Telltale Sign of a Company in Decline

Often people are perplexed to see a company with an outstanding culture, a great record of growth and success, suddenly start to spurt, sputter and stutter like a car running out of gas. Cars have a gas gauge to let you know when you are running low on gas for the engine, which of course is what drives the car forward, but there seems to be no such warning signal for companies. Or is there?

My contention is that every company does have an accurate gauge that will warn anyone who wants to notice, that the company is running low on gas for its culture, which of course is what drives the company forward.

The gas that fuels the culture of an organization is a high octane sense of urgency. Operating with a sense of urgency is the measure of an organization’s leadership and vitality. A sense of urgency does not mean operating at a forced frenetic pace, but rather it means all tasks, decisions and actions are tackled in a consistent, timely fashion, exhibiting neither delay nor panic. Such urgency is not, however, without its enemies.

Chief among these is bureaucracy, that stultifying goo that fertilizes indecision and delay that subsequently leads to a harvest of inaction or last minute, panicky actions. As a result, a corporate leader who accepts or foments bureaucracy as a tool for control rarely recognizes or understands the importance of a sense of urgency. And a culture without a sense of urgency is on the road to failure.

When a company is vibrant and growing it is usually because a leader has instilled a sense of urgency in the culture. The leader understands that the best antidote for bureaucracy is a consistent attitude of getting things done. Once this sense of urgency is lost, there is little fuel to drive the company forward.

Too Big to be Nimble?

There is a general belief that the idea of a sense of urgency works only in smaller ventures, but that is wrong. Whether or not an organization operates with a sense of urgency is not determined by the size of the organization, but by the quality of its leadership. Organizations led by entrepreneurial leaders habitually operate with a sense of urgency, but that does not mean that even the biggest of organizations can’t have that attitude. 

A good example of a leader understanding the value of a sense of urgency in battling bureaucracy and moving a company forward is Cisco CEO John Chambers. Cisco is the company that manufactures much of the plumbing that links the Internet.

When John Chambers took over leadership of Cisco in 1995, it was rank with the standard command-and-control school of management. That’s what most business school grads learn and that’s the leadership style they often bring to the businesses they manage.

Chambers was the first to admit that the corporation hewed the line of that old-school kind of leadership. “All decisions came to the top 10 people in the company,” said Chambers, “and we drove things back down from there.” In order to instill a sense of urgency in the organization, Chambers saw the wisdom of sharing corporate decision-making to a much wider base. Accordingly, he led the company through a massive, sometimes bumpy reorganization to spread the company’s leadership and decision-making far wider than any major corporation has attempted before. The goal of the Cisco program was to create a sense of urgency by empowering more and more employees to make decisions and execute them without being straightjacketed by typical bureaucratic restraints.

Today, the company employs a collaborative network of councils and boards empowered to launch new businesses and products. The eye-opening result, according to Cisco, is that the leaders of business units that used to compete for power and resources now share responsibility for one another’s successes. What used to be “me” is now “we.”

The goal, says Chambers, is to get more products to market faster. Chambers was quoted in a recent issue of Fast Company as saying, “The boards and councils have been able to innovate with tremendous speed. Fifteen minutes and one week to get a [business] plan that used to take six months!” As storm clouds form for the rest of the business community, he says, “We’re going to gain market share.”

The company has moved into more than two dozen new businesses, from consumer camcorders to giant TV screens for stadiums. The best results, as you might expect, accrued to its bottom line. The company’s revenues have soared from $1 billion to almost $40 billion since Chambers assumed leadership, proving that Cisco’s ethical leadership model is working, and it’s working very successfully.

Such a sense of urgency of action and shared decision-making is even more important in these new times of business uncertainty. It is in fact imperative that leaders focus on and drive a sense of urgency throughout the culture of the organization.

The challenge for the leader, of course, is to define and motivate members of an organization to respond to all issues with a sense of urgency. There is a difference between having a sense of urgency and shooting from the hip. Having a sense of urgency does not mean that you are not organized and does not mean that you are not planning-nor does it mean that you are managing off at the cuff without preparation. It means that you have a sense of determination to get things done.

The strong leader understands that in order to instill or retain a sense of urgency in the organization, that singular actions just won’t cut it. Success requires a variety of exploits. People need (and want) to be held accountable for the results that they achieve-both good and bad. Priorities need to be clear, consistent, achievable, and staunchly supported. Deadlines must be set-held to and met. And those charged with responsibility must be given authority, held accountable, and rewarded for success. So long as the leader operates with this philosophy, the organization will remain gassed up and ready to roll into the future.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you observe a company where the culture is more defensive than aggressive; where decisions are made by a few and slow to come by, then you are looking at a company that has lost its sense of urgency and will soon be out of gas.

Even worse, if you work in an organization that shows clear signs of having lost its sense of urgency of action, then prepare yourself for difficult times, because the best of times are in your rearview mirror.

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