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When I started out, I had my goals. I was going to be a successful entrepreneur; I was going to change the world.
The start of my business career was marked by a surge of energy. In fact, this rush became a headlong charge: I felt unstoppable. My business partner and I hired our first member of staff, won our first significant clients and built a team. It was, as I am sure you know yourself, totally exhilarating.
I remember realizing we had a dozen people in the studio; we were producing TV ads for Microsoft and websites for Hewlett-Packard and Snickers. It was all a bit crazy. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
This was 27 years ago. It was the beginning of the digital age, and we were rocking it; everything we did was magic. One day, the $10 billion Omnicom Group came knocking at our door, asking us if we wanted to sell them our agency. I remember being petrified that we didn’t really know what our finances were like. Who cared? We were famous; we were breaking things and changing the world! Another day, one of London’s most famous advertising companies called us in and asked me, straight out, how we made money. I had no idea. I was on a roll, and what a ride it was.
A few years later, the glamour had worn a little thin. I was on my third agency. I’d made some money, but wasn’t on a yacht. I was that semi-successful entrepreneur: I had a bit of fame, was on Wikipedia (that lasted 17 years before I got mostly edited out) and won every award in the book, but I hadn’t become rich enough to really retire.
Ten years in, and I was finally persuaded to join a mastermind group of a dozen CEOs. It was my saving grace. Over the course of four years, I learned how to run a business, and how to be a leader.
And I learned something else interesting.
Why things don’t change
Every month, after I came back from a day with my peer group, having learned some brand new (to me) leadership skill (that had been around for a hundred years), I would call my team together and repeat everything I had learned. I would tell everyone we were going to do it the new way. Things were going to improve. We’d be successful.
And at the beginning, they’d all be enthusiastic, and we’d try and do the new things the new way. For a while, it would stick, but then there’d be a crisis, and everything would revert to the old, reliable methods.
After a while, probably less than six months, I realized my “change grenades” stopped being greeted with enthusiasm and renewed effort. From the corner of my eye, I would catch people rolling their eyes at each other. People would clap, turn back to their desks and carry on doing things just the way they’d been doing them before.
I stopped getting buy-in
It was almost fatal for our business. I stopped making progress. Sure, we’d win new clients. Sure, we’d win awards and do good things, but we never really grew. We got better at doing things the way we were doing them. We got so good that we could not possibly make any changes because, well, if it ain’t broke, why try and change it?
In fact, the people in charge of each of our departments got so good at how they did things that if we had wanted to remain at a couple of million in annual sales we could have done so forever.
Or until our competitors started delivering something better.
You have to change. As an entrepreneur, you cannot stand still. As a leader, your job is to create a culture that accepts and embraces change.
I had created a culture that rejected change because I was imposing change for change’s sake. I was trying to apply my learning to the company from the top down. I should have been getting my team to do the learning.
Eventually, I learned. In the end, I ran agencies for 22 years before retiring at age 47 and developing our acceleration program. For the past six years, we’ve been showing companies how to scale up fast (I wrote a comprehensive book about how to do it, called Scale at Speed).
Do you know what the biggest lesson is? It’s not about new systems and processes, though that does of course play a big part. It’s not about marketing, though again, getting your proposition right is absolutely critical. The biggest lesson is in fact how to get your team to buy into change.
And do you know what? It is so simple it sounds like it can’t be true.
Get your team to invent the need for change themselves
So how do you do it?
Edwin Locke invented something called Goal-Setting Theory. In essence, it says the more challenging the goal, the more likely your best people will be to step up to the plate. In other words, if you create a heroic challenge, it’s likely to attract heroes. And heroes — or A-players in management parlance — are exactly the people you want in your business building your future.
When we work with companies, the first thing we do is select the A-players. Not the senior team. As we’ve said, the senior team is fully invested in the way things are done now, not in changing anything. So we gather the people who want to create your next stage of evolution. We tell them what we want to achieve. And this is crucial: We let them do the research into how they will do it, what the requirements will be, what the consequences will be. Then, we get them to figure out how to make it happen.
And that’s the secret. You can read my book and others and learn all the best practices in the world, but if you don’t get buy-in, nothing will change.
So get that buy-in. Find your superstars. Find the people in your business that really want to make it bigger and better. Let them work on how. Progress and growth don’t come from being a change-grenade CEO; if you really want to reach your goals and achieve your dreams, you need to be the kind of leader who gets your team to do the heavy lifting for you.