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Guest: Allan Young, an entrepreneur, executive leader, serial disruptor, and the CEO of Noble Brands.
Episode in a Tweet: If you’re not the main disruptor in your business space, you’re liable to get “Blockbustered.”
Quick Background: Allan Young got hooked on shaking up businesses at a young age – he estimates he started 14 different companies before he graduated from high school! This entrepreneurial spirit put Allan out of step with the dominant business thinking of the ‘70s and ‘80s: emulate what’s already successful. But today, being a disruptor in your business space isn’t just trendy – it’s essential to fighting off complacency, and staying ahead of the hungry start-ups chomping at your heels.
On today’s show, Allan gives his tips on how CEOs can embrace positive, forward thinking to transform their companies into powerful disruptors.
Transcript: Download the full transcript here.
Key Insights on How to Be a Disruptor
1. Being a disruptor is no longer an aspiration, it’s table stakes.
As CEOs consider how to compete in the new, global, digital economy “disruption is no longer really going to be an option,” says Allan – it’s now the very nature of how a successful business will stay successful. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Act or be acted on,’ because I think that really is what happens in business,” he adds. “If you’re leading a business, you’re either going to be disrupting, or you’re going to be disrupted.” Choose now.
2. Frame disruption as a positive force, not a destructive one.
“Don’t get ‘Blockbustered.’” That’s the warning against being a complacent CEOs that’s been drilled into CEOs’ heads since the digital entertainment revolution toppled one of the biggest companies in the country.
But to Allan, looking at Blockbuster, Kodak, or Xerox in that way frames the lesson all wrong. CEOs should think about disruption not as a means of destroying other businesses, but as a positive way of staying ahead of inevitable changes. Netflix didn’t kill Blockbuster; Blockbuster killed Blockbuster because it got comfortable in its space, didn’t anticipate change, and didn’t adapt.
“We get very comfortable in what we’re doing, and that’s anti-disruption, the anti-innovation,” cautions Allan. “I think disruption really means looking at things differently, how things can be different in the future. And really painting a very vivid picture of what that new paradigm will look like, and why that’s going to benefit everyone. A really good disruptive vision needs to explain, ‘How does this create a bigger pie?’ instead of trying to get a larger slice of the existing pie.”
3. Split the functions of being the visionary and the operator.
Allan is a big believer in dividing essential, top-level tasks between a visionary and an operator. A classic example is the Disney family: Walt was the visionary who painted the pictures, and Roy was the operator who ran the business. Between the two of them, they created a major disruptor in entertainment, real estate, and consumer products.
Allan, like many top CEOs, goes out of his way to give himself space to think, learn, and hone his vision for success, whether that means reading books and going to industry events, or setting himself apart from the daily machinations of his business as necessary. “We have a cabin in north Georgia I like to go to as much as possible for a day or two just by myself to think,” says Allan, in the same spirit as Bill Gates’ famous “Think Weeks.”
Of course, giving yourself space to be the visionary, and letting your operator handle day-to-day tasks, requires having the right operator on your team. If you bog down your schedule by micromanaging every little thing, you’re wasting your valuable CEO time. If you can’t trust your C-Suite or management team to execute without your constant supervision, then you have the wrong people in the wrong jobs. Get the right people right now.
4. Identify your company’s values, and live them.
“We’re going to be the big disruptor in our business space” is not a viable mission statement. Your company has to be about more than just tearing down the old way of doing things – it has to have a vision for a better, BIGGER way forward.
Early in Noble Brands’ life, Allan realized the company had a culture problem. So he refocused his employees on five key values that he believed would achieve the disruption, and the success, he wanted: “candor, courage, entrepreneurial thinking, acting as one team, and leading with a servant’s heart.” Then, like all effective CEOs, Allan went one step further and measured what was important: he had all his key team members rate each other on how well they practiced the company’s five values. This might sound like it could have a negative effect on morale, but Allan found that it motivated his team to redouble their efforts and refocus operations on the core values that would lead to success. This exercise also provided Allan with a template he can use to judge future hires on their potential culture fit.
5. Be a fast tester…and learner.
To encourage the “entrepreneurial thinking” value, Allan and has team have learned to accept, and even celebrate, the bumps in the road on the way to being a disruptor, not just celebrate successes. If your company’s mindset is fixed on avoiding risk, not taking chances, and not asking questions, you’re only guarding yourself against short-term failure. When a long-gestating project doesn’t go as planned, Allan prefers to look at the lessons learned along the way. “The failure we celebrate is really the micro failures,” he says. “If you’ve made a mistake, and especially if you fail fast, if you can wrap your arms around why and adjust, we’re going to celebrate that more than we are going to celebrate a success.”
1. Reframe disruption as a positive force. Envision a future where your disruptive business is a force for good and makes the pie bigger, as opposed to one that simply trashes current competitors.
2. Don’t try to be a visionary CEO and a task-master operator. These are two very different functions so split them and fill the other role with world-class talent.
3. Experiment frequently and learn quickly from experiments. What you learn from trying new things can lead to a disruptive breakthrough a lot quicker than patting yourself on the back when things go according to plan.