June 25, 2023

The Dangers of Driving Change without Understanding Existing Traditions

Someone who is familiar with my First Hundred Days program sent me this HBR executive transition case study. The leader who was coming on board was told by her boss to “do whatever it takes to turn this business around.”

She almost scuppered her career following that edict.

https://hbr.org/2023/04/driving-organizational-change-without-abandoning-tradition

Leadership, at its core, is an argument with tradition.

So many executives in transition try to drive change before they have taken the time to understand the culture...what the case refers to as the “social defenses.". Their change effort never achieve escape velocity and they often find themselves picking up the pieces as they move onto their next job.

Worse than being fired, they might not even be able to learn from their mistakes because they are often only told when they are dismissed that it "wasn't a good 'style' fit."

This is such a frequent executive-in-transition mistake, it is almost prosaic. Which is why so much of my FHD program is built to avoid this all-to-common mistake. Here are just a few of the elements:

* The focus on stakeholder interviews and questions like “what do you hope I don’t do?"

* The readout to get stakeholders aligned on current reality

* The questions to use to get your arms around the existing culture

* My stakeholder influence template that starts with you understanding your stakeholders priorities before you try to get them aligned with yours

The good news is that once that organization's culture and tradition is understood and validated...almost more like... “bowed to,” you can start to nudge it as needed to facilitate the change you are trying to drive.

Consider this excerpt from the case:

”Remember that good leadership is not a matter of skills or style. Leadership, at its core, is an argument with tradition. As a leader, you are always relating to a tradition that you are trying to preserve, expand, or change. That means, a priori, that you must care about the tradition. Or, more precisely, you must care about what the tradition is trying to accomplish.

Without understanding that a tradition is an outdated way to fulfill a good intent, you will just ignore or fight it. But, armed with that understanding, you can argue with tradition — debating what needs to stay and what has to change — precisely in order to keep the organization’s intent alive.

When others assume you don’t care, they can easily reject your proposal or your presence with the pretense of style [meaning they dismiss your recommendations and sideline you because your style is not a cultural fit]. But once they know you do care, and share a similar intent, even your critiques become an expression of that care.”

Whether you are trying to set course in your FHD or you are trying to drive change beyond your FHD, the change management lesson in that excerpt, ladies and gentlemen, is money.




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