THE NEW CHALLENGES
“Organizations that destroy the status quo win.
Whatever the status quo is, changing it gives you the opportunity to be remarkable.”
– Seth Godin, Author of Linchpin
1. SYMBOLIC DROWNING
Within a few months of each other, I had two experiences that challenged me both personally and professionally. I almost drowned trying to surf in the ocean, and I had reached a crossroads in my professional career. While one experience was life threatening and could have impacted my personal safety, the other was more challenging professionally and made me realize I had a lot of things to work through before I made a decision. Professionally, it was going to be tough to try to redefine who I was since my identity had been tied to my previous jobs for so long. I had developed a personal brand that defined me whether I liked it or not. Given the new challenges I experienced, I knew that I had to change, but that decision was overwhelming and reminded me of my experience in Malibu, being underwater and not knowing which direction was up or down.
My surfing attempt at Malibu was a similar experience to what I had gone through professionally. There was more physical risk with surfing, but there were also mental challenges of planning for one outcome but experiencing a different result. I was well versed with boardsports and had been participating in them for years. It was easy for me to pick up skateboarding, snowboarding, and wakeboarding, but surfing was different. It was the first time I had felt like I had failed at a boardsport, and I was embarrassed by the results. The disappointment was a combination of underestimating the challenging conditions and not having the skills I needed to surf. I felt foolish for thinking it would be so easy, and I got punished for it. The experience of being crushed by a large wave and pushed into the dark depths of the ocean was similar to what was happening to me professionally. I had now willingly put myself in a place where I would be challenged, beat up by the changing conditions, and would have to learn new skills to survive.
These two experiences happened within a few months of each other, and I was left to sort out what had happened as well as the results that my decisions had produced. Being in this unknown place was a heavy experience, but I knew I had a chance to right both wrongs and was willing to start the process of making amends with the ocean as well as the professional business world. I was going to pull myself out of this abyss, but I was also determined to take a new approach and look for ways to solve these problems. I wanted to be better equipped and more prepared when I encountered these obstacles again in the future. I had consulted with personal and professional connections, read books, and after weeks of searching, I still had not found a new way through these new challenges. Instead of using the traditional methods that did not create the dynamic I was looking for, I continued to contemplate how I would take the next steps in this journey.
2. THE ORDEAL
After going through these two challenging experiences, I was optimistic and felt motivated to tackle a new professional challenge. However, I felt held back, as though I was not free to make the decision I needed to, even though a professional change was the right thing to do. I was searching for affirmations and almost looking for ways to justify my decision to take a new journey. I needed to change, but I still was not ready to take the leap. Around this time, I was watching The Dark Knight Rises, and there is a scene in the movie where Bane breaks Batman’s back and puts him into an underground prison— basically a hole in the ground. As Batman is recovering from his injuries, he hears a story of how a young child escaped from that prison, but only after the child climbed the wall without a rope and made the final leap without a safety line. Batman had tried to make the same leap a few times with the rope around his waist, but he only made it after he removed the rope and made the leap without it.
WILLINGNESS TO CHANGE
Although I was not in an underground prison or taking a leap for my personal freedom, metaphorically, I had to remove the safety line around my waist before I could make this change. The movie analogy was inspiring and showed me that if you’re committed to taking on a new risk, you could free yourself from your current situation and make a change. I removed the safety line and said to myself, “I don’t know what will happen, but I’m prepared to take on this new challenge and will face the obstacles in a way that I had not approached them before.” It was liberating and terrifying at the same time, but it felt like the decision I needed to make in order to force this change. I made a decision to commit to the change. After the decision, and now out of the cave, I took the steps to embrace the conditions and understand what was happening, then I developed a new process to manage it.
Outside of my inner cave and after making the leap into the new conditions, I knew that the person I was now would soon be a distant memory. As I began to head in this new direction, I started to shed the previous me. I started to mentally discard the ideas that I had used in the past and physically dispose of the possessions that tied me to the previous way of doing things. This sounds extreme, but I needed to purge anything that reinforced my old habits, old ideas, or made me physically feel like the old John. I got rid of clothing, books, and even rearranged my home office to mark the beginning of this new journey. I knew that my old possessions could not hang around because they would undermine what I was trying to do, and that I could not make the mental change without making a set of physical changes too. I saw these as changes designed to annihilate the old and build up the new.
