Alex Taylor, University of IowaThis is a guest post from Alex Taylor, whom I've known since high school. We had coffee a couple weeks ago and he generously agreed to share some of his wisdom via this blog. Read other advice and insights from our friends and colleagues.

Leadership by Relevance

(this piece originally appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette)

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 (Marketing and Communications Strategies Inc.) wrote in a previous Business 380 article:

“… new products, new regulations, new market configurations, new customers and new technology in almost every industry is changing at such a rate that a project lasting more than 35 days is obsolete before it can be finished.”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 their laurels and make little effort to understand and address new or different trends.

Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO responsible for turning Xerox Corporation around, recently spoke at the University of Iowa [read about that here].  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, in order 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.

Cautionary tales of (ir)relevance

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 Visa Print, 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 (Blackberry). Both companies have fallen from industry leadership, in part because they failed to understand the market and adjust (change) to stay relevant.

How companies stay relevant

Now consider companies that rediscovered market relevance and leveraged these trends for growth:

4 ways to stay relevant

  1. Take time each week to read trade magazines, industry journals, and news as it pertains to your business/industry. Don’t discount “new” or “different” ideas as a passing fad. Instead, investigate and understand these trends. [You can get this blog delivered straight to your inbox, for instance!]
  2. Speak with, and listen to, industry peers and competition.  Learn first-hand by regularly attending trade shows, and industry sponsored activities and events (don’t just rely on surrogates). [Get tips for working conferences]
  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.
    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.

Alex Taylor is the co-owner of Woofables Gourmet Dog Treats, a writer and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Iowa.