4 Big Signs It’s Not Going To Turn Around

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How do you know whether whatever you’re leading is going to turn around?

That’s a great question.

So many leaders I know are trying to turn their organizations around. Sometimes that means moving a stuck or declining organization into growth. Other times it means that while they have momentum, they sense they’re losing it and want to gain a foothold for tomorrow.

These are tumultuous times for so many leaders as entire industries are being disrupted.

Everything from the hotel industry, movie theatres, taxi companies, news, music industry, churches, restaurant industry, malls and retail, to pretty much you-name-it is struggling with seismic shifts in how people behave.

It’s hard to be a cab company in an era of Lyft, a grocery store in the era of UberEats, a theatre in the era of Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Apple TV, a brick-and-mortar store in the era of Amazon, or a church in the era of a million online options and the rise of post-Christian America.

And of course, the tech pioneers of a decade ago have their own issues. Apple’s hegemony over tech has been somewhat eroded, Uber is facing challenges as is Facebook as its demographics shift older every year.

In light of all that, how do you know if it’s going to turn around? If you’re going to make it? If the battle you’re in will be won or lost?

I’m an exceptional optimist. I believe you can do far more than you can imagine, and that the future is bright.

I’ve also seen leaders spin their wheels and fight losing battles. No leader wants to be the person trying to sell CDs in the age of Spotify. Unwittingly, though, many leaders are.

So, how do you know whether things will turn around?

While that’s tough to answer universally, there are some patterns I’ve seen so often in leadership that they’re worth naming.

Here are four signs it’s (probably) not going to turn around. These are gut checks, so get ready…

No leader wants to be the person trying to sell CDs in the age of Spotify. Unwittingly, though, many leaders are.  Click To Tweet

1. You’re Trying to Revive What Worked In The Past Rather Than Finding What Will Work In The Future

At the most basic level, too many leaders try to revive what worked in the past rather than find what will work in the future.

That’s understandable for a few reasons.

First, people are generally better with the known than with the unknown. If you remember and recall something that worked, it’s easier to say “let’s do that again” than it is to try to blaze an unknown trail into the future. Building a nicer, cleaner taxi fleet is an easier-to-grasp idea than imagining the day when people use private car sharing to hail rides off an app.

Second, the past has a nostalgia the future never does. We tend to romanticize the past and worry about the future, and leaders easily forget how tough things were years ago or how innovative and controversial some of the things were a decade ago (think 1000 songs in your pocket, or using your credit card online, or drums in church).

The past has a nostalgia the future never does. Click To Tweet

I’m not against the past at all, but if most of your efforts are spent trying to revive what worked yesterday, you’re probably going to have a less pleasant tomorrow.

So ask yourself, is most of your energy spent trying to revive what was or build what will be? That will tell you loads.

 Too many leaders spend their time trying to revive what was rather than build what will be. Click To Tweet

2. Your Metrics Are Tied To The Past, Not To The Future

Every leader has metrics they track, but often leaders track the wrong metrics.

Tracking overall attendance, traffic, giving, sales, or customers is necessary, but when you only see general data, you can get into long debates about what it means. 15 people will come up with 15 reasons why things are flat or down. Like the old joke about “well, how does this help us sell CDs?”

Rather than tracking new sales or the overall number of guests, you might start tracking demographic data. How many 18-30-year-olds are you reaching? How many young families are you seeing? Tracking demographics can show you trends (either positive or negative trends) that give you information on whether there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

And don’t ignore the internet. A ridiculous number of leaders either don’t track their online data or don’t know what to do with what they find beyond knowing whether it’s growing or not growing.

Google Analytics and social apps like Facebook can give you a crazy amount of data on who you’re reaching or not reaching (I know, this is scary, but this is the world we live in and I’m trusting you’re a leader who is committed to using it to make the world a better place. I am.) For example, I know the bulk of my readers are between 25-44 years of age, and the top cities for my readers and listeners (hello Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, London…).

