It doesn’t always happen the same way. For some, it may start as a nagging feeling — one that’s easy to quell in the beginning but soon becomes too big to ignore. For others, it’s a realization like a lightning strike. Either way, countless business leaders have reached the same moment when they realize their work isn’t going down the right path.
When this occurs, the next steps are critical. Making a massive pivot is an incredibly difficult undertaking — one that can absolutely destroy an established organization. But Peter Seligmann, founder of Conservation International and its CEO for 30 years, proves that it can be done successfully, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable.
A Shift in Perception
As far as realizations go, Seligmann’s moment was of the more sudden variety. “In 2007, 20 years after we started the organization, I was looking at a map of the world thinking of how much CI had protected. … a 30-mile strip wrapped around the planet.” He had always thought of that as a big accomplishment, and rightfully so. Protecting close to 1.5 billion acres of land was no small feat. But then he noticed something else. “When you look at the globe, it’s basically the width of that perforated line that goes around the equator. That’s really tiny.”
Looking at CI’s achievements on a global scale changed Seligmann’s perspective about what the organization had accomplished. At the same time, accelerating extinction rates and the collapse of global fisheries made CI’s victories seem much smaller in comparison. “It was at that moment that I realized it was not about nature anymore,” explains Seligmann. “It was about people…people need nature to thrive. Nature does not need us. That was the breakthrough.”
Breakthrough indeed, but at what price? Seligmann had come to a difficult realization: “Our mission’s wrong. Our staffing’s wrong. Our partners are wrong.” By changing the fundamental purpose of the organization, he was shaking CI to its foundations; however, reshaping the organization was accomplished in much the same way CI had accomplished so much already — one step at a time.
Facing the prospect of a hairpin turn in business strategy? Take these tips to heart in order to keep your organization healthy during the transition:
1. Prepare for the backlash.
During Conservation International’s transition, Seligmann says the organization lost a quarter of its staff. His conviction in the need for a different direction kept him going. “I just said, ‘We’re doing this, and if you disagree, I’m gonna help you find another job. Because I admire you, but if we don’t make this transformation, we will lose.'” For many leaders, letting employees go can be the hardest part of any transition phase.
2. Get support at every level.
Toward the end of 2005, Apple announced that iTunes would serve as a platform for listening to podcasts. For Odeo, a company that had positioned its sole product as a podcasting platform, the news was devastating. The founders quickly realized they needed a total change of direction, so they brought the entire company on board to figure out what it would be. You might have heard of their end result – Twitter. The new social platform was a group effort that wouldn’t have been feasible without bringing everyone in to collaborate.
3. Inject new blood to help the transition.
Losing employees is tough, but it can also be a great opportunity to bring talented new individuals on board who aren’t familiar with the old way of doing things. Better Weekdays is one organization leaning into this idea, positioning itself as the “HubSpot for Recruiting.” The Whether, Better Weekdays’ inbound recruiting tool, allows employers to attract Millennials to careers they’ll love, which are also the ones that they’ll contribute to the most.
4. Look before you leap.
No pivot is worth the effort if your organization crashes and burns in the attempt, so build a strategy for sustainability into your transition plan to ensure you stay solvent as you move. Groupon began as a side project for a company called The Point, which was designed as a social media platform to get people together in Chicago to take on philanthropic causes. After the market collapse in 2008, the team was feeling the pressure to turn in a new direction. The idea to use The Point as a platform for getting group buying discounts would eventually morph into Groupon, but the former company only made the switch once the new idea was proven to have market potential.
Even patiently waiting for the right time can’t guarantee the success of a major pivot. Nothing can. And the bigger an organization is, the more momentum it has in the direction it’s been going. However, when you know your company is going in the wrong direction, there’s little else you can do but follow these steps and not look back.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.