Leading in a World of Change: Lessons from Downton Abbey

Guest post from Hay
Group’s Rick Lash:
I confess it: I love Downton Abbey.

Part of the attraction for me is the weekly escape to an
unfamiliar world – a time, a
place and a culture that seem light-years away
from the daily challenges I face consulting with businesses on leadership
issues.

But it’s not easy to turn off
my daytime mind – and I recently realized that my business clients can learn
important and very relevant lessons, even from that distant world.

A world in flux, then:
Downton Abbey is set in the twilight of the great age of English estates.
Throughout that era, aristocratic families held vast tracts of land that generated
enormous wealth, both from the sale of crops and from rents paid by the people
who farmed the land.

These noble families also held positions of power in the
English political system, from which they were able to pass laws that protected
their privileges and claims. It was a system that remained essentially
unchanged for centuries, and it assured these families a continuous flow of income
to maintain their wealth across generations.

When Downtown Abbey takes place, however, the curtain was coming
down on that way of life. Global trade had driven down agricultural prices,
eroding the traditional sources of wealth for the great estates and gradually
starving the aristocracy of income.

At the same time, the advent of new ground breaking technologies
such as electricity and motorization – today we would call them disruptive –
allowed the estates to operate with significantly less staff. As a result, rural
families who had looked to their wealthy patrons to provide a secure means of
living were also being displaced. The fundamental business model that had
sustained the great estates for hundreds of years was unraveling.

It makes for a great dramatic series, but when it happens to
the organization that you’re a part of, it’s much less entertaining.

A world in flux, now:
And it is happening, right now, to
businesses in almost every industry, everywhere in the world. The business
models of the past are transforming at a breathtaking pace. Accelerating
globalization, technology convergence, volatile world financial markets and
demands for ethical, environmentally responsible business practices are
presenting organizations and their leaders with unprecedented challenges.
In
this rapidly changing business environment, leaders can’t take halfway measures
or hang on and hope for a wealthy corporate suitor to rescue the enterprise. If
you don’t want to end up in the business equivalent of a decaying old mansion
with scores of empty rooms, here are three crucial mistakes from the world of
Downton Abbey to avoid:
1.     Don’t hang on to yesterday’s success. Organizations
today can no longer afford to reinvent themselves every seven or ten years and
then return to a steady state. Today, leaders must continuously transform their
businesses, while ensuring day-to-day operations are executed with discipline
and efficiency. You can read more on mastering this difficult balancing act in
the Hay Group 2013 Best
Companies for Leadership study
.
2.     Don’t try to resist technology in the
workplace
. You don’t have to learn to love new communication and networking
technologies, but you do have to learn how to use them. They allow you to cast
a worldwide net to gather ideas, connect to sources of knowledge and experience,
and build consensus throughout your organization, no matter how large it is. And
they’re the only way to keep ahead of the changes that are affecting your
markets and your success around the world.
3.     Don’t wait to act. As a business leader
today, you have to be alert for weak signals. Every competitive advantage in
every marketplace is potentially subject to unexpected disruption. You have to
be vigilant in looking for signs that one of your markets is about to be
affected. Separating the signal from the constant noise streaming in to your
office isn’t easy; it requires focus and clarity – and great intel from sources
you trust (see No. 2 above).

In Downton Abbey, resistance to change nearly cost
the Grantham family their estate. Today, the world is changing exponentially
faster than it was back then.  It’s up to
modern leaders to adapt to and embrace change, rather than fight it.  

What mistakes would you say today’s leaders
must avoid?

About the author:

Rick Lash,
Director of Hay
Group’s Leadership & Talent Practice
in Canada and co-leader of the
annual Hay Group Best Companies for Leadership study. Rick works with
executives to build the leadership capabilities needed to execute their
organizational strategy. He specializes in organizational change, succession
planning and leadership development; working with leaders and senior teams to
refine their capabilities and create lasting change and improved performance.