ReIgnite Your Treadmill Organization Post COVID-19

Treadmill is a tough time for a business. As in Early Struggle and Whitewater, the business is once again finding its way.

As I mentioned in the article I released earlier this week; I believe it is in Treadmill that a company’s fate is decided. While it may look different from one company to another, in principle, it comes down to the role of vision in the direction and leadership of the company.

A tough time for Founders

It is for this reason that Treadmill is even tougher for the Founder if he or she is still active in the company. In fact, in Treadmill, many founders will exit the business that they started so many years ago.

As the company drove forward through Whitewater and Predictable Success, the role of the Founder changed dramatically. Now, here in Treadmill, it’s starting to seem like a lost cause. There are meetings for the sake of meetings, and you swear last week in one of those meetings someone proposed a checklist for completing a checklist. For the Visionary, it’s suffocating.

A range of emotions

If your business was in Treadmill at the start of 2020, I’m sure you’ve experienced a stunning range of emotions. First, you were probably planning (either quietly or not so quietly) your exit, which is a grieving process of its own. And, if that meant a sale of your ownership, in March and April, you probably experienced a whole new round of grief as you saw the window of opportunity slam shut, potentially extending this strange limbo until further notice.

Then, as the economy continued to struggle, you, for the first time in a very long time, may have wondered, “Is this it. Could this really be it?”

While some businesses won’t make it through this crisis, I would like to offer the opinion that this does not have to be the end of your business, but it could be the beginning of a new era of growth for the business.

Getting the fire back

Many Visionary leaders get sharp and clear in a crisis. For them, it can be harder to lead, harder to stay at the top of their game when things are “good.” If this is you, you may have found the spark you’ve needed.

The crisis represents a whole new challenge for you. Instead of marking the end of your business, this could be just what you and your business need to reignite and get back into Predictable Success.

Fighting a tailwind

Though there is an incredible opportunity here, it won’t come without a fight. The unfortunate reality of Treadmill is that the organizational inertia is pulling the business away from Predictable Success. Turning this momentum around is a challenge in normal times. When a crisis hits, the challenge is amplified by a tailwind.

This may not sound scary, but in Formula 1, a tailwind at the end of a long straight poses a considerable threat to the drivers. It’s not a problem going down the straight. The tailwind effectively stalls the rear wing helping them go faster than ever. The problem is getting through the turn. To change direction and stay on track, the driver needs to brake earlier and get the turn-in point just right or run the risk of careening off the track and into the tire wall.

It’s easy to justify protective leadership. It’s easy to lean toward risk-reduction strategies. It’s easy to simply circle the wagons, hunker down and wait out the storm. It’s easy to ride yesterday’s momentum and today’s tailwind and let them push you further and further from your winning ways.

A strategy to reignite your Treadmill organization

It’s your job as the Visionary to pull the emergency brake and stop the train, and if you don’t do it now. It could soon be too late.

So how do you do it? How do you pull the brake without breaking the company? How do you take the risks that will you get back into Predictable Success without inadvertently sinking the ship? If you are going to turn the ship around and steer it back into Predictable Success, you will need the right strategy.

Winston Churchill’s leadership of Great Britain provides us with a masterclass in using a crisis to turn a treadmill organization around. This article has a list of Churchill’s leadership principles. It’s a treasure trove for any Founder wanting to reignite their company.

If Churchill could do it with an entire empire, you can do it with your business.

Initiative #1: Lead the entire company

Shorten feedback loops

In Treadmill, it is not uncommon for senior leadership to become out of touch with the realities on the ground. The layers of management and bureaucracy create a formidable barrier to the free flow of information. Initiatives are slowed. The bad news is sanitized, and the whole system seems to work against itself.

Get to the front line

To lead the business out of Treadmill, you have to lead the entire company, not just the senior executive team. You and your executives need to get out on the front-line. You need to get your hands dirty. You need to understand what is really happening. And you need to model the type of behavior you are expecting from your staff.

Craft a compelling narrative

Your employees need a rallying cry. They need a mission to believe in. They need to understand what is at stake for the company.

You need to craft a compelling narrative. One that accurately depicts the risks of inaction and the rewards of risk-taking. You need to paint vivid pictures of success and failure and present them with the forced-choice before you all today.

Every good and compelling story has a villain. In normal times, this is hard to identify and even harder to personify. The gift of an economic crisis is a nameable villain. You can unite the company around the fight to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s incredibly powerful and a golden opportunity for you as a leader.

Initiative #2: Re-institutionalize risk-taking

Once you’ve properly set the context, it is time to re-institutionalize risk-taking. In times of uncertainty, the stakes are raised. If your business is in Treadmill, this can work to your advantage for a few reasons.

“Extreme” action is easier to justify

When you start with Initiative #1, you can manage the PR much more effectively. What would typically appear to be rash, extreme, or immature decisions by the Visionary leader now seems right and even admirable in the organization’s quest to overcome its enemy? So summon your inner William Wallace and get to work.

There are no safe options to overcome

Much like the previous point, one advantage you have today is that much of life feels risky. Even a task as domestic as grocery shopping requires us to armor up with a face-mask, ski goggles, and a belt-mounted aerosol hand-sanitizer. Risky has been redefined. It’s easier to take risks when all of the options feel riskier. It’s much harder when one option is “safe,” and the other isn’t.

So use the “cover of risk” to lead the organization to take the risks required to get it back into Predictable Success.

The return is higher if you get it right

I could write an entire article (maybe even a book) on this, but here’s the headline. You have way more to gain over the next few years than you have lost over the last few months due to the crisis. Here are just a few reasons why.

  1. Everyone bigger than you is still in freeze mode. Any business in the Big Rut is just trying to wait this out (or just trying to stay solvent). Other than Amazon, you are probably one of the biggest players moving right now. Use this to your advantage. Use your resources, leverage your balance sheet, cash in on your brand reputation. If you can move while everyone else is frozen, you can make massive strides.
  2. No one smaller than you has the resources you do. Small companies who were about to pose a significant threat to your entire industry may now be struggling to make ends meet, buying you additional time to innovate or even buy them out.
  3. There are a lot of discounts out there. Look for smaller, more vibrant organizations that could benefit from your resources AND are priced at a discount.
  4. Buyer behaviors have been upended across the board. Established markets all over are ripe for change and disruption. This is a perfect opportunity to move quickly and take market share.

Wrapping it up

If your business was in Treadmill at the start of the year, you, as the Visionary, have a fantastic opportunity to turn it around faster and more effectively than if the crisis had never happened.

It won’t come without a fight. You’ll have to work incredibly hard to turn the ship around. But you’ll find several new tools at your disposal. And when you do get it turned around, you’ll find a much bigger reward awaiting you and your business than if the crisis had never taken place.

I can’t wait to hear about your Churchillian success stories!

Originally published at on August 6, 2020.

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