Reinventing a company, again and again
The importance of “contemporizing” in the corporate world
There are not too many large companies these days that haven’t heard about why dinosaurs became extinct. It wasn’t because they weren’t the biggest and strongest. It was because they failed to adapt.
Of the largest 500 corporations in the U.S. in 1955, only 60 of them remained by 2017. It is estimated that of today’s largest 500 U.S. companies, half will be gone or replaced in the next 10 years.
The need to reinvent is becoming more and more an urgent priority for all companies.
Change in any business is unavoidable. One of the challenges in changing (especially a corporate culture) is that the business needs to continue to operate externally all while potentially major, disruptive internal changes are taking place.You literally have to “fix or overhaul an airplane while it is in flight.” No small task.
I recently retired after 38 years working for Cargill, a large multinational company that has 155,000 employees in 70 countries and has been in business for over 150 years.
We went through several significant “contemporizing” events during my career to bring ahead the corporation.
Why did we need to rework or “contemporize” the company? Our customers were changing, and we needed new ways to add more value to them.
We needed to simplify, remove duplication and reduce unnecessary uniqueness by making our organization flatter and less hierarchical.
We needed to push decision-making to employees at the lowest possible level to increase our agility and increase the odds for our company to be the “employer of choice” in attracting and retaining the best talent we could.
Some things about our culture and values we never wanted changed, such as a very strong ethics culture, which was the golden thread throughout the entire company.
During this period of great internal change, I was leading one of Cargill’s core businesses in global agricultural trading and risk management in Geneva, Switzerland.
My business got turned upside down even though trading and transporting 30–40 million metric tons of grain, all in ocean-going vessels from countries of surplus to countries of deficit was basically the same thing we had been doing for the past 50 years in Geneva.
We had to rethink “the how” we did business, keeping our strong trading and risk management skills, but approaching it in a more transparent, cost-effective, team-orientated, inclusive, customer-focused and successful way than we had been doing up until then.
It was not easy. I still recall telling the CEO of Cargill at the time that I had underestimated the amount of perseverance, persistence and emotional fortitude it required of me to lead my business in the direction the company desired.
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