Are You a Disruptive Leader?

When we think about disruption in business, we generally think in terms of the negative: system outages, employee turnover, and natural disasters, for example. But what if being labeled a disruptor was considered a good thing?

A disruptive leader fights the status quo and brings a fresh set of eyes to the business environment. The enemy of the disruptive leader is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Disruptive leaders deliberately seek out situations where problems are not always obvious but where opportunity may exist for improvement. They are strategic in their approach and thorough in their examination of processes and functions that can be improved.

Disruptive leaders often leverage technology to drive change in business. Emerging technologies provide leaders with an opportunity to reimagine how work gets done and the positive results that will be realized because of those changes. Disruptive leaders pay attention to emerging technologies, and, most importantly, they pay attention to how emerging technologies influence the environment around them. Paying attention to developments outside one’s business can be key to making internal changes that better meet the evolving needs of customers.

It is not enough to possess knowledge of what is emerging. You must also know when and how to act. Businesses primarily adopt technology in one of two ways: as early adopters or as technology followers. Early adopters are on the bleeding edge of new technologies. These individuals actively seek technology that will fundamentally transition their businesses in a way that gives them an edge over their competition. While the rewards may be great, there is tremendous risk of failure associated with the early adopter mentality. Technology followers are more conservative. They wait for risks to be minimized and benefits proven. The drawback to being a follower is that you are always second, always behind, but more significantly, the technology follower is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Consider for a moment how the mass adoption of iTunes impacted record store owners.

I advocate for a third form of adoption where the disruptive leader’s approach to new technology is calculated. These individuals position themselves on the leading edge of adoption. They strike after the risk has passed but before they are beaten by the technology (or beaten by their competitors who take advantage of the opportunity first.) Xero is an example of one such disruptive leader who leveraged the emergence of cloud technology to transform itself from a small start-up to a multi-million dollar a year success story.

Xero is a developer of accounting software. Their story began in 2006 after their founders identified an opportunity to leverage cloud technology to provide what other accounting software vendors were not offering: low-priced, simple and secure subscription-based accounting software specifically tailored to meet the needs of small businesses. The company started with a handful of developers working in an apartment above a coffee shop. Today, the company employs over 750 individuals worldwide and reports yearly revenues exceeding $60M per year. Clearly the idea was a huge success. (I’ll explain why, including the benefits of cloud-based software in next month’s column.)

The threat of disruption is the degree to which innovations in technology evolve human behavior and expectation. As we have seen, some disruptions are downright destructive to established industries (e.g. if you are a taxi driver, keep your eye out on Google’s driverless cars). How might a change in human behavior impact your business? What technologies are emerging that change the way that individuals access information, make decisions or acquire products and services (i.e. think Facebook)? How do you learn about anticipated consequences to your industry as a result of emerging technologies?

Disruptive leaders delegate time to broaden their awareness about the world that surrounds them. They deliberately invest time into resources that provide business intelligence related to their industry and are skilled at recognizing emerging trends and the consequences of those trends. There are a number of resources available to connect you to thought leaders from your industry. LinkedIn is one such resource. Participation in LinkedIn Groups provides a forum for idea sharing and industry specific developments. It’s an excellent place to collaborate with some of the world’s strongest talents.

John F. Kennedy said, “change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” You either disrupt, or you are disrupted. My advice is to remain in tune to what is emerging around your business and your industry. Pay careful attention not just to what’s obvious, but to what is not naturally foreseeable. Great opportunities (and great consequences) can be realized from what is or is not foreseen. It is the skilled who seek, find, and implement solutions after the initial risk has passed but not before the benefits are minimized.

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