Here are some things to track to see if you’re making inroads or not:

  • Number of new guests or customers.
  • Number of second-time customers or guests.
  • Demographics of new guests or customers (age, location).
  • New donors or customers.
  • Age of new donors or customers.
  • Ratio of online traction to in-person traction.
  • Engagement level of guests or customers. In business, this might be how long it takes to make a purchase, the value of that purchase. In the church world, it might be whether they’ve gotten involved, joined a group, volunteered, or invited a friend.
  • Net Promoter Score—the likelihood of a person who’s experienced what you offer to recommend it to a friend.

But when you start looking at demographics, new engagements, and next-gen and new guest trends, you see a much clearer picture of the future.

You might even do focus groups with people coming and some who have left to discover what’s happening.

You tend to manage what you measure. So, measure better.

You tend to manage what you measure. So, measure better.  Click To Tweet

3. You’re More Committed to the Method Than You Are To the Mission

This is one of the most telling signs of whether what you’re leading will turn around.

Ask yourself: Are you more committed to the method than you are to the mission?

Despite the fact that almost everyone answers that question by saying “the mission,” reality suggests otherwise.

In an era of massive disruption, the mission continues. The methods change.

In an era of massive disruption, the mission continues. The methods change.  Click To Tweet

The market for the mission never goes away, it just changes.

The mission is:

  • Transportation. The method is taxis, Uber or Lyft.
  • Photography. The method is Instagram and smartphones, or film and printed pictures.
  • Travel. The method is a hotel or Airbnb. Or a travel agency or DIY travel.
  • In the church, the mission is to reach people with the good news of Jesus. The method, well it changes. (For the record, I believe the gathered church is here to stay, but for reasons I share here, even the attractional church model that’s been so effective for a decade and a half is already dated.)

Here’s the bottom line: To preserve the mission, you have to constantly reinvent the method.

I love podcasting. My podcast is pushing 20 million downloads and it’s been a much bigger success than I ever dreamed. So, leaders ask me all the time if I’ll podcast forever. When I tell them no, they looked shocked.

Here’s why I say no: My mission isn’t podcasting. It’s just a method. My mission is to provide resources that help people thrive in life and leadership. Right now, podcasting is a great method. When it stops being effective—or hopefully before it stops being effective—I’ll reinvent.

To preserve the mission, you have to constantly reinvent the method. Click To Tweet

4. You Constantly Criticize The People Who Are Gaining Traction 

A final sign it’s not going to turn around: you constantly criticize the people who are gaining traction.

It’s easy to hate the innovators, to make fun of the next-gen who are constantly on their phones, or who just don’t understand the value of a great hotel, or who don’t seem to want to get their driver’s licenses anymore. Or to make fun of the clothes (and glasses) younger preachers wear, or the flex work schedules and foosball tables tech companies have become famous for.

At a more sinister level, you may even question the motives of people who are innovating.

So often leaders on the decline adopt a critical spirit about everything around them.

Just stop. Adopt a critical mind, not a critical spirit. Great leaders have critical minds, not critical spirits.

Be a student.

Study what’s working. Study it hard enough until you understand it. Stop the eye-rolls. Listen. Learn. Humble yourself.

A critical mind will figure out why certain things are working and why other things aren’t. A critical spirit shuts down all learning.

Stop being a critic. Start being a student. You’re far more likely to make progress if you do.

Great leaders have critical minds, not critical spirits.  Click To Tweet

Lead With Confidence and Clarity. Grow Your Church.

As leaders, we tend to see the challenges and roadblocks before other people do.

We've all been there before...

  • You need to refresh your vision for the future but know that change will be an issue for that person.
  • You're overstaffed (or missing a key role) and can't find the right person to fill the role.
  • You aren't reaching enough new people even though you've tried everything that's working for other churches.
  • You can see the issue but aren't confident in what to do about it.

And with another Sunday morning coming up, it'll just have to wait until next week when you have a few minutes to figure it out.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.