As founder, you had the idea for your company — but that doesn’t mean your ideas alone can push your company forward.
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With technology changing business at such a rapid pace, every company must evolve to survive. Unfortunately, far too many companies have embraced some changes too quickly. The result? Consider what can happen with a category like customer service. At some companies embracing technology too fast, customers must navigate email chains or a rabbit hole of phone taps just to reach a real person.
Southwest Airlines, thankfully, doesn’t have this issue. Despite its size, the company has maintained a high level of customer relations while still embracing modern technology. Its “old-fashioned,” one-on-one style interactions with customers go a long way toward fostering satisfaction and loyalty. And when the airline recently updated another business category — shipping options — it maintained its personable branding with the cheeky slogan: “We’ve got ship to do.”
Related: Change Is Not Enough — We Must Evolve
Entrepreneurs and startup founders might want to take notes. The point is to be comfortable with — and diligent about — regularly reinventing everything from your company’s style of customer service to its overall leadership approach. At the same time, you should take care that the evolution of your business remain organic (and makes sense).
In other words: Don’t innovate just for the sake of claiming your company is innovative. It’s up to you, as leader, to set the stage and establish the tone that promotes collaborative growth and change.
Evolving when you’ve just begun
The challenge for new founders is to maintain a big-picture growth mindset while managing day-to-day operations in a way that effectively feeds growth. A successful business grows from a solid foundation — focusing on areas that are core to its offering. But most new entrepreneurs need income sooner than later, so they have to balance maintaining the company foundation with bringing in real dollars.
The danger lies with getting distracted and evolving in the wrong direction. Some entrepreneurs are susceptible to letting their gut guide them, causing them to focus too much on fast-changing industry trends or overt idealism. When I’ve seen this happen, it’s usually led to business failure: Leaders haven’t listened to what their customers and employees have been saying about where to go next to achieve success.
This is where evolutionary leadership comes in: Modern founders understand the value of their employees’ boots-on-the-ground perspective and strive to integrate those ideas to ensure stable, solid growth. To stay relevant and profitable, those founders — and perhaps you, yourself — should make sure your personal leadership style enables your company to innovate and evolve. Here are three steps to make that happen:
1. Don’t establish a monopoly on ideas.
You cannot and should not be the sole source of new ideas — not when you’ve hired smart, alented people who’ve taken a chance on your company. These people are your biggest assets for staying nimble and keeping up with changes in your industry.
Our company manufactures and sells geothermal HVAC systems. When some of our younger employees thought we should add solar technology as part of our offering, I initially thought it was a waste of time. But I ultimately trusted them, and once we announced we were embarking on this journey, the positive response was overwhelming. Now, outside of the geothermal heat pumps we manufacture, PV solar is the top driver in sales growth.
The rationale of younger generations was completely different from my Baby Boomer mentality. I was pleasantly surprised that our core customers (whom I thought I knew so well) showed significant interest in this idea — one I admittedly never would have come up with on my own.
2. Include customers in your procedures and product discussions.
When appropriate, include your customers in an advisory council to openly discuss products, procedures and any other areas that affect your partnership. In fact, in a 2017 Microsoft survey, 77 percent of people around the globe said they had a more positive view of brands that invite and accept feedback.
Related: Evolution Is Essential for Successful Entrepreneurs. Here are 3 Tactics.
Well-known fashion company Stitch Fix has differentiated itself in a crowded industry through a service that’s driven by customer feedback. Customers complete extensive questionnaires when they initially sign up (as well as after each shipment). In this way, the company can draw heavily and constantly on customer feedback to inform, develop and refine its processes and offerings.
3. Empower your employees to effect change.
Your team members’ input is critical to growth, but they won’t share unless you make them feel comfortable doing so. And before you can be truly open to their ideas, you must first embrace the mindset that your employees don’t work for you but with you. This subtle change makes employees more empowered to bring fresh ideas to the table.
Encourage people to be honest — not only about their opinions or insights, but also emotionally. Per a Harvard Business Review article, 90 percent of CEOs surveyed said they expected to see an increasing amount of change in coming years — and change can be stressful. As the workforce for a young company, your team’s well-being and ability to endure major shifts (and thrive in them) is vital to overall success.
Related: Successful Leaders Embrace the Evolution of the Industries
To truly engage employees and prevent burnout, Atlassian, the Australia-based software company, has implemented multiple benefits allowing employees to spend time on personal development. The company offers employees several days a year when they can drop everything to work on creative projects for 24 hours. The resulting ideas have directly shaped everything from the employee experience to product ideas at Atlassian.
The bottom line: Don’t rely on your own brain alone to drive change, when you have unlimited access to new (and maybe even better) ideas from your customers and employees. They’re just waiting for a leader who will give them a voice. The question is, are you that kind of a leader?