3. THE RENEWING ACT
As I started to make the physical changes to my environment, I could feel a sense of change and forward movement. I had new energy for the challenges ahead, but it was balanced by the concern for what I might face and whether or not I would be ready for what I encountered. During the first few months of the journey, I was really just focused on making the transition and adapting to the change. I had put myself into these new conditions on my own, and at this point, I was just trying to manage the change and understand what it would now be like without the safety net of an organization underneath me. There were a few tough months during the transition, since I was really just trying to change myself and had not yet ventured too far into the new conditions. There were hiccups and missteps along the way, but I knew that with success comes failure, and this was part of the process. I had made the decision to change, so I took my bumps and knew that I would need to make these changes in order to be successful.
REBIRTH OF SKILLS
For so long, I had been working for an organization and really got locked into a certain mindset about my skills and capabilities. I had built up a certain set of skills while inside organizations, and they served me well within that internal system. But I noticed right away that a different set of skills was needed for the new conditions. I had to break away from my old mindset about my skills being static or fixed and approach the development of those skills from the standpoint of being more fluid and evolving. I wanted to explore the new conditions and find out for myself what skills and capabilities would be needed in these new conditions and also in the future. I realized that my skills would need to go through a rebirth and that I would need to use my previous skills to build and develop new ones. I had a foundation to build upon, but my professional development would be the primary focus of this new journey.
This decision to change was a renewing act. It was both a physical and mental rebirth that felt as though I was in a new world with more options and more control. As I started to understand the new conditions and the new skills I would need, I realized that if I wanted to do something new, I really just had to do it. I also realized that I was only held back by the constraints that I put on myself. If I could think about something new to do, it was really just a matter of doing it. This approach created a whole new relationship with risk that I was exploring, as I used to think of risk as being self-limiting. I now realized that I would need to explore new risk if I was going to change who I was. My only risk was whether or not I was willing to make an attempt at something new, and if I could live with the professional or personal embarrassment I might feel if I failed.
1. THE KNOWN
As I began this new journey on my own, I first started to explore what was known. There were a set of beliefs I had about myself, the business world, and how I conducted myself in it. After seeing what was new, I realized that I somewhat limited myself by being content with where I was professionally and had worked a certain way for so long that it had become my known reality. I was in a bubble and had created imaginary boundaries for myself. As I began this journey, this was true for most everyone I spoke to. We all had a certain viewpoint of the market, how a company fit into that market, and our place as individuals within it. Organizations and professionals all fill certain roles or play their part—just as I had done for years. When I realized I had been simply playing a role and not proactively exploring what was new, my first reaction was frustration. I thought about how I had been stifled by my perceptions of what was possible in the conditions and how it may have negatively impacted my success.
When I talked with organizations and professionals while on this journey, they explained their skills and capabilities in very pragmatic terms. You either had a certain skill or capability or you didn’t. Professionals felt as if they were forced into a role based on their experience. If you had not spent any time doing a specific role, it was unthinkable that you could do that job. And most professionals were not given a chance at a new role without receiving that experience somewhere else first. It was an odd predicament and really challenging for professionals who wanted to do something new but were stuck because of very traditional mindsets about skills and capabilities. Professionals sticking to what they had done previously and to what was known versus taking on the risks with something new was a mindset about holding onto the past and not progressively thinking about the future.
Taking professional risk has historically been avoided, and business leaders generally steered clear of anything seen as different from what they were currently doing. In talking with organizations, I noticed skepticism around unproven and untested ideas, concepts, processes, and systems. Anything new was dismissed as trendy, and teams with new ideas were often told by leadership, “That wouldn’t work here.” Even if processes or systems were not producing the intended results, new methods were still avoided, and managers, teams, and companies would grind out poor results, using tired and old ideas. There was a fixed mindset against anything new, and systems supported the traditional ways of doing business. If an organization had worked a certain way for years, it seemed like it would take an intervention for things to change. There were organizations that had the resources and finances to invest in new systems, but the fear of professional risk and change was the major deterrent to trying anything new.
2. THE UNKNOWN
After continuing to meet with business leaders while on my journey, I noticed a set of shared experiences among almost all organizations. There were three main ideas that came up time and time again during our discussions. The first idea was that the external market conditions had fundamentally changed. This topic came up during every conversation I had, and leadership identified what was changing in the markets or negatively impacting success. Technology had changed how customers were buying in markets, and companies were finding that they needed to better understand how new platforms and technologies were giving their customers the upper hand. Potential customers had access to more information, and most were savvy enough to make purchase decisions on their own, independent of marketers or sellers. Competitors were using technology platforms to increase their reach among customers and finding new opportunities where others were not. The external market conditions had changed and most organizations were not embracing those changes.
