Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corporation, stated in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Another one of my favorites is attributed to Thomas Edison in 1922: “The radio craze will die out in time.” These and similar quotes are often used to point out the impact of technology change and how it can be difficult to predict the future even for obviously very smart people. Unfortunately, none of us has the crystal ball, but as business leaders we are challenged to constantly ask ourselves “what is next?” Given the pace of technological change and the flattening of the global marketplace, very few businesses have the luxury to rest on their past success. As the last two years have shown us, historic brands can disappear virtually overnight (e.g. Bear Stearns, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers).
Based on this reality, what is a leader to do? Obviously, embracing the reality of change as a constant is a start. However, this is easier said than done. The reason is that companies are simply organizations of people, and most people don’t like change. In fact, we know from recent discoveries in neuroscience that our brains are hardwired to resist change. Effective leaders pull themselves out of the fray and continually ask questions about the future of their organizations. In addition, great leaders know how to effectively lead their people through change to stay on course.
TEC is a Mississippi-based company with a rich tradition of visionary leadership and successful management of change. The company’s history dates back to 1923 when Donnie and Estelle Fail purchased the Bay Springs Telephone Company and operated the switchboard from their front bedroom/office to serve the needs of the local community. The company has grown over the years to be a leading communications provider, serving customers in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. For years, the company operated under various names in local areas including The CommuniGroup in Mississippi. Even though the company has experienced tremendous success with its telephone services, the company’s leadership under second generation leader Joseph D. Fail knew that it had to change to stay in front of trends to better serve its customers.
According to Joseph’s daughter Joey Garner, vice president of commercial operations, the company recently went through a major brand change and consolidation for all of the operating companies to share the TEC brand. In addition, the company has been expanding its services which include broadband, voice, data, cable TV, IPTV, and security. Garner noted several key factors in leading for the future and managing through this type of change:
Think proactively — First, you have to understand your core competencies. You can’t offer all things to everyone. What are you really good at? From there, you have to challenge assumptions and remove the blinders to think creatively about what product or service offerings that could be complimentary to your core.
Change gradually — Change does not happen overnight. Careful planning goes into any effective change. Garner noted that their leadership planned out TEC’s changes almost two years in advance. Poorly timed and executed transformations can be disruptive.
Gain buy-in — Radical change can’t be forced through the organization. Successful change is created by gaining buy-in from all levels of the organization. Everyone should own a part of the vision for the future. Fear is an inevitable part of this kind of change. We become comfortable in our routines and talk of change can lead to immediate concerns about job security. Leadership’s challenge is to proactively address these fears and work to turn fear into excitement.
This family oriented business serves as a great example of how to keep an eye on the future of your industry and effectuate change in an organization. Based on their leadership culture, I am sure they will be continuing to focus on “what is next” for years to come.
Martin Willoughby is a business lawyer in Jackson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.