The Key to Not Getting Left Behind

A few weeks ago I ran into a guy I worked with 20 years ago. Back then, we both had the same job, were basically the same age and started with the company at around the same time. He was a great guy and I was excited to see him again and find out what he’d been up to. But as he talked I realized his story was a painful one.

Dave was smart and great at his job. Trouble was, after a few years the company decided it had to respond to changes in technology, and that meant restructuring. Everyone was encouraged to step up and take on new, mostly unfamiliar roles in the new structure. I went from editor of a print magazine to this new animal called content developer. Dave was given the same opportunity. But instead he left, preferring to stick to the print editorial career he had experience with.

Since then, he’s had trouble finding work. A little here, a little there. The odd temp thing. The truth is the world we worked in hadn’t just changed, it was largely gone. And Dave had been left behind.

When I thought about it, over the 20 years since we started out together, I have taken lots of different paths, done lots of different things. I’ve been a writer, coach, developer, consultant, manager, and many other things. I worked in the book business, the dating business, the training business, financial services, tech sector—you name it, from big corporations to just me, myself and I.

Thinking back on all those changes made me wonder what the difference was between Dave and me. We started in the same place, and had the same potential, but our careers developed so very differently.

The lights came on for me when I connected with Alina Wheeler, international speaker and author of Designing Brand Identity. A kindred spirit.

When I interviewed Alina, I realized what divided Dave and me: in a word, reinvention.

The common denominator among successful entrepreneurs

“I believe that change is survival. Whatever business you are in the most vital action is to keep moving,” Alina said. And that makes sense to me. Wherever I look I see that the most successful people around me have reinvented themselves—often many times. Alina cites several examples.

“The big business poster child of reinvention is IBM. They didn’t anticipate the personal computing revolution, and had put all their eggs in one basket: mainframes. Yet through the power of reinvention, today they are one of the largest business consultancies in the world.

“And small business is filled with inspiring examples of reinvention. 37 Signals was founded as a web design firm, but reinvented itself as a software company, creating smart solutions like Ruby on Rails, TaDa List and Basecamp. And moving forward they are going to be a one-product company—Basecamp.”

Alina herself has reinvented herself, numerous times. “Why? I am fundamentally curious,” she said. “I love to learn, and I have a short attention span.” But it’s not always easy.

Alina herself says, “I have founded and led design firms. I have had great business partners as well as partners from hell. I tried and failed at raising 40 million dollars to fund women in business, and I lost my shirt trying to build a financial services company for women.”

How to make the tough call

How do you know when to stick and fight or when to reinvent? As Alina told me, “Reinvention is changing forward. It can be evolutionary, like offering a new product or service, or revolutionary because you are changing the core purpose of your business. Perhaps it’s rethinking your business model—revitalizing how you add value and stay relevant. Maybe it’s even going solo.”

Whether you choose to focus on improving your current situation and evolve, or decide to blow everything up and chart a new course, the key is to keep moving forward. As Alina told me, “I’ve always embraced George Eliot’s maxim: It is never too late to be what you could have been.”

The continuing journey

Reinvention is not easy, but if you ignore the opportunities it presents, you run the risk of being left behind. Dave and I started in the same place with the same opportunities, potential and skills—but we’ve ended up in very different places, largely because of our different levels of openness to reinvention.

There are no easy answers when it comes to whether to reinvent yourself or your business—and how radically to do it. Sometimes it’s best to focus and work harder to fix a broken situation. But—as Alina advocates—occasionally revolution and radical reinvention can start a journey to bigger success and greater satisfaction.

Alina Wheeler is the author of Designing Brand Identity. Published by Wiley, it’s the leading global resource for the whole branding team—from the leadership team to the marketing and design team. Now in its fourth edition, with more than 125,000 copies in circulation, it is published in seven languages, including Chinese and Spanish. Alina Wheeler works with global teams to achieve a competitive advantage for their brands. Over her career, she has worked with large enterprises, entrepreneurial ventures, and non-profits. You can find out more about Alina Wheeler at Designing Brand Identity.

Alina is scheduled to speak on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at The Creative Freelancer Business Conference/HOW Design Live in Boston. Her 10:15 am session is called, “Ready, Set, Reinvent.”

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