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.

What Rick didn’t realize was that his own behavior set the stage for the dramas that followed. For instance, in planning meetings he spent much of his time opposing others’ perspectives or criticizing team members for their ‘bad decisions.’ Frequently, he’d display impatience with a topic, declare a quick solution and move on to another issue.

When Rick wanted something done quickly he often delegated the task to two of his direct reports, who tripped over each other to accomplish his objective. This was like throwing kerosene on a fire: departments withheld information from each other just to win Rick’s approval.

As Above, So Below

But Rick’s leadership caught up with him. The Board started applying more pressure for him to present a new acquisition target. The Chairman confronted Rick about how he was spending his time, which Rick at first resented. It was not easy for an aggressive, successful executive to hear this criticism.

But it was only when Rick realized, deep down, that he couldn’t continue the path he was on and expect the company to succeed that he made some changes – not to others, but to himself. First, he stopped attending planning meetings. Rather, he approached important issues by asking his executive group to recommend solid options for him to respond to. This forced them to pull together as a team, without using him as an excuse for their lack of decisiveness.

He also stopped pitting his Type A executives against each other. Instead, he clarified his and their roles and authority levels. And with the help of an executive coach, he stuck to his commitments.

By changing his own behavior, Rick reconditioned his direct reports to behave differently. As a result, they collaborated with each other more, which led to less second-guessing of decisions.

Ironically, this resulted in faster and more innovative new product introductions, prompting Rick to reconsider whether an acquisition was even necessary. After all, if internally generated products could fuel growth, why spend capital on an acquisition?

Had Rick not changed himself first, none of this would have happened. In that case, he would have only had himself to blame for the company maintaining its unhealthy status quo.

When contemplating organization change, the last thing leaders often consider is how they create the inertia that inhibits change. Rather, we need to consider changing ourselves in order to get different results. Otherwise, we shouldn’t expect others to follow any differently than they do right now.

In our next installment: how the language of change often trips us up. Stay tuned…