Change or Perish: The New Paradigm for Leading Companies

by | 09 September 2014

There was a time when the most successful and admired companies were too-big-to-fail institutions with a rich history of innovation. These companies defined the status quo for the 20th century and built corporate cultures to reward those who maintained it. But as companies like these grew complacent, they learned a tough lesson: Standing still isn’t a winning strategy.

So how does a forward-thinking company in a historically backward-leaning industry lead? This means challenging not just your competitors, but your entire industry.

Look to the real leaders.

Whether it’s commercial real estate or automobiles or technology, we are among the top companies that are disrupting their industries. While the auto industry is reeling from recalls and a controversial government bailout, Tesla Motors is not only changing the way cars are manufactured — making its patents available to anyone and working to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels — but it has also reengineered the way buyers interact with the company while buying a car. And, while blue-chip technology companies are struggling to anticipate their competitors’ latest gadgets, those same competitors are already envisioning the tech breakthroughs of the next decade. It’s clear that companies that are constantly reinventing themselves — for the benefit of their clients — are today’s leaders.

What does it take to continue to be this kind of company? That’s a question we ask ourselves every day.

It starts — and ends — with the client.

Innovation for innovation’s sake is never the right answer. As we challenge ourselves to be a relentlessly enterprising organization, we know that all change must start with the client. So, when anyone comes to me with an idea that requires time or money (as most ideas do), I always ask: What’s in it for the client? By consistently applying this filter to our innovation priorities, we’ve been able to develop tools like Colliers 360, the business intelligence dashboard that gives our clients an always-on window into their real estate portfolio, helping them make smart decisions as they evolve.

Don’t level the playing field. Build a new one.

If your goal is to challenge the status quo, you may need to build an entirely new playing field. This means reimagining what your business can do and then taking bold steps to transform it. At Colliers, we recently announced the creation of a digital enterprise team, combining our marketing, IT and research functions into one organization charged with getting our best information and tools in front of clients faster than anyone else can.

It’s an approach that has been successfully adopted by a number of highly effective companies, notably big consumer brands. And even though managing commercial real estate isn’t the same as, say, running a global coffee empire, we’re confident that it’s the right approach for the next five or 10 years.

Safety first.

Transforming a company into one capable of continuous transformation isn’t easy. After all, the evolutionary process has hard-wired us to seek safety and avoid risk, even when that sense of security stands in the way of progress. That may be why so many companies have far more lawyers than product designers.

To be a company that challenges the status quo requires creating an environment in which everyone feels safe enough to take smart risks. And according to management theorist Simon Sinek, good leaders make us feel safe. In a recent TED Talk, Sinek noted, “We call them leaders because they go first, because they take the risk before anybody else does, [and] because they will choose to sacrifice so their people will be safe and protected.”

It’s a powerful insight and, I believe, a call to action for leaders. When we create a safe environment, we encourage diversity of thought and tolerance for risk-taking. And as long as those risks are consistent with a company’s culture and values, we’re clearing the path for true innovation. We’re also creating a culture in which doing for others leads inevitably to better trust and cooperation, without which no company can thrive.

No matter how successful we are in our efforts to lead, it will mean nothing if we aren’t, each day, challenging ourselves to reinvent, reimagine and rethink what it means to be the best we can be. Not just for ourselves and our clients, but everyone we interact with.