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Leading the Way: Leadership by Relevance

To stay relevant, a leader must actively look for, and adjust to, shifting trends within an industry and with customers.

Why? Consider what Nancy Garberson of Marketing and Communications Strategies wrote in a Business 380 column last year:

“… New products, new regulations, new market configurations, new customers and new technology in almost every industry are changing at such a rate that a project lasting more than 35 days is obsolete before it can be finished.”

Business leaders and organizations can quickly and easily fall from a competitive advantage when they simply rest on laurels and make little effort to understand and address new or different trends.

Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO responsible for turning Xerox Corp. around, recently spoke at the University of Iowa. She explained that some of Xerox’s cash-cow business units and practices were kept in place longer than necessary.

As a result, they were the most difficult to change, or completely shut down.

But to turn Xerox around, it was necessary to realign the organization with current customer needs, which meant change and removal of a few sacred cows.

Not too long ago, I worked for a large but struggling print business. It struggled because, despite the rapid surge in digital print technologies, the owner didn’t believe digital print would impact traditional offset printing. (Ha! Tell that to Vistaprint, based in the Netherlands and one of the fastest-growing digital print businesses in the world.)

By the time the owner finally integrated digital printing into his product mix, the delay caused increased expenses to reestablish relevance in the marketplace and with customers.

Look at the current status of Kodak and Research in Motion, the BlackBerry manufacturer. Both companies have fallen from industry leadership, in part because they failed to understand the market and adjust—that is, change—to stay relevant.

Now consider companies that rediscovered market relevance and leveraged these trends for growth: McDonalds’ success with menu choices promoted as healthier; Coke and Pepsi with surging revenues from energy and vitamin drinks; automobile manufacturers that produce hybrid cars to address environmental concerns and rising gas prices; and, last but not least, politicians who’ve “gone relevant” with social media to stay in touch with voters and raise money.

So how can you stay relevant?

1. Take time each week to read trade magazines, industry journals, and news as it pertains to your business and industry.

Don’t discount “new” or “different” ideas as a passing fad. Instead, investigate and understand these trends.

2. Speak with and listen to both industry peers and competition. Learn firsthand by regularly attending trade shows and industry-sponsored activities and events.

Don’t just rely on surrogates.

3. Invest in research and development. Regularly test ideas and concepts as part of your business practice. Survey customers and host customer focus groups to learn about their preferences—good and bad—and trends.

4. Challenge convention. Be open to the possibility that current best practices could become obsolete.

5. Nurture a culture that embraces relevance as essential to survive—where leaders pay attention to trends, are open-minded to new ideas and have the courage to drive change.

Staying relevant is smart business and a wise practice for organizational sustainability and long-term success.

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