Embracing Change and Staying Relevant

Sep 5, 2019

By Jan Rogers Kniffen

As we build our careers and find ourselves successful in leadership positions, it is easy to lose sight of how we got to where we are. On our way up we were always looking for ways to make things better, get noticed, get promoted, move ahead and make our mark. But for many, when they finally arrive at the top, something happens to that energy, that forward-thinking momentum. Did they get complacent? Too comfortable? Did they stop paying attention to the way the world continues to change and fall back too easily on simply doing things the way they’ve always been done?

I would submit that the answers to the above are: Yes, yes, and sadly, yes.

When I was 8-years old I discovered the local library and the movie theater. Both changed my life. The movie theater showed two new features every week and I could have a great time for forty cents, twenty-five cents for admission, a dime for a box of popcorn and a nickel for a Coke. (I still can’t go to a movie theater without having a box of popcorn and a Coke.) I announced to my mother that I wanted to see every new movie and would need eighty cents a week to support my habit. We were dirt poor and my mother patiently explained that we could not afford eighty cents a week for me to go watch movies. It simply wasn’t an option. That conversation with my mom led me to my first job as an assistant paper boy. I was paid $2 a week, which funded my eighty cents a week movie habit and left money over for a savings account at the local bank, something my parents didn’t have. I followed my boss, who was eleven, on his route every day. I paid close attention to the way he mapped out the route and how long it took us to complete our job. When it was time for my predecessor to move on and I was given the route I already knew that the way it had always been run was totally inefficient. So, I tossed out the old ways, restructured the route, making it more efficient, which in turn saved me fifteen minutes a day. But I also learned a very important lesson in customer service. If customers are going to get their papers an hour earlier or an hour later than they used to, you had better tell them in advance and get their input if you don’t want complaints. It can’t be all about efficiency without regard to customer service. That route taught me my first big lesson in business management and I carry that dual lesson with me to this day:

If you want to succeed (or go to the movies) desire, innovation and change are essential but never forget that the customer is always right.

Vision. Innovation. Disruption. Adaptability. These are the elements all good leaders embrace. They are essential to the success of any business, even a paper route in Cairo, Illinois. There is no better example than Amazon. Bezos didn’t stop at disrupting the way books are sold. He has turned retail inside out, upside down and sideways by constantly innovating, changing the way business is done and continually setting new and higher customer expectations. Leaders who haven’t been willing to adapt or let go of old ideas, who believed that the old way of doing things was working just fine, thank you very much, have quickly lost relevance and any hope of maintaining any kind of competitive edge. If we aren’t constantly looking over our shoulders at what the competition is doing while keeping an eye on how we can improve what we are doing, we aren’t doing our jobs. And if we forget that the customer has an opinion and expects to be kept informed and listened to, we are toast.

As obvious as this all seems, how many businesses are struggling to keep afloat or have faded from the landscape altogether, even during this time of record high consumer engagement, and unparalleled consumer strength as exemplified by record low unemployment, record high employment, rising wages accompanied by falling income tax rates? It doesn’t get better than this for the consumer and yet, the number of store closings and retail bankruptcies aren’t pretty. As a matter of fact, both will set modern day records in 2019. Is it simply because there is more competition? Absolutely not. It’s because leadership failed to let go of the old way of doing things, adapt to the demand of constant change, and embrace innovative new ways of maintaining their competitive edge.

Heraclitus had it right: The only thing that is constant is change. Whether stepping into an interim position at a start-up, or joining a well-established company, as leaders, we must be willing to put in the time and effort to pay attention to how the world, our products, and our customers are changing, and use our vision to inspire a culture of change and innovation throughout our companies. If we don’t, someone else will and we will become irrelevant faster than you can say flip-phone.

Jan Rogers Kniffen is an Eleven Canterbury executive expert. Jan is a regular CNBC contributor and consults with investors and retail companies. As a former retail finance and operations executive, he now provides his deep knowledge, experience and innovative thinking with the ever-expanding retail eco-system.

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