How the Past Can Hold Leaders Back from the Future

I cannot stand when my kids are on their phones. We have all said it – they spend too much time on those damn devices. But why? Why am I so angry and frustrated about it?

I recently read an HBR article that made me wonder if that feeling said more about me than them. The short, powerful article, How Companies Escape the Traps of the Past, explores how the past is great and should be respected and, in some instances, creates value for the future. But all too often, the past is used as an excuse for not keeping up with the future.Banks-Blog-Quote_forJuly12

It made me think about my attitude towards my family’s device consumption habits. Was I caught in the past? Why did I hate when they were on their phones? What were my reasons?

  • They seem distracted
  • As a family, we need to talk
  • They are not listening when they are on their phones
  • What could they possibly be getting out of interacting with their phone?

So over the next month, without telling my family, I began to watch what they did, instead of just getting angry. I was surprised what I learned when I was not caught up by “the way it should be” or “the way it was when I grew up.”

Breaking with tradition

It was interesting how much I learned by not standing in judgement based on the world I knew.

  • They are reading. My son reads Twitter to get news. Most of the news is sports, but some is economic. This week, we had a conversation about the idea of a $15 minimum wage. When I was a kid, I never read anything, and I’m sure I didn’t even know what minimum wage was.
  • They are building relationships. This is the way they communicate. It is actually more efficient than when we were kids. My twelve-year-old twin girls have developed a network that I didn’t have until I was a college graduate. They have friends from school, the neighborhood and sports, and they connect with them all through group chats. The only kids I knew were from my neighborhood.
  • They are learning. My daughters use their phones to learn new recipes for making desserts. My son looks at the swings of professional baseball players. My wife uses it to educate herself about health issues. They are proactive learners. As an adolescent, I was reactive and I was only actively trying to learn when I was in school.

This philosophy is no different in business than it is in life. If we want our businesses to grow, thrive and prosper in the future, we have to be willing to let go of the past. As the article explains, leaders are responsible for building an enduring business, which we cannot achieve by holding onto the past.

Cultural shift

Culture plays a big part in our ability to be successful, so we need to move our corporate culture into the future. We need to make tough (and sometimes unpopular) decisions by questioning what is still being done out of habit or tradition – does it make the most sense today, or are we still doing it because “that’s the way it’s always been done?” This attitude of embracing innovation for future success has to start at the top in order to permeate throughout the organization.

Culture is a powerful thing, until it holds you back, instead of propelling you forward.