One of the joys of editing SmartBrief on Leadership is that every reader wants to be a better leader and teammate.
Likewise, people who write about leadership, management, strategy and similar topics want to motivate people and improve organizations.
But underneath all of that is the status quo. The theory and practice of “leadership” inherently reinforces what’s always been done and who’s doing it, even when people create new techniques, build on theories and transfer knowledge within the field.
The status quo is also the starting point for innovation, new paradigms and transformation, to use the buzzwords. The status quo is imprinted upon the discussion before anyone speaks.
And what do those changes look like? They’re usually incremental — small advances tethered to the status quo even when diverging from it. These change discussions also assume that (nearly) everyone involved is there in good faith and agrees on the problems and possible solutions. We make these assumptions even though we know life is messier, less consistent and less measurable than that.
None of that is bad unto itself. Assuming trust and good faith is better than greeting everyone with suspicion. Habits and patterns illustrate the status quo, but they also help people be safe, productive and navigate the world. We want work to have clear strategies and goals, familiar and consistent processes. Experience provides us with helpful pattern recognition. Innovation and improvement are essential.
So, I get it. We can’t be disrupting everything, all the time. I’m not advocating to get rid of leadership advice that helps people improve in small ways. I’m arguing for a “Yes, and” approach.
There is no status quo in business
And why does that matter now? Well, this is not a “status quo” moment.
We have a pandemic that we haven’t defeated and still struggle to understand, much less treat or vaccinate against. The most meaningful government intervention — financial supports and protections — is largely due to expire soon, with millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans potentially facing eviction, student loans they can’t pay or hunger.
What about parents who have no idea how safe schools will be in the fall? Is everyone ready to endure more work from home (if they’re even employed) while hoping your children are safe and learning? What about parents whose children were due to go to college but will have remote classes or are delaying enrollment?
That’s not in the business playbook, especially at organizations that barely tolerated maternity leave before the pandemic. The existing state of affairs for working parents ended in March, and there’s no “new normal” for them to embrace.
Let’s say Congress extends the pandemic-related supports indefinitely, and all schools reopen. Time to return to normal, right? Well, maybe not.
Americans are understandably eager to get out of their homes, but they aren’t necessarily prepared to spend money with your business. As Bain & Co. analysts recently wrote:
“Yet even if only 10% of consumers resist returning to pre-Covid patterns, a 10% clip off consumption in many categories would prevent a full recovery. A 10% decline in a company’s revenue could trigger activist moves by board members and investors, significant cost-cutting and a review of the long-term strategy.”
Companies can’t return to the status quo if consumers and customers won’t. Every industry has unique circumstances, of course. But even if your sector has been safe so far, what happens if there’s a real shift in how, where and when large groups of people work, socialize and spend their money? Ask yourself: Will a strategic mindset from 2019 help me then?
There’s no status quo in society
Of course, we’re not just in a public health and economic crisis. There is the continued unrest and overdue reckoning related to racial injustices and the sense that too many people don’t think black lives matter.
This anger is obviously fueled by the unjustified killings by police and other public crimes, and it is accompanied by years of anger at economic and class inequities.
The unrest is also about the systems we have in place at the workplace — the culture, the norms and the career paths.
We have created systems where there are only four black CEOs in the Fortune 500, none of them women. Where minority doctoral candidates are underrepresented and then struggle to complete their studies. Where a magazine pays some people to do extra tasks and doesn’t pay others for the same work. Where unpaid internships push out people without family resources and set back their careers, perhaps permanently. Where the founder of CrossFit can feel emboldened to be a jackass on Twitter and then on a call with gym owners that was meant to reassure them about the pandemic.
Each of these crises alone puts the lie to the idea of a status quo we can retreat to. Each is relevant to businesses and team members.
And yet, I’m still seeing articles citing 2019 data and extrapolating that out several years in “trends” reports. I’m still seeing articles talking about getting back to normal, as if that’s the obvious outcome. I’m still seeing companies declare that they’ll re-examine their supply chains (ignoring that changes are happening in real time) or commit to diversity and inclusion policies (historically, a report in 6-18 months that no one will read).
In the least disruptive scenario, many organizations across industries will need to adjust their supply chains, workflows, physical workspaces, customer interactions and product offerings. Organizations will need to grapple with inadequate, biased or overtly discriminatory practices in recruitment, hiring, pay, promotions, culture and mindset. Customers will continue pressing organizations to take public stands and live up to their values.
Some of these issues will fade by 2021, but some will have lasting effects.
Again, that’s the least disruptive scenario.
There can’t be a status quo in our mindsets
These crises, these tragedies compel us to respond by doing better in the long term, and that includes stopping bad practices, discarding bad theories and, in some cases, moving on from bad people.
So, if you’re a leader, especially one with real authority and financial power, pick your poison.
Maybe the pandemic freaks you out. Maybe the political climate has you worried about your business. Maybe you want a more equitable workplace because you see that the future is a “war for talent.” Maybe you just want to make more money tomorrow than you did yesterday.
Some of these reasons are better than others, but my point is that to say, “Let’s just wait till things go back to how they were,” is an indefensible position for almost all of us.
“Well, for all the negatives that Covid-19 has brought to your business, it has the potential to do one thing positive:
It can give you the inspiration and the motivation to finish your plan and put it into action.
But what if you didn’t have any changes planned?
Well, now’s the time to take a long, hard look at your business, both pre- and post-pandemic.”
Don’t forget that this is a process. You can’t transform your mindset or a business by yourself or overnight. You can’t prematurely declare victory. And, unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly how to discard the status quo.
You’ll need to understand your business and market. You’ll need to think hard, to ask and listen, to try things in good faith without fear. You’ll have to be persuasive with skeptical colleagues, especially those who believe change will make losers of them.
All along, this transformation will often feel incremental, even stalled at times. That’s OK.
You’ll need to also be brutally honest about who wants to maintain the status quo and who doesn’t — and why. For example, are executives defending the status quo because it truly works, or are they hoarding territory or afraid of losing their job (and maybe the jobs of their teams)?
Along with brutal honesty and re-examination, you’ll need empathy and flexibility, and you’ll need to remember that reinvention is not a synonym for cutbacks.
Also, look at your teams and your people. What viewpoints have you lacked, and how is that harming your thinking (yours, your team’s and your organization’s)? What default practices in recruiting, hiring, internships, pay, promotion and culture are discouraging or cutting out underrepresented groups — and almost certainly harming your business?
If you’re a high-ranking leader, are you ready to do years of work to create a new reality — a restructuring that’s about which people and ideas are in the room but is no less important than a financial restructuring.
As Kyle Stock wrote for Bloomberg over the weekend:
“Here’s a framework for any executive: if you are reacting, you are probably already in trouble. The smartest, most progressive companies–the ones that aren’t in the headlines–are leaning into the protests, digging into internal data and going well beyond the rote response of a woke Tweet and a big stack of philanthropy.”
(You can do this audit in your personal life, too.)
And know I’m right there with you. I can point to things I’ve managed to change over the years, but I can also point to many personal failings. I can point to complacency. I can point to setbacks that paralyzed me with discouragement instead of spurring me to try again.
Even if you believe you’re 100% successful (what a concept!) in adapting to the moment, there is always more we can improve with ourselves, our habits, our teams and own organizations.
The work is never done. There is no status quo. And that’s OK. Let’s start moving forward today.