The second idea was that a new set of skills and capabilities would be needed for these new conditions, including new skills for the individual but also a new set of capabilities for organizations as well. Leadership was no longer investing in training around new skills for individuals, and organizations were not creating development programs for enhancing the capabilities of the organization. Companies would hire from outside the organization to bring in new skills rather than develop talent from the inside. This approach created groups of individuals that possessed the desired new skill, but it never translated to organizational capabilities because once those people left the organization, that skill or capability left as well. Leaders did not have a mindset toward development and were simply poaching talent without developing their people from the inside. This thinking was a short-term strategy, but long term, it presented a new challenge, as organizations started to buckle when those new skills were needed.
The third idea was that individuals and organizations had a new relationship with risk that was more extreme than anything business professionals had experienced before. Organizations that were not embracing the new external conditions and not adding new skills or capabilities were also facing new risks by not adapting to the changes in markets. Leadership relied on the status quo and showed a lack of confidence in how to overcome marketing and sales challenges in new conditions. As a result, marketing and sales initiatives never produced the desired results, and organizations were stuck in cycles of doing the same thing over and over without ever achieving an improved result. Companies did not see that not changing was the new, real risk and that holding onto the past would be a death sentence. After experiencing the challenges within the new conditions for myself and seeing organizations that were struggling, I started to narrow the focus on these three areas and to explore each of them further.
3. THE JOURNEY
WHAT I DID
As I continued to speak with business leaders about each of the three areas, I soon realized that these were common challenges to everyone. Regardless of the industry, the specific market, or the product or service, business leaders were all experiencing these three challenges in some form or another. The more information and feedback I collected, the clearer it was that these ideas were universal challenges to anyone in business at that moment. On my journey, I spent my time with organizations, navigating these new conditions, identifying the new skills and organizational capabilities that would be needed to succeed, but also exploring ways for organizations to do things that were new and feel more confident about how they could take on risk. I used the three areas as a way to assess how company leadership within organizations were embracing the new conditions, how they were progressing their current skills, and if they were willing to risk a change that would allow them to do something new.
WHO I TALKED TO
After identifying the three areas, I met with business leaders within organizations who were CEOs, on executive leadership teams, and anyone who was working within marketing or sales. I wanted to gain a high-level perspective of what was happening within organizations and understand their challenges in implementing new sales and marketing initiatives. I specifically focused on marketing and sales because the new challenges were severely impacting these two areas. Technology, information-sharing platforms, and software were impacting marketing and sales the most, but these areas also had the biggest impact on an organization’s bottom line. They are also the main revenue drivers within any organization. I did a series of discovery workshops with the concepts to figure out how certain organizations were able to overcome the new challenges and be successful.
WHAT I LEARNED
It was clear from my conversations with business leaders that the three areas were universal challenges. Each organization was dealing with these challenges at some level and looking for a better way to manage what was happening in their markets and also inside their own organizations. As I worked with companies to understand how they were overcoming the challenges, I started to identify the successful methods that were being used—a set of best practices that were universal and consistent among the successful organizations. The more I worked with marketing and sales leadership, the more I saw that the organizations having success knew the market conditions, were constantly adding new skills and capabilities, but were also willing to try new things in order to improve on what they had done previously. These organizations had internal processes to support their strategies, had developed incentives to explore risk, and had created reward systems that supported new change.
1. THE LEARNING
Over a two-year period of exploring these three concepts with hundreds of organizations and business leaders, I discovered that the challenges were universal and common across all areas of business, regardless of the industry. I also realized that a set of organizations had not only figured out how to survive in these new conditions, but how to thrive in them. The successful companies all used a similar approach to overcome the new challenges, and this process had less to do with the size of the company, revenues, or the talent, but more to do with the strategy and mindset as they related to their markets, skills, and unique challenges. The successful companies focused on doing things differently than most of their contemporaries and had a process for overcoming challenges. They approached business differently than the organizations that used traditional ideas or methods, and they thumbed their collective noses at the status quo whenever they could.
The successful companies were in different industries and markets, but they were all similar in the way they handled the new challenges. Each company had a process of evaluating what was happening outside the organization, a way to assess what skills they needed inside the organization to tackle those new external challenges, and a tolerance for risk that allowed the organization to test ideas as well as bring innovative new strategies to the markets. As I documented the processes used by the successful organizations, it was clear that each company had a unique way of approaching the new challenges and used repeatable processes to overcome them. External evaluations of the market conditions happened every three to six months or more if changes occurred because of new products or new regulations. Internal assessments of skills happened every six to twelve months, with development initiatives happening every three months. New ideas were tested and prototyped before they went live, with failure being a common occurrence and widely accepted during the process.
