change

Legacy culture and legacy thinking restrain businesses. Not so long ago, whenever I joined new organisations or teams and questioned processes, someone would reply “But we’ve always done it that way”. I’m pleased to say I haven’t heard that for years, but it’s a culture that exists in businesses across the world, in large and lumbering organisations slow to react. Creating a culture of innovation which thrives on change isn’t going to happen overnight but takes time. It will succeed only if leaders are committed to its success and demonstrate this commitment at every opportunity.

  1. Trust your teams

The evolution of digital business practices has enabled a truly mobile workforce, unhindered by location, but it has disrupted what has been widely considered as the corporate modus-operandi for decades. Agile working can motivate and engage teams, drive loyalty and improve productivity as well as attract talent, but leaders must trust their teams and shift from the ‘being present in the office’ mindset to embrace a more fluid way of working.

  1. Be responsive and adaptable

High-performance, high-growth businesses which embrace disruption position themselves so they can quickly take advantage of swaying consumer sentiment and moving market conditions. This isn’t easy: many organisations have infrastructure which simply isn’t conducive to swift change. Teams heading in one direction don’t appreciate being told to stop and head immediately in a different direction. Your organisation and its leadership must learn to be responsive, empowering teams to make decisions quickly, and providing them with the technologies and processes to do so.

  1. Be courageous

We used to talk about working within ‘challenger companies’. Now we refer more to ‘the disruptors’. Disrupting the disruptors is one way to futureproof your business and drive growth. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, offered his design for an Apple personal computer to his previous employer no less than five times. Each time, he was turned down. Today’s leadership requires risk-taking, idea-generation and creativity.

  1. Don’t dwell on your mistakes

HP co-founder Bill Hewlett, after turning down Steve Wozniak’s design as I mentioned above, reportedly said, “You win some, you lose some.” Strong leaders steering businesses through digital disruption must make decisions. They won’t always be the right ones – but you won’t know that until afterwards. Remember Virgin Cola? Launched in 1984, the drink achieved at best a 0.5% market share. Accepting defeat, owner Richard Branson said, “I’ll never again make the mistake of thinking that all large, dominant companies are sleepy!” Branson’s Virgin Vie cosmetics and Virgin Megastores followed suit, but their lack of success hasn’t deterred from Branson’s powerful brand, nor from his popularity and success as a leader.

  1. Surround yourself by people who disagree with you

In board rooms across the world, you’ll still find leaders surrounded by ‘yes’ men and women. But what value are they adding? How are you learning from them? How can your business embrace digital disruption if none of your team will upset the proverbial apple cart? Celebrate diversity, differences of opinion, alternative views and fresh ideas, and the resulting democratic outcomes will drive engagement, revitalise your business and empower teams.

  1. Turnaround the sceptics

In the past, some of my most sceptical employees have become my strongest advocates. It’s taken time and energy to turn them around, but I’ve done this by being on ‘TAP’: Transparent, Available and Present. Transparent in keeping them informed of the path of disruption, and aware of obstacles; available in terms of an open door policy and a readiness to listen; and present in terms of focusing all my energy in that particular moment – not tapping away on my cellphone during a meeting, or multi-tasking during a conference call.

  1. Remove ambiguity

Digital disruption opens up a diversity of pathways, channels and choices. Creating, defining and delivering a clear strategic vision is key to its success: clarity is everything. But maintaining focus is hard when there are so many possible outcomes. Strategy and culture must work together. Teams look to leaders to be definitive; to demonstrate a clarity in direction and execution; and to remove ambiguity during uncertain times. Consulting and communicating with teams will help them during a transition.

  1. Take time to understand and reward behaviours

Businesses in the late 20th century were often structured in ways similar to military dictatorships, with unquestionable authority. This type of leadership doesn’t fit with today’s digital democratic business, although I’ve no doubt there are leaders still out there with this leadership style. To me, today’s leadership is about coaching, educating, inspiring and motivating. Leaders must understand, recognise and reward individuals within their teams, and offer vision, direction and stability, whenever possible.

  1. Stay focused on the customer

Digital disruption presents organisations with opportunities to develop a 360 degree view of the customer: businesses now differentiate themselves on the customer experience. We all have companies we prefer to shop with, for example, because we prefer the experience: maybe the website is intuitive and easy-to-navigate, or we like the layout and style of the physical store and find it a smoother shopping experience. Digital enables experiential not just transactional relationships.  In these times of digital disruption, there will be new learnings, mistakes, stress and turbulence for you and your teams. Staying focused on your vision to deliver a better customer experience will keep you on track.

With digital disruption ever-present in today’s commercial environment, three leadership values remain constant: kindness, humility and respect. These must be the building blocks on which all good leaders base their leadership.