Nick Webb


H.G. Wells once wrote: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

The renowned science fiction author may have been talking about the future of humanity, but winning leaders understand exactly what he was saying.
In business, change is the norm.

You either adapt or perish. Adaptation is the fueling force of evolutionary success. Moreover, adapting to massive deep changes in a time of disruptive innovation requires that organizations make adaptation a core competency.

You may assume that adaptation applies only to your product or service, but nothing is further from the truth. Adaptation can—and should—happen in every facet of your operations.

It can happen in:

• Human resources, as you keep pace with current trends that make your company the most desired place to work.
• Your supply chain, which is being revolutionized by the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart devices.
• Marketing, where the old strategies of interruption advertising are being supplanted by the power of social media and consumer connectivity.
• Manufacturing, where the emergence of 3-D printing and robotics threatens to disrupt the traditional assembly line.

The Three Keys to Adapting to Innovation

Here are the three key attributes to being consistently adaptable and staying one step ahead of the competition.

1. Attention

It seems amazing, but in our work with global CEOs, we encounter many who simply don’t know how to pay attention.
Not necessarily to us—that’s their choice!—but to the marketplace and to their own employees and stakeholders.

The winning leader is keenly aware of his or her environment, both internally and externally. And you don’t become aware, and you don’t learn, by talking.
A good rule of thumb is that a leader should listen for three minutes for every one minute they spend talking.

This view is shared by the co-founder of Google’s successful career mentoring program. As Marguerite Ward wrote for CNBC, Jenny Blake, a career strategist who has helped more than one thousand Google employees climb the corporate ladder, advises that trying to solve a problem immediately usually does more harm than good.

“One of the biggest mistakes that I see managers making is immediately jumping in to give advice or trying to troubleshoot in the middle of a career conversation,” Blake told CNBC, “rather than really asking open ended questions.”

“Great leaders and managers make listening a priority,” she added. “Not just any listening, but active listening.”

2. Humility

Innovation leaders have an unshakable set of core values: integrity, trust, honor, respect. These they never relinquish, and they take pride in them.
But—and not paradoxically—in their day-to-day activities they’re not blinded by their own preconceptions or past successes. They’re willing to learn from others and are open to new ideas.

As Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib wrote in their Harvard Business Review article, “The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders,” a study by Catalyst revealed that humility is one of four key leadership factors necessary to create an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included. (And as we know, workplaces are increasingly comprised of a rich mix of demographics.) In a survey of more than 1,500 workers from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the U.S., researchers found that when employees observed selfless or altruistic behavior in their managers, they were more likely to report feeling included in their work teams. This was true for both women and men.

Altruistic or selfless behavior by leaders was characterized by:

1) Acts of humility, such as learning from criticism and admitting mistakes.
2) Empowering followers to learn and develop.
3) Acts of courage, such as taking personal risks for the greater good.
4) Holding employees responsible for results.

Among employees, the demonstration of humility by a superior serves to foster feelings of both individuality and engagement. Employees feel respected as individuals when they are recognized for the distinct talents and skills they bring to their teams. They feel engaged with the larger community when they share important commonalities with co-workers. Neither of these is possible when the leader is strutting through the halls like a peacock.

Based on their current research and an ongoing study of leadership development practices at Rockwell Automation, the authors noted that a “selfless leadership style” includes these action items:

Foster conversation, not debates. No one likes to be lectured, and no one wants to get into a pointless argument. As the innovation leader, it’s your job to calmly listen to all points of view, weigh the options, and clearly state your decision. Innovation leaders are willing to set aside their own preconceived ideas when other, better ideas are offered. Their egos aren’t bruised!

Admit your mistakes and resolve to correct them. Employees know when you’ve made a mistake, and they know when you’re trying to pass the buck. Do what you expect your employees to do: Fess up, take responsibility, say how you’re going to fix the problem, and then do it.

Follow as much as you lead. By empowering others to lead, you’ll not only facilitate the personal and professional development of your employees but you’ll model the act of considering different perspectives, a critical element to working effectively in diverse teams.

Embrace uncertainty. Since uncertainty and ambiguity are ubiquitous in today’s business environment, then why fight them? Why not embrace them? If you humbly admit that you don’t have all the answers, you make it possible for subordinates to step forward and offer solutions. By doing so, you also cultivate a sense of interdependence and reliance on each other as you collectively work through complex, open-ended problems.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher.” So does the humble, winning leader!

3. Agility

It’s not good when a leader acts like a deer caught in the headlights, frozen in place.

Winning leaders are agile and move quickly to meet new challenges.

They put aside their immediate concerns to listen to those around them, and then apply a set of specific skills and abilities to an externally perceived stimulus. They act upon that knowledge, attempting to help fulfill the needs of employees, superiors, and other stakeholders. Responsive leaders wield influence to solve problems for those around them, often before even being asked.

Above all, a winning leader strives to understand people and the operating context. He or she seeks to understand what’s really happening, as opposed to what they want to see. They recognize the constantly fluctuating nature of business and can quickly respond to new circumstances and challenges. They go one step further to anticipate challenges before they arise and quickly pivot to face them.

The opposite is the rigid leader, who when presented with an unfamiliar situation goes into defensive mode. Their brain automatically processes the problem as a threat, and their sympathetic nervous system shuts down, like a deer caught in the headlights.