5 Things Disruptive Leaders Must Learn as They Scale
Being a disruptive leader takes vision, communication and balance. Here are five things I've learned as I've disrupted my industry.
I am naturally a disruptive leader — someone who not only embraces change but thrives in it, driving innovation and transformation. I love pushing boundaries and surprising people with bold decisions that change our company and industry. Seeing your strategic vision and hard work pay off as your company pivots and the industry follows feels exhilarating. But it can also be exhausting and even damaging if you don't understand your decisions' true impact.
Growing StoneAge from a small traditional manufacturing company that sells high-pressure waterblasting tools to an industry-leading automation and robotics firm, I've made good and bad decisions as we've disrupted ourselves and the markets we serve. Changing how people think and work is difficult, and it always takes longer than one thinks. I've pushed too hard, made decisions too quickly and intimidated people with our hard-charging approach during my mission to change our company, industry and the world.
As we embark on our next phase of disruption, I'm taking what I've learned over the last decade and applying the lessons to our approach — and below, I'll share those lessons with you:
1. Disruption requires planning and careful decision-making
I tend to underestimate the effort and planning required to make a disruptive change. When we decided to change our sales model from distribution to direct (which was highly disruptive to our niche industry), we began executing less than eight weeks from making the decision. While the industry was surprised, and it took them a while to respond, I didn't fully prepare my team for the effort either. Through brute force, we made it happen, but it was far more difficult and costly than it had to be. I learned that a clearly articulated vision and a well-executed plan are far less taxing to the organization. We now operate off of a 2030 Vision and a well-organized plan that keeps us on track while allowing us to be agile as we learn and grow.
2. Acknowledge uncertainty and risk
It can be challenging for leaders to say "I don't have all the answers," but the truth is, we don't. Disruptive leaders have a vision for what can be, but there is no way to guarantee outcomes. Rather than pretend that the road ahead will be smooth, admit to your team that there will be challenges, mistakes and maybe even turmoil as you travel towards disruption. Admit that the company may have to pivot as new challenges pop up (ahem, Covid), and share with them how the company will handle it by making good decisions, staying focused on problem-solving and being agile and curious.
3. Be transparent and honest
When we changed our business model from distribution to direct sales, we were moving fast, and we didn't want anyone in the industry to get wind of what we were doing. So, the executive management team holed up in a conference room dubbed "The War Room" and mapped out our game plan. We decided to lock the door at night so no one could come in and see our whiteboards filled with ideas and decisions. We told our employees that this was top secret, and we wouldn't be sharing the plan until we had it figured out.
The lack of transparency was a departure from how we usually do things. We are an open-book company and share our financials and strategy with everyone in the company. The lack of transparency scared people, and people felt left out and in the dark. In fact, on an employee survey a few months later, someone described feeling like a mushroom, left in the dark and fed poop. Don't let this happen. Be transparent and honest with your people. You are asking them to do hard things, because disruption isn't easy. Honor them by telling them the truth and trusting them to help you achieve your vision and plan.
4. It takes time for seeds to grow
It's challenging to be patient, and if you underestimate how long changing a company or industry takes, you might not let the seeds you planted grow. I made this mistake in the past, changing direction when I didn't see immediate results, and I had to slow down and backtrack to get the company on the right path again. Operating in line with our 2030 Vision, we now take a long-term view of progress and are more patient as we innovate. The results are remarkable; not only are we disrupting the industry, but we are also having a lot more fun while we do it. People are aligned and clear about our mission. They can see the results, making them feel part of something bigger than themselves. The seeds have sprouted and are developing buds, and we are nurturing the next growth phase.
5. Embrace the paradox of change
The Paradoxical Theory of Change states that the more you try to change by being something you are not, the more you stay right where you're. Organizations are the same. As you look to disrupt yourself, your company and your industry, don't forget who you are at your core. Stay true to your company values and your vision. Change happens when you build upon who you are as a company, not when you try to become an entirely different one. At my company, we use our 2030 Vision and what we call the "Recipe For Success," our core operating principles, to guide us as we assess new opportunities or consider new strategic initiatives while remaining true to who we are as a company. Doing so pays off; we can see where we want to go and feel confident to get there, because we know who we are.
What excites me most as I continue to mature as a disruptive leader is the balance I am finding between long-term planning and living in the moment. The thrill of making an impact can take over your life, but if you are only living in the future, it isn't easy to enjoy the present. The goal is to find the sweet spot of both being present and enjoying the moment while at the same time setting yourself and your company up for success in the future.
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