How to be comfortable with change and integrate it into the foundation of your business

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Business life is an uninterrupted succession of ebbs and flows. The moment we learn to ride a wave, the conditions change and we have to paddle furiously to catch the next one.

Change is a constant, not a one-time passing event. As leaders, we must prepare accordingly. No matter how high the swell 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 the ones looming on the horizon. Great change leaders know how to live in the present and the future, they know when it’s appropriate or not to implement change, and finally, they know how to build resilience to change into their organizations.

Related: How to Become the Change Leader Every Business Needs to Scale

Stay focused on the present, but live in the future

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

To succeed, you have to aim for the best scenario but prepare for the worst. This capability is crucial in times of crisis, distress or macroeconomic headwinds. When you’re ready for whatever might happen tomorrow, you can focus intensely on the work that needs to be done 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 even be. Balancing the evolutionary mandate for change with the human need for stability is paradoxical. If you change too much too quickly, your customer may lose track of your primary identity. If you change too carefully and too slowly, your client may find you useless. Sometimes leaders can become so accustomed to change that they reflexively make changes without properly assessing the situation.

A leader I recently worked with wanted to blow up a well-constructed organizational design only a year and a half after it was implemented. If the leader hadn’t stopped to assess, she wouldn’t have realized that the root cause of her frustration was the competitive behaviors between divisions rather than the structure itself. As such, the most important thing a leader can do is take a metaphorical breath and make an appropriate assessment.

Although there is no manual describing all the reasons for change, there are common indicators that, if present, should put leaders on their toes. Here are three important ones:

1. Growth has stagnated

This is an area where leaders need to be vigilant and proactive – if you allow your growth to slow without intervention, you risk falling behind, sometimes never being able to catch up. That said, a company’s growth can stall for a variety of reasons, and executives shouldn’t jump to conclusions and rush to overhaul their entire company due to a slow month. Know that your “spider sense” or CEO intuition is not enough. Ask employees, nudge customers, and use data to diagnose your market. Whatever the surface of your analysis, if it is important and within your control to change, you must pounce on it.

2. You see negative attitudes and behaviors

There is no perfect or bad behavior. Negative attitudes will always show up, but when these behaviors and attitudes take on 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 if attitudes and behaviors become pervasively negative? There is rarely a quick fix, but the change mandate is quite urgent because you have a cultural problem. Just as culture takes time to build or break, your intervention must be realistically timed and highly intentional.

3. When disruptive threats emerge

Competition can be healthy, pushing everyone to grow and expand their offerings. However, if you have diagnosed a threat beyond mere competition, now is the time to think hard and act boldly. Consider Facebook’s adaptation to Meta. After facing brand-damaging internal leaks, public scrutiny, and a 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 the Metaverse.

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

Integrating change into the system

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

The willingness to adapt starts with a solid foundation. Communicate your company’s mission, priorities and vision for the future to all employees. When your company’s purpose is clear, employees feel comfortable knowing that the basis from which any change stems and can be confident that it is not arbitrary. Plus, they can quickly identify when something isn’t aligned with priorities and needs to be adjusted.

From this base, create a 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, making sure all are aligned and adjusted as new information comes in. My leadership team also meets annually for an offsite team to determine our strategy and ensure we are all aligned on priorities for the coming year.

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

Strengthen your muscles for change

Don’t let a day go by without asking if there’s anything you need to change. What is your priority and what should you prioritize? Are there any future roadblocks that you don’t see yet? Learning to balance these conflicting needs at the same time is a challenge – straddling the present and the future requires immense cognitive and emotional energy. Still, when you’ve cruised those waves and glided smoothly back to shore, I don’t think you’ll regret those sore muscles. You could turn around, ready and eager to get back there.

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