Between virtual meetings and the whirlwind of everyday work, I’ve been revisiting the key insights from some of my favorite business books, “The Leadership Challenge” by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. Particularly applicable is the authors’ chapter on leading through change, and the importance of being proactive about changing course when challenges present themselves. They place emphasis on combatting challenge with change, and even purport that it’s a leader’s top priority to do so.
This year has been a series of challenges for all of us, and most of them have been obstacles we’ve never faced before. While status quo leaders fear change, extraordinary leaders embrace it and are even themselves catalysts for change to conquer whatever difficulties they encounter on their road toward accomplishing their goals.
Change is nothing to be afraid of, in fact, it’s the best driver of innovation we’ve got. It’s the work of us as leaders to do what has never been done before; this inherently means embracing change and avoiding a business-as-usual or that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done attitude. (As the saying goes, once you think you know it all, your slide to mediocrity has already begun.)
Challenges, as the authors explain, test values, desire, aspirations, capabilities and capacities. They also require innovation to solve. You can’t solve a new problem with the old way of doing things; a new problem, which generates brand-new questions for your business, requires an entirely new set of ideas and strategies to execute.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, chair and director for the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, conducted an extensive study on innovation and leadership, concluding the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. She said, “Change requires leadership … a ‘prime mover’ to push for implementation of strategic decisions.”
High-performing leaders are able to excavate opportunities from challenges where other leaders cannot. They identify new systems and processes to generate the positive momentum of transformational changes. For example, the Frappuccino, one of Starbucks’ most popular drinks, was itself the result of innovative leadership and seizing initiative. Dina Campion, who in 1993 oversaw 10 Starbucks locations throughout Southern California, noticed other coffee shops selling blended coffee drinks that Starbucks, at the time, was currently not offering.
“It was the summer of 1993, and Los Angeles is very hot in the summer,” Campion said. “We noticed there were some smaller coffee shops that did some sort of blended coffee beverage. A couple of store managers and I felt there was a huge opportunity for Starbucks.”
Campion seized the initiative. She contacted one of her former California store managers, Dan Moore, who had moved to Seattle to work at the corporate headquarters. She even purchased her own blender and shipped it down to the Sherman Oaks, Calif. store to test the product.
By the summer of 1994, Campion’s region was serving the blended drink to its customers, who were all eager to enjoy the refreshing beverage. Starbucks’ corporate office took notice and planned for a company-wide launch the following summer. It was certainly a challenge—and a change—but Campion and her team were ready to seize the imitative and execute.
“We had less than five months to execute our first major new product launch,” Moore said. “I remember sitting on the floor over the weekends with store design and blueprints for all of our more than 500 stores, mapping out blended stations for each one. Then I flew out to all 23 markets and did training in every city.”
And so coffee history was made. In its first week after launch, Starbucks sold 200,000 Frappuccino drinks, then 400,000 the following week and the next week, 800,000 Frappuccinos were sold. The Frappuccino accounted for 11 percent of sales that summer to drive Starbucks stock to a record high.
So, what’s the message? The Starbucks story is just one of so many anecdotes that prove why challenge must be met with change. There’s one more layer to this leadership puzzle that’s as important (or more important) than the rest: meaning. To be fully engaged in overcoming a challenge, your team must know why. “Meaningfulness thrives when people understand the purpose of their organization and the work they do,” write Kouzes and Posner. Connect your challenge with meaning and purpose and the outcome won’t just be a better state of existence for your team and business but also for the world.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.