How to get comfortable with change and build it into the foundation of your business

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Life in business is an endless series of ebbs and flows. The moment we learn to surf a wave, the conditions change and we have to paddle furiously to catch the next one.

Change is a constant, not a single passing event. As leaders, we must prepare accordingly. No matter how high the swells are or how many times we get knocked off the board, we can’t afford to take our eyes off the wave we’re on or those looming on the horizon. Great change leaders know how to live in the present and the future, they know when it is and isn’t appropriate to implement change, and finally, they know how to build resistance to change into their organizations.

Related: How to become the change-enforcement leader every business needs to scale

Stay laser-focused on the present, but live in the future

To be effective, leaders must learn to divide their focus between the present and the future. They must be able to put everything they have into the work without losing sight of future goals and potential roadblocks. Every new CEO I’ve coached describes this duality as one of the most unnatural yet vital muscles to develop.

Success requires aiming for the best case scenario, but preparing for the worst. This ability is crucial in times of crisis, distress or macroeconomic headwinds. When you are prepared for everything that may happen tomorrow, you can focus intensely on the work that needs to happen today.

How to know it’s time to change

It can be difficult to identify when you need to make a change or what that change should be. Balancing the evolutionary mandate for change with the human need for stability is paradoxical. If you change too much and too quickly, your customer may lose track of your core identity. If you change too carefully and too slowly, your customer may find you irrelevant. Sometimes managers can become so used to change that they reflexively make changes without adequately assessing the situation.

A manager I recently worked with wanted to blow up a well-constructed organizational design just a year and a half after implementing it. Had the manager not stopped to consider, she would not have realized that the root cause of her frustration was competitive behavior between divisions rather than the structure itself. As such, the most important thing a manager can do is to take a metaphorical breath and make a proper assessment.

While there isn’t a playbook outlining all the reasons to change, there are some common indicators that, if present, should put managers on alert. Here are three important ones:

1. Growth has stagnated

This is an area where managers need to be vigilant and proactive – if you let your growth slow without intervention, you risk falling behind, sometimes never able to catch up. That said, a company’s growth can stagnate for various reasons, and managers shouldn’t jump to conclusions and rush to overhaul the entire company because of a slow month. Know that your “spidey sense” or CEO intuition is not enough. Check in with employees, pulse customers and use data to diagnose your market. Whatever emerges from your analysis, if it’s significant and within your control to change, jump on it.

2. You see negative attitudes and behaviour

There is no such thing as perfect or bad behavior. Negative attitudes will always appear, but when these behaviors and attitudes gain a more regular presence, it’s clear that something is wrong. It could be as simple as a toxic employee or group of employees undermining the business. What happens if attitudes and behavior become consistently negative? It’s rarely a quick fix, but the mandate for change is quite urgent because you have a cultural problem. Just as culture takes time to build or unravel, your intervention must be realistically phased over time and highly intentional.

3. When disruptive threats emerge

Competition can be healthy, pushing everyone to grow and expand their offerings. But if you’ve diagnosed a threat beyond mere competition, this is a time for intensive thinking and bold action. Consider Facebook’s adaptation of Meta. After facing brand-damaging internal leaks, intense public scrutiny, and a major blow to their advertising business due to changes in Apple’s privacy practices, they changed their name to Meta and pivoted their long-term strategy to Metaverse.

Related: 5 Key Ingredients to Becoming a Successful Change Leader (and Home Baker)

Build change into the system

People want stability in the workplace, so how can leaders create a culture that prepares employees to adapt and change as needed?

A willingness to adapt begins with a strong foundation. Communicate your company’s mission, priorities and vision for the future with all employees. When the company’s purpose is clear, employees feel secure in knowing the basis from which all change originates and can trust that it is not arbitrary. Furthermore, they can quickly identify when something is not in line with priorities and needs to be adjusted.

Based on this basis, create space for reflection, dialogue and learning. Bring in new perspectives and encourage (and fund, if possible) employee learning. Meet frequently to discuss your priorities, goals and visions for the future, to ensure everyone is aligned and adjust as new information comes in. In my company, we review our business quarterly through board meetings and team-wide retrospectives. My leadership team also meets annually for an off-site team to decide our strategy and ensure we are all aligned on priorities for the coming year.

Related: How to be an adaptive leader and use change to your advantage

Strengthen the muscle for change

Don’t let a day go by without asking if there’s anything you need to change. What is your core focus, and what should you prioritize? Are there any future roadblocks you don’t see yet? Learning how to balance these conflicting needs at once is challenging – navigating the present and the future requires enormous cognitive and emotional energy. Still, once you’ve navigated those waves and smoothly glided to shore, I don’t think you’ll regret those aching muscles. You can turn around, ready and eager to get back out.

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