Critical Inflection Points
The long-term success of all organizations can almost always be traced back to the ability of the leaders in the organization to effectively lead through critical inflection points. This may sound like a bold statement, but over the past 30-plus years in both business and ministry, I’ve come to believe it, because I’ve experienced it to be true. This is even more important in times of leadership transitions. Let’s take a quick tour through the elements that will help you effectively lead through these often-challenging times.
What is an inflection point?
Let’s start with the obvious question: What is an inflection point? Inflection points are indicators. They are those little gems of opportunity that we as individuals and ministries are given. They are opportunities to recognize that something is changing or needs to be changed. Embraced and properly addressed, they can propel you forward. Ignored, they can lead to your demise (both personally and organizationally).
Inflection points are indicators.
It's been said that the only constant in life is change. True, but the real question is: Can you recognize the need for change, and can you put the right strategy in place to leverage inflection points to your advantage?
Some examples of typical inflection points include:
- Leadership, especially founder, transitions
- A downward trend in revenue or audience engagement, or the need to take advantage of procuring new sources of revenue, grow audience engagement or drive more ministry impact
- Opportunities to get into a new market, expand to a new audience, or offer a new product or service
- Internal or external turnover
- The need to expand beyond your experience or intuition
- Audience fatigue (people have stopped listening or engaging), or the need to reach a new audience or attract a new donor base
All inflection points involve change in some way.
Inflection points are issues that need to be addressed, but also opportunities to take advantage of. All inflection points involve change in some way. Change is hard. For many people, it's really hard. Many people with good intentions (preserving a legacy, honoring a founder, fear of breaking something) get stuck and double down on a strategy that, should they remove emotion and gaze beyond the current situation or pain point, is obviously wrong to even a casual observer.
How do you recognize an inflection point?
The question then becomes, how do you recognize you are facing an inflection point, especially when you are the new leader in charge? Most people ignore that they are at a critical inflection point because they don’t look around and take time to listen. They also ignore it because they fear change. They fear the “hard conversation” or the likelihood that change will affect people (in both good and bad ways). They fear what they don’t know or are not comfortable with.
While change is hard, it’s also a given. As General Erik Shinseki famously said, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less!” Such is the challenge for good leaders. Balancing the past with the here and now and the desired future is critically important. Fear is often a factor for not making the right changes, or any change at all.
Pride is another. We often find that smart people make bad decisions not because they want to make bad decisions, but are blind to, or they intentionally ignore warning signs.
Dysfunction rules the day when individuals on a leadership team or board of directors take their eyes off the data and people that are telling them there are issues or opportunities, and instead go into their own cocoon and start worrying about their own territory, job, department, or reputation.
Recognizing that you are at an inflection point comes from the discipline of looking at data (metrics, input, feedback, trends) of what is really going on, mapping that against what you predicted to happen, and determining how that differs from where you want or need to go.
It starts with asking a lot of questions (and thoughtful prayer), constantly seeking to improve and move forward and avoiding protecting the past for the wrong reasons.
It is a continuous process, not a point in time. All organizations go through transitions and life cycles. Each point on a life cycle curve is essentially an inflection point. So, if these inflection points are inevitable – what is the best way to effectively lead through one?
What’s the best way to lead effectively through an inflection point?
- Don’t go alone. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you need to assemble the right resources that can process, evaluate, and answer the tough questions and drive the organization and the team forward. As a leader, especially if you’ve recently transitioned into a new role, you need the fortitude to recognize the issue or opportunity and be committed to addressing it and helping your team work through it so you can move toward the future.
- Create alignment. If your senior leadership team is not aligned on vision, mission, and strategy, you've got a problem — and you need to change something to get them aligned. A common analogy is six rowers in a boat rowing in different directions. You won't go anywhere, and often it's obvious to anyone watching (employees, donors, ministry recipients) that you are fighting against one another. Leadership is a privilege, not a right. People under your leadership know when you understand the difference, and certainly know when you practice it. Great leadership does not come from positional power. People know you have positional power, and they follow power when they are required to, but they follow good, servant-driven leaders because they want to.
- Be honest and realistic. Not all problems need to be solved today. Focus on the top two to three things that really need to and can be addressed in the next six to twelve months. Build a team that has the skill and capacity to address those issues and/or leverage those opportunities. Budget dollars, people, and time to address or leverage them. Don’t be afraid to look at outside resources; bring in folks that have been through the inflection point you are experiencing and learn from what they did right and things that didn’t go so well. Be honest about the risks - both of making the change and not doing anything. Be honest about the level of effort to either fix the problem or grab the opportunity. Be realistic about your capacity (people and financial) and get creative about freeing up the resources required to lead through the inflection point. Early in my career, I had a mentor tell me: “You don’t put your best people on your biggest problems. You put your best people on your biggest opportunities.” Make sure you are allocating the right resources.
- Lastly, stick to your guns. Times of change require difficult decisions and a lot of fortitude. Good leaders look around, ask questions, and listen. They will make the tough call, take the risk, and address reality. The worst thing you can do is to do nothing. The status quo won’t solve the problem or leverage the opportunity. Don’t let obstacles deter you, but rather let them motivate you, and with the Lord’s help, enable your organization to achieve great things.
With a little discipline and practice, you’ll be able to recognize and lead your team and organization through these critical inflection points that really do determine the long-term success of your ministry.
Steve Maegdlin is the founder and CEO of Executive Advisory Partners, which was created to come alongside senior executives and help them lead through critical inflection points. Steve served on the Christian Leadership Alliance Board for 15 years. You can learn more about Steve and EAP at www.execadvisorypartners.com