See change to manage Sea Change

By Vasudevan Easwaran

The author is Senior Leadership Coach and Behavioral facilitator, Wipro Ltd

We live in a world which is driven by commercial and technological disruptions. This fast-paced change that has dominated the current decade has led to an over-competitive business environment, which is far different from the stability of the past. With relentless change, leaders need to have the ability to look beyond the events of today and into the possibilities of tomorrow - those who can visualise new ideas about customers, products, services, strategies and business models. This article dives into what it takes for leaders to not only “See” change but also manage it when the scale brings about a “Sea” change.

Leaders who “See Change” look at things with a different perspective and question the norm. They constantly challenge status-quo by asking questions like:

  • What, if the most important resource your company is dependant upon, were no longer available? What if aviation fuel is no longer available for airline? What’s plan B?
  • What if your biggest strength were to become your biggest weakness? Remember Kodak’s film technology or Nokia’s Symbian operating system? Do you see a similar pattern?
  • What if you had to stop selling product/service that is most important for your company? Samsung Galaxy note 7, Segway with a price tag of $5000…etc. What Else?
  • Can you think of that one super idea that will revolutionise the world for your customers, therefore your company? Mass transportation on land at a speed of 760 miles per hour? Does it sound insane?

These ideas may sound farfetched or crazy for some. It's said that when you're one step ahead of the crowd you're a genius, but when you are two steps ahead, it makes you insane! Visualizing an unpopular or a bold stance might not be madness after all, as these leaders truly believe in possibilities of a different future. They practice certain behaviours that not only helps them “See change” but also manage the “Sea Change” that it brings along. Here a few characteristics of such leaders:

Crave to Change:

These leaders are not comfortable with status quo; they consistently “Crave” for change. Whether it is systemic, technological, conceptual or even ideological. They have a keen sense of observation and uncontainable curiosity. Curiosity coupled with craving to change, place these leaders in a high action zone where they use the fine art of balancing action with perfection.

Larry Page, cofounder of Google is a great example of a leader who was not comfortable with status quo. According to him, “The biggest competitor for Google is Google itself”. He truly believed in inventing and reinventing. Google today boasts of products like Chrome, Android, Play store, Maps, YouTube and more.

Positive about possibilities

When Reed Hoffman founded LinkedIn way back in 2002, market confidence was unfavourable due to the dotcom bust and the presence of other social networking sites like Facebook. Despite this, Hoffman saw possibilities; starting a business during an economic downturn, he said, is the “exact right time to do it because it gives you runway.”

Leaders like Reed understand that while change may bring with it some challenges and adversities, it also offers opportunities and possibilities. For them, it is not about a silver lining to the cloud, but about always seeing the big bright sunny day. Their positive energy is contagious and propels people around such leaders to surge forward during times of change.

Raring to risk it

Such leaders love to take risks experiment. They learn from their mistakes or setbacks and do not get into the blame game. They practice and imbibe a culture of “Fail fast-learn soon” which is essential to manage change. All of this requires the leaders to need to display radical candour and transparency, which they do effortlessly.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously called the e- commerce giant "the best place in the world to fail”. It has a list of close to 20 products that have either failed or have been stopped. He says: “What really matters is companies that don't continue to experiment, companies that don't embrace failure, they eventually get in a desperate position”. Bezos credits the success of his company to the risk-taking culture it is built upon.

Tenacious with teams

David Kelly CEO of IDEO a global award-winning design firm believes that teamwork improves innovation and creativity. At IDEO there is a visible lack of title or status for group members, team leaders are selected not because they are superior, but because they are good with groups. They love diversity of thoughts in their teams. In the words of Kelly: “We have found out that many of our best ideas come from collaborating with other people, from make-a-thons to multidisciplinary teams, we treat creativity as a sport”.

They are aware that any change can be accomplished only if the team strives together, they are passionate about their teams and love to keep them together. Therefore, they invest in building trust with the team, display emotional intelligence and act with empathy. This helps them to move away from the traditional predict and control mechanism. Rather, they believe in empowering the team by treating them as equals. Their style of leadership is sensing and responding which helps them to manage ‘sea’ change

Renew with resilience

Change may not take you in the direction you want to go. It may, at times shake you up or beat you down to the ground. These leaders display immense resilience, which enables them to bounce back with renewed vigour. They do this by displaying a high degree of self-composure and control; they don’t buckle under pressure, thereby managing disruptive change effectively.

Born in an impoverished family in Mississippi, to becoming the co-host to a local evening news to risking it all to start her own television channel, to becoming one of the most influential and powerful woman of 20th century according to Forbes, Times and CNN - Oprah Winfrey is the lady we are talking of, who not only kept bouncing back in life but also reached the skies.

Passionate about purpose

Purpose is the driving force for change and this ignites the undying passion that energizes and triggers emotions in leaders. They genuinely love what they do, and their passion generates an infectious environment of enjoyment, engagement and caring. Their purpose is like the North Star that guides actions by providing them with a clear view of why they do what they do. They are authentic and make a difference through their personal examples. Being passionate about their purpose makes them set bold visions and motivate others to join their journey to a more desirable future state.

Dr. G. Venkataswamy wanted to bring about a change in the way curable blindness was treated in India and set up the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, Tamilnadu to provide high quality and compassionate affordable eye care for all. Since its inception, Aravind Eye Hospital has handled more than 60 million patients and performed more than 7.8 million surgeries, making it the largest in the world. New York Times once mentioned, "Aravind can practice compassion successfully because it is run like McDonald’s with assembly-line efficiency, strict quality norms, brand recognition, standardization, consistency, ruthless cost control and above all, volume”. Dr. V has been conferred the Padma Shree - one of the highest civilian award to any citizen of India and his case studies have been written in esteemed journals like HBR, Mckinsey, Forbes and many more.

Managing change is neither about the speed of response, nor about the result. It is about the leader’s sustained effort to foresee change; it is about the ability to think beyond. It is also about the ability to take unrelenting, effective actions amidst chaos, the aptitude to steer ahead of change and manage it well. Leaders of tomorrow need to be like surfers; surfing on a choppy sea of change. They should be the ones who can surf ahead of the wave of change and catch it before it catches them. The “Sea” of change and its waves can be harsh and unforgiving sometimes - leaders can stumble and fall. But their resilience, appetite for risk, positivity, passion for purpose, tenacity all can hold them in good stead as they continue to “See” Change to manage “Sea” Change.