Similarities existed among the successful companies in terms of a process, and they were also able to have consistent results from their efforts. The successful organizations stood out for how they were approaching the new challenges, but their distinction also came through in their results. These organizations understood the conditions, had a mindset toward new skills, and were willing, more so than others, to try something new and to be OK with failing in the short term in order to achieve long-term results. For the successful organizations, the results were increased revenues, increased profitability, and improved employee engagement. However, there were also results that you could not measure in dollars or percentages—the satisfaction of being tested, trying something new, and finding a new way to solve a new problem or challenge. These were the kinds of “results” that organizations really liked to talk about and that were the main motivators for them to achieve success again.
2. THE REALIZATION
In working with the successful companies, I started to notice a set of similar principles that each of them shared in relation to the new challenges. Given my recent surf experience in Malibu, I started to think about the successful companies and how they were similar to the surfers I had watched from the beach. The realization grew the more I explored the parallels between the two groups and how they did similar things in terms of how they achieved success. The companies that were different from the status quo and were repeatedly successful had a set of principles similar to those of surfers. They embraced the market conditions and were always out there and in them. Their mindset for skills was focused on learning and always progressing their capabilities. They were also willing to take on risk and fail in order to find new success. The organizations that fared well in the new conditions outperformed those that stuck with the status quo and were very similar to surfers in their approach to skills, mindset, and risk.
The surfers I saw out in the ocean at Malibu embodied how the top organizations approached their business and also how they achieved success. I noticed that a set of principles made the surfers successful as well. It was easy to tell who was knowledgeable about the conditions, and this was also a good predictor of who was going to catch the waves. The good surfers knew the conditions, where the waves were breaking and how to find the right spots to catch them, and when to paddle or when to rest and wait. They also knew their individual skills and capabilities as well as which waves were going to be easy for them to ride and which waves might be too much for them to handle. Finally, the good surfers knew when and how to explore uncertainty by taking calculated risks and building up to more challenging waves after testing themselves on the smaller ones first.
A lot of similarities existed between the successful companies and the good surfers. You could tell that they just got it and had strong knowledge about the conditions and their skills. They knew how to push themselves and progress their surfing in the face of risk. For the business leaders who were successful, the same was true. They were willing to take a look outside of their organizations and understand what was happening within their market. Their mindset was similar to the surfers in that they were progressive and always thinking about their next trick or next wave. They approached risk by thinking of it as a compass to point them in the direction they needed to go. Both the surfers and successful business leaders were unique in how they approached their sport or business in a way that was different from the status quo. Just as a good surfer is distinguished from other surfers, the successful organizations distinguished themselves from other companies in that they were the “good surfers” of the business world.
3. THE PARALLELS
My two separate experiences, one personal and one professional, began to come together as I drew more and more parallels between them. The experience of a failed surf attempt followed up by a failed product launch actually brought new clarity to both situations. They were different in that I experienced each in separate areas of my life, but similar in that the end result was unexpected and not intended. The more I thought about each experience, the more I considered surfers as the model for success. I started to see where I had gone wrong with my own surf experience and how I could approach that same situation again in the future and come out with a desired result. I also used the parallel to see how the successful companies were different than those that focused on maintaining the status quo. I realized that there could be a way for me to use what I had learned from surfers and the successful companies to help others overcome similar challenges.
There were parallels between what the business leaders and the surfers did that made each of them successful in their sport or in business. The parallels were a set of actions, a mindset, and an approach—a set of principles or best practices for overcoming new challenges. I created each new principle and mapped out the best approach for the surfer and then found the similar approach for the business professional. For example, “this is what the surfer does and how he or she is successful” and “this is what the successful company does, which embodies the new principle of the surfer.” For each of the three main challenges within surfing, there is a corresponding principle that creates a bridge to how a business leader can overcome that same challenge in the professional world. The surfer is the guide, not only identifying the new challenges but also serving as the model for how to overcome the obstacles. By using the three principles, a business leader can overcome any market challenge and be successful just like the surfer.
The parallels between surfing and business are the foundation for the three new principles. The principles are common to surfers and foundational to their sport. For business professionals, they are new concepts that create a process for evaluating and developing ways to overcome challenging situations. The three principles are: 1) Embrace the Changing Conditions: just like the surfer, you must know the conditions and know what to expect, and to understand the conditions you need to be out there and put yourself directly in them. 2) Adopt a Progression-Based Mindset: like the surfer, you need to constantly improve your individual professional skills and identify ways to improve your organization’s capabilities. 3) Use Risk as a Compass: take action in the face of uncertainty or fear, just like the surfer who continues to paddle out into the water, even though there are sharks, rocks, and hazards around every wave. All three in combination with one another provide a way for professionals to manage the new conditions and find success.
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