The idea that “change is the only constant” goes back at least as far as Heraclitus, who first proposed that famous concept more than 2500 years ago. In this age of globalization and free information, his words are truer than ever. People are adopting new values, markets are in upheaval, new technologies are being introduced daily, and leaders must keep up or be left behind. An organization that is perfectly oriented one year could be completely obsolete the next.
In order to continually re-invent his or her firm, an executive must be willing to continually re-invent his or her self, says leadership expert Robert S. Kaplan, professor of management at Harvard Business School and former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs. This means resisting the isolation that comes with being at the top of the hierarchy. Rather than avoiding criticism from employees, today’s executives must embrace it in order to adapt their leadership style to the company’s changing needs.
The key to managing change in the modern world is not having all of the answers, but rather being able to ask the right questions. When coaching an executive, Kaplan often asks him how he would design his company if he were starting from scratch. What would be the goals of the firm? How would it be structured in order to achieve those goals? How would each employee spend his or her time?
Kaplan argues that corporations must continuously “re-align” by going back to basics: re-stating their core goals, re-organizing their structures to achieve those goals, and allotting their time and money accordingly. “Very often I see great companies [that] fail to realign and start with a clean sheet of paper,” he says. “Either they are too emotionally attached with the way they’ve done things, they get a little less oriented toward learning, they get a little set in their ways. All of us get into habits.”
More often than not, when an executive gets set in his ways, so does his company, Kaplan says. “My advice is, leadership is a journey,” Kaplan says. “I’m still on it. I’m still learning, I’m still trying to figure it out. And I don’t think that will ever end.”