Two years ago, I was considering taking on a new role at the University of Alberta. I had recently sold my business to a leading national firm and wasn’t necessarily looking for change. As Vice President, External Relations, I would play a role in implementing transformational change on a scale I’d never experienced before: forming an entirely new portfolio charged with advancing a unified vision for the university and leading a new team through a years-long process of restructuring and change. It was a major challenge. It was also what compelled me to take the job.
Change creates the opportunity for growth. That’s a lesson I learned from Don Cummings, managing partner at National Growth Partners. He has helped companies across Canada and the world manage change. He is a trusted advisor and has helped me through some of my most difficult business challenges.
According to Cummings, there are two drivers of change business leaders should watch for: signals from the market and signals within your organization.
The first driver — changes in the economy, technology and customers’ wants and needs — means looking at your environment. What is going on right now? What can you anticipate in the future? This will help you see opportunities, counter threats and assess risks.
The second, and often more neglected, driver evaluates how your people are feeling, he says. Your organization exists because it is made up of people, and those people’s needs are constantly changing. This internal driver will inform how your organization can be better by molding the company to how those inside it are seeing it.
What do both of these drivers have in common? They need to become a habit. It sounds simple, but when faced with a relentless stream of emails and meeting requests, we all know it’s easier said than done.
“When you’re running an organization, you’re so focused on delivering the things that you promised today, it’s tough to find that capacity to think about tomorrow,” says Cummings. “But it’s crucial to schedule in the time to understand what’s going on in and around your organization and plan for the future.”
When the U of A’s provincial grant was reduced by $222 million for the years 2020 through 2023 — representing 11 per cent of our total budget — it created an opportunity for the university to take a step back and see what would serve it best for decades to come. Reinventing a hundred-year-old business model is not something that an organization of this size usually gets to take on. It was a challenge that required creativity. It was a crisis we couldn’t afford to waste.
With expectations of post-secondary education changing, industry needs evolving and a global war for talent growing, universities can and should play a role in diversifying and growing the economy. Here was our opportunity to ensure we were at the heart of all of those conversations. It’s a part of the job that will never really be done.
Change is ongoing and we ought to embrace it, plan for it and leverage it. It requires the inclusion of the people and attention to the environments, in and around your organization. And if your environment, customers and employees are constantly changing, shouldn’t your business be too?