Complacency is a killer in any business. Here’s what you need to know to prevent it from striking you down.
Let me tell you a story about an experience I had with a client a little while ago.
This company hired me because they wanted me to help their CEO. The board identified that he didn’t take enough proactive measures. As a result, the company hemorrhaged money and had no sense of innovation.
There was a lack of innovation in the business and the board laid the blame on the CEO.
Worse yet, a competitor came into play who undercut all of my client’s prices. They got caught with their pants down because they weren’t offering anything that would stop people from going to the competition.
So, I started working with the CEO.
And in a pretty short period, we got the company’s prices back up. It started making money again.
It sounds like the board got everything that it wanted.
However, that isn’t the end of the story.
After a nice little period of back-patting, I left the CEO to carry on with the lessons I taught him.
But that didn’t happen.
Not long after I left the company, the results started dropping back down again. The old behaviors of procrastination returned and my client lost the momentum they’d just built.
The client called me back in.
Only this time, I could sense this underlying note of resentment and aggression from the board. I had the feeling that they blamed me for the company losing its direction again.
So, I confronted the board. I asked them what they really thought about the CEO they had in place and they had to answer me.
They told me about how he seemed to have become complacent. They talked about a lack of urgency and their frustration about not getting a return on their investment into this CEO.
And they’d felt that way for years.
The reason they’d never said anything before was that the business still made money and had happy customers. On the surface, everything looked pretty good. But underneath it all, there was this overriding sense of complacency that they traced back to the CEO.
That’s a dangerous thing to have in a business.
Complacency leads to you sticking with the status quo as your marketplace changes around you. It’s complacency that stopped Blockbuster from adapting to the streaming model. And it stopped Kodak from becoming the frontrunners in digital photography when they had the chance.
It could stop your business from achieving success in the future, even if you’re successful now.
This experience taught me some valuable lessons about how complacency creeps into a business. In this article, I share some of those lessons to help you avoid creating a stagnant and complacent culture.
Lesson #1 – Improving Performance Is Not a “One and Done” Thing
I got the impression from this client that they expected everything to get solved after just a few short sessions with me. They’d seen an improvement in results and they assumed they’d maintain the momentum without me.
But that’s not how it works.
The CEO made a few short-term improvements with my guidance. However, I didn’t work with him long enough to confront the underlying behavioral issues that led to the previous poor performance.
And it’s those behaviors that are crucial.
Improving performance is not a “one and done” thing. It’s something that you have to focus on constantly so that you maintain positive momentum. There’s no magic wand that you can wave to eliminate complacency from your business.
When you’re not focused on constant improvement, you acquire the attitude that the status quo is good enough. And that may be the case…for a while. But as you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re missing how the market shifts around you.
Customer needs change over time.
Competitors come onto the scene to challenge your position.
These are all things that you need to adapt to if your business is to thrive in the long term. A single change that you made months ago isn’t enough to adapt when new challenges arise.
Lesson #2 – Identify Your Interference
The fact is, it wasn’t just the CEO who’d become complacent.
The board admitted to me that they’d become complacent in how they dealt with him. And at that moment, they identified the interference that held the business back. They became aware that they weren’t doing enough to push the CEO to greater heights.
That awareness is so important when it comes to tackling complacency in any business.
If you’re not aware of what’s going on, you can’t do anything to fix your interferences. They’ll just keep getting stronger until they get to the point where they have a serious impact.
And by that point, it may be too late for your company.
Lesson #3 – Stop Pointing Fingers (Unless You’re Willing to Point at Yourself)
If I’ve given you the impression that the board blamed its CEO for all of the issues in the business, you’re right.
Before working with me, they assumed they’d given him all of the tools he needed. So when things didn’t work as they should, it was easy to point the finger of blame at him. But as I took them through the process of identifying interference, the board came to a realization.
Ultimately, the responsibility lay with them.
It was on them to supervise the CEO and they hadn’t done everything they could to create an environment in which he could succeed. The complacency that he had was a reflection of the complacency present at the boardroom level.
The message here is that you can’t point the finger of blame unless you’re willing to point to yourself.
As a leader, you have to be able to open up your kimono and show your belly. In other words, you’ve got to state where you’ve gone wrong and show that you’re aware of how you can improve.
That makes it much easier to transmit your message.
If you can see where you went wrong, your people will listen to you when you tell them what they need to improve on.
Lesson #4 – Confront Behaviors (Not the Person)
Eventually, the time came when we needed to have a conversation with the CEO.
What’s important to note here is that the board didn’t want to fire him. They wanted to see him improve, grow into the role, and reach the potential that they saw in him when they hired him.
But when it came time for a confrontation, they needed to beware of confronting the person.
It’s not the person who’s the problem. Rather, it’s the behaviors that they exhibit.
It’s a subtle difference, but it’s one you need to understand if you want to avoid a powder keg situation.
When you confront a person, they naturally raise their defenses. When that happens, the conversation becomes less about resolving an issue and more about somebody trying to prove that they’re right.
That will get you nowhere.
When the board confronted their CEO, they focused on disarming him. They talked about how happy they were that he afforded them meaty distribution checks. But they also zeroed in on how they felt there was a lack of initiative in his work.
They identified the behaviors that needed to change and discussed what needed to happen for them to change.
Lesson #5 – Personal Responsibility Is Key
Ultimately, it comes down to overcoming the obstacles and interference that exist in your own head.
That’s what the brilliant Timothy Gallwey points out in his book The Inner Game of Tennis. A Harvard educator and performance expert, he says:
“The opponent within one’s own head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net.”
This ties into my point about identifying your interference. You can get all of the help in the world from a coach or, in the case of your CEO, your board. But it’s up to you to make the changes that you need to make. It’s up to you to win the battle with the opponent inside your own head.
Taking personal responsibility for what isn’t working means you take a huge step towards solving the complacency issue. You’ve identified the interference, which means you’re now in a place to do something about it.
Are You Getting Complacent?
My collaboration with this client is still a work in progress. Both the CEO and the board need to take more steps to overcome the complacency that exists in their business.
But they’re making great progress.
They’ve identified interferences and understand each other’s roles in creating a complacent business. With all of that laid bare, they’re in the perfect position to make consistent and sustainable changes that will benefit the business.
Take the lessons I’ve shared here to heart.
Each one will give you a greater perspective on your business, your people, and yourself. And with them, you can tackle complacency before it takes root in your business.
And whenever you’re ready… here are 3 ways I can help you make you and your team more productive in order to grow your business:
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