Thursday, January 9, 2014

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.


Anonymous said...

A mistake that I see in my community is that some of the businesses and institutions insist on maintaining the old leadership model of only white men at the top. We have a community bank that hasn't had a women on the Board for over 25 years and has never had a minority on the Board.

Anonymous said...

And today we have - Vast tracts of wealth that again, very disproportionately, generates additional wealth, both from the economic systems developed and tweaked to return evermore wealth to those who possess it and from that wealth the posessors are able to pass laws that protect their wealth and privileges.

James Strock said...

Terrific post! Downton is so well done and is replete with leadership and management lessons, as you so aptly summarize. Watching the development of various characters moving toward responsibility in a new era, notably Mary, will be fascinating.