Fast Company magazine recently featured 50 companies they ranked as most innovative. My attention was not drawn to the super-cool technology start-ups, but to some old-line companies that successfully reinvented themselves. I wondered: Are the factors that lead to corporate transformation similar to the factors that contribute to the reinvention of individuals?
A client of mine is struggling to remain competitive in an industry where smaller, more agile competitors are nibbling away at their market share. They believe that their organizational culture needs to change in order to be successful. In a recent phone call with the company’s top leaders I asked who was responsible for creating the organization’s culture. Crickets. Finally, the head of strategy said, “To be honest, we feel more like custodians of the culture than the creators.” Someone else on the call piped in, “Actually, we are more culture complainers than culture creators!” That didn’t sound good.
Have you ever gotten in your car, driven to work, found a parking spot, sat at your desk, and wondered: How did I get here? If you ever experienced this, you were probably on automatic pilot, unconscious of what you were doing because you do it so often. Now let’s say you got in your car, started to drive, and suddenly a detour took you far out of your way. What happened then? Perhaps you began to worry about missing an important morning meeting. Probably, you drove with heightened awareness, your grip tightening on the steering wheel. And maybe you arrived at the office grouchy, immediately complaining to your co-workers about those so-and-sos who messed up traffic during rush hour.
Last week I learned a lesson about leading change that I won’t soon forget. And it came from… an invoice… For 17 years I’ve used the same process after finishing a project: I staple expense receipts to pieces of paper, open a Word document that summarizes fees and expenses, place them in an envelope and mail it. I always pay extra for breast cancer stamps, as a small way to honor my mother who died from the disease at an early age. I never fail to attach those stamps. This process has been flawless. And I was convinced that my clients appreciated my down-to-earth, low-tech approach, which I feel mirrors my personality.
One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts two excited executives sitting in a meeting. One says to the other, “Let’s keep things here exactly the way they are.” The other responds, “Yeah, let’s not change anything!” Many of us want to change our organizations so they are collaborative and innovative, with a focus more on customers than on internal politics. Yet leading change can feel like pushing a boulder uphill as people cling to the familiar ways of the past, while nodding in agreement that things need to change.
Leading organizational change without first changing ourselves simply doesn’t work. To enable change beyond superficial window-dressing, we must understand what we are doing to maintain the status quo. The enemy of change is often looking at us in the mirror. To lead change effectively, we need the courage to look back. Rick, the CEO of a consumer products company, complained that his highly paid vice presidents bounced decisions to him that they should have made on their own. This prevented him fulfilling the strategic aspect of his role, which included identifying acquisitions that would fuel growth. Instead, Rick spent much of his time resolving internal squabbles. Ironically, his key lieutenants voiced similar complaints – their own direct reports bickered constantly and rarely made decisions without ‘delegating upward.’ This slowed down the pace of new product introductions and stymied innovation.
In the historical, yet fictional movie The Mutiny on the Bounty Spencer Christian and crew cast out the autocratic Captain Bligh and commandeered the ship. Bligh is then punished for his appalling leadership while Christian and his cronies end their days cavorting with natives of a South Pacific island paradise. Yet actually, in real life most of the mutineers were caught and hanged. And after a few self-indulgent years, their native hosts killed Mr. Christian and the remaining sailors. Ironically, Captain Bligh survived a grueling return trip to England and was rewarded with command of other voyages for the British admiralty (two of which resulted in mutinies, but that’s another story). Lesson one? Don’t believe everything you see in movies. Lesson two? Take care when you replace a dictatorial leader. Many leaders believe that authoritarian leadership is obsolete and are convinced that a more engaging approach yields the best results. Yet a large percentage of executives act according to authoritarian principles: They employ top down directives underpinned by a belief that people need to be driven, often by fear.
Wayne is an accomplished and overburdened senior executive who hates dealing with his direct reports’ conflicts. He once told me that he’d rather have a spike driven into his eye than listen to them complain about each other. But leaders like Wayne often fail to realize that what appear to be interpersonal conflicts are often just the visible symptoms of deeper, more strategic problems. After all, people generally want to get along with each other. And most of us don’t go to bed plotting how to annoy our colleagues.