Answering the Call
In the mid-1800s every American business owner knew that if you wanted to send an urgent message to someone you used Western Union. Their telegram service set the bar. They operated more than 7,000 offices in the United States, they had laid more than 185,000 miles of telegraph wire, and in the 1860s they even led an effort to connect American telegraph systems to European lines via the Russian–American Telegraph.
Then Alexander Graham Bell called. On a telephone.
The folks at Western Union must have been shocked when everything changed. Sure there were signs of things to come (they famously had the opportunity to buy Bell’s invention; they turned him down), but they were so totally secure in their position. What could challenge them?
Sounds a lot like 2020.
Clearly, a pandemic is not a technological upheaval—but it has redefined the status quo, and it has certainly upended the expected patterns of everyday life. And it has transformed workplaces.
For the business community, 2020 has forced leaders everywhere to navigate a dense thicket of evolving questions. How do we adapt our services? Does our business model need to be rethought? Which virtual platform should we use? How does Zoom work? Should we use Teams instead? Is Skype still a thing?
While we can’t say solving these quandaries has been fun, if we’re honest, there have been some positives. Dramatic challenges have forced businesses everywhere to examine “The Way We Do Things”—and then get creative. We’ve made discoveries about what we really need, about operational inefficiencies, about communication, and of course, about working remotely. And while many feel satisfied with working from home, others are growing frustrated with the increasingly blurred line between work and home.
And now, after months of working remotely and with more cities moving into new phases, there seems to be one (big) question on everyone’s mind: What’s Next?
What’s clear is that however you want to answer that question, the reality is that change has come. Even if the era of COVID has a magical “finish” date, it doesn’t seem like the established routines of everyday life will completely reset—and more than that: a lot of the workforce doesn’t want them to.
So what’s a team leader to do? In the face of such wholesale change, how do you hold onto what has worked for years and also retain what’s working now? Can you maintain your culture? Or does it evolve? How do you satisfy the team members who crave in-person camaraderie? What does hiring look like moving forward?
However you choose to answer these questions, developing a strategic approach is key. You can’t assume that bringing everyone back to the office will result in “business as usual.” After all, some of your team members may enjoy remote work. New hires may expect flexible structures to be the norm. And your service delivery systems may not benefit from returning to “the way things were.”
Let’s go back to the telegraph days for another moment and consider how Western Union responded to the advent of a dial tone. After trying to maintain a semblance of what they were familiar with, they did what all savvy businesses should do: they read the landscape, and they adapted.
Western Union repurposed its assets and infrastructure. They found a new use for their massive network of cables, and soon became the global leader in a new market: money transfers.
Again, this isn’t meant to be a perfect parable, but if there’s a moral to the story, it’s this: instead of bouncing back to the way things were, let’s bounce forward, and use the tools we’ve discovered to evolve and grow.
While the solutions you implemented during the chaos may still feel like “a fix”, they might also be more than that. They might represent a better workflow process, or a better service model, or a better team structure. The temp arrangements you’ve been working through might be part of your future—perhaps a big part.
For businesses everywhere, it’s time to survey the landscape and think strategically on several fronts:
How do you incorporate the successes of your current set-up with more traditional structures?
How do you identify emerging trends and deliver on new employee expectations?
How do you recruit and stay competitive in the reshaped terrain?
How do you foster a strong culture without daily, in-person interactions?
And perhaps most importantly: how do you become proactive, and prepare for the next COVID-like crisis?
This isn’t necessarily a square one moment. You’re probably not laying a new cornerstone – you’ve got big pieces of your past and present in front of you, and you have to figure out how they fit together to build a structure that works for the future.
Is it challenging? Sure. But it’s also exciting. And, in some ways, the way forward is clear: you can construct a successful outcome by understanding your organization’s singular identity, by collaborating with your team, and by working with (not against) human behavior.
Start getting strategic now. Reach out to employees, leadership, and external stakeholders to initiate the conversations that will push your organization forward. And if there’s anyone who needs a super special invite to the discussion: send a telegram.
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