I recently joined a small but global organization as COO. I am tasked with looking at all of our systems and processes and finding ways to streamline, upgrade, and reduce our manual processes and the resulting human error. My problem is that the team I inherited is committed to keeping things exactly the way they are. Many of them are the inventors of the current systems and home-grown software programs. I’m not very optimistic about getting anything done with this group.
I asked the CEO and the Board if I could bring in some of my own team—fresh eyes, people who don’t have any attachment to the way things are now—but they want me to make a concerted effort to change the systems while keeping these people. I just don’t know how I can do it.
It sounds like your CEO and Board missed the memo that the biggest impediment to change is …people. People hate change. Not all people, but most people. We are evolutionarily wired to hate change—even good change—because, simply put, it forces us into the unknown. The human brain is predisposed to avoid the unknown at all costs.
It sounds like you were hired because you are an expert in systems, not because you have a lot of experience leading change. But leading change is what is required of you now, so you are going to have to saddle up and work harder than you ever thought possible.
Before you change anything, though, you are going to have to work with your group to shift the culture. Tell your people that you are explicitly requesting shifts in their outlook. Make the shifts you are asking people to make absolutely crystal clear. For example:
|Keep things the same||Question everything and brainstorm alternatives|
|37 Systems to get things done||5 Systems that speak to each other|
|Do what we know||Experiment and make mistakes|
I made these up, but you get the idea.
You cannot underestimate the power of the current culture to kill any change you might conceive of, no matter how brilliant it might be.
Tell people the qualities you are looking for in the team. I am assuming it will be things like open mindedness, innovation, creativity, and eagerness to experiment. Tell them that these qualities will be expected and measured.
Tell your people what will not be tolerated, such as: protecting turf or systems; unwillingness to try new things; gossip about anyone. Again, clarity is key here. Give examples. Explain what will happen when you notice intolerable behavior, and what the consequences of such behavior will be. You don’t have to be mean about it, just clear and consistent.
Your new bosses have asked you to make a concerted effort, so you have to define for yourself exactly what that means. Maybe it means that you give every person 3 chances to get on board, or maybe 5. Whatever it is, tell people what the criteria are and track behaviors like the analytical thinker and Excel spreadsheet user you are. Then you can share your method of making decisions about who stays and who goes with the powers that be and they will know that you have acted in good faith and have made a concerted effort to keep as many people as possible.
Without the kind of clarity, criteria and scorecard I am recommending, you will be floating around in feelings and subjective opinions. Don’t do it—you will get lost and confused and you will fail at your task.
Our change model directs you to talk to people about their concerns, and there are many. Most people are simply worried about losing their jobs, which is fair. Get on board with helping the company figure out what’s needed in team members to be invited to stay, or the consequences of resisting at every turn and being invited to leave. Put the options in their hands. That way you at least have the right people on the bus—over time you will figure out where the bus is going and how to get people into the right seats. And you can deal with concerns as they surface, such as being asked to learn a lot of new things, etc.
Does this sound like more than you signed up for? I suspect it does. Many people sign up for a job they thought was about processes and systems only to realize that it is about leading people through change. This requires a sophisticated and advanced set of leadership skills you may not have been asked to develop in the past.
But you can win if you want. You will need to gather your warrior energy and be fearless and fierce. There are a bunch of great books on managing change—some of them Blanchard books. Get one and use it. You have an opportunity to have an extraordinary leadership journey.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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