This month, people across the country were struck by the new eye-popping data from the U.S. Census Bureau about the female wage gap, as the pay gap has stagnated at 80 cents on the dollar, shortchanging women by more than $500 billion each year. And, 57 percent of men try to negotiate their salary, but only 7 percent of women do. In response, a plan was announced to train 10 million women by 2022 to better negotiate their wages and benefits. 

The woman behind that plan is Kim Churches, who took over as the CEO of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 2017. AAUW is a non-profit dedicated to empowering women and girls and was founded in 1881 in an era when it was widely thought that too much education would impair a woman's fertility!

"I appreciate the sepia-toned photos," Churches said to me when I talked with her about AWUW's plan to help women with negotiating, "but we have to be working in technicolor to stay relevant." She repositioned the AAUW as a national leader in providing nuts-and-bolts training in salary negotiation skills.

Looking to make similar big changes? Here's five useful lessons for how you can reinvent a business to stay relevant.

1. Remember, you don't have all the answers. 

In fact, the customers have most of the answers. A customer discovery approach provides insights about customers needs, which customer segments to focus on and how focus your value proposition on what's most important to them. When Churches came to AAUW, she went on a "listening tour" of their customers and looked at 400 other organizations that promoted women's issues, to figure out what they did well and what they didn't. Business owners can do this competitive analysis in-house by looking at a smaller number of competitive businesses. 

2. It's about standing out, not about following trend.  

When you're pivoting to be more relevant, it can be tempting to look at what the competition is doing successfully and replicate that. While competitors can provide valuable market information and inspiration, the goal is to find the niche you are uniquely qualified for.

One of the smartest business moves I made was to complement my international economic growth consulting business by becoming a global convener on how to support unemployed youth to get into jobs-- a topic that was increasingly a priority but no one else was convening on.

The conference business was entirely new for my firm, but we were already subject matter experts on the topic which gave us leeway to climb the learning curve of how to run a profitable conference. The new line of business complimented the consulting work because it established us as a thought leader and it brought in new and larger customers for our original line of business.

3. Be transparent and be inclusive. 

The more people you involve in the process to re-think your organization's mission, the less push-back there will be. Employees are top of the list. What you're up against is: 'Well, that's the way we've always done it,' which is the shortest path to irrelevancy.

You're trying to build a team that's open minded. Let them know what's in it for them and ensure they are clear on what they are being asked to do.

I made the mistake of assuming that my team would embrace the chance to grow through the convening. However, they didn't get on board until I pointed out that convening an event to bring in larger and new customers that would open up opportunities for them to learn new skills and have more global exposure.

4. Hold yourself accountable with quantifiable goals. 

To reach 10 million women within the next five years is an example of a goal that is specific and measurable. To address this, AAUW offers salary-skill presentations across the country, often working in partnership with local governments, and has developed a free 1-hour online training course. Clear, measurable goals help you make decisions and prioritize the efforts of your team to make big changes in a short amount of time. For small businesses working with strapped resources, in markets that are evolving very quickly, speed of change is essential. 

5. Be financially savvy.

This is an area where leaders can fall short, especially if your strength is on setting an  ambitious vision and you prefer to leave the details to someone else. Either you or someone on your team you work closely with needs to align the vision with the financial implications to ensure you don't start on a new track in a manner that is more ambitious than you can afford. 

Published on: Oct 29, 2018