Suppose you have a small but very popular business. You began as a handful of people, most of whom are still with you after you kicked out a couple of uneven performers. While you’ve added some staff as the business grew, every employee is a key employee since there really aren’t any overlapping roles.
Thirty five years go by, the business grows, and while there are good years and bad, the product mix is generally well-received by customers and reviewers. In an industry where products come and go very quickly, this one endures, even though it went through a period where everyone wondering if it had lost its way. The product focus changes with each release cycle to match the times – no one has ever called your business stagnant even though its product sector has gone through some very rough times. In fact, there is an entire secondary business of add-ons and information providers that has grown up around your business. Not a bad place to be.
One day, you learn that a key employee is sick and several months later he dies. You adjust by hiring someone who can do what he did albeit without the strong emotional bond to the team as the late employee. A few years later, another key member – your right hand – passes away suddenly. The team is devastated and there are real questions about the ability of the business to continue. The emotional toll on you is palpable and the business community wonders if you’ll retire and shut it down.
Instead, you decide to replace the man who everyone thought was irreplaceable. You let customers know that it will be different, and while you will make best efforts to minimize the differences, you are up front about it being different and don’t try to pretend as if nothing had changed. You bring on more employees to reinforce some of the differences, creating a transformed product in the process. You release new product – one developed primarily with an outside team for a fresh perspective. It’s very well received, and breathes life into the older products, and customers continue to buy it in droves. The business remains true to its core values and it’s obvious that the old and new employees are on the same page thanks to excellent leadership.
It’s really a textbook case on managing business transformation in difficult times. I was privileged to witness it myself last night. Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.