I have just been promoted to a very big role in an organization I have been with for two years. I came from another highly respected, very successful company. One of my mandates when I joined was to change some entrenched outdated processes and create a new strategic plan for my business unit.
Ever since I joined my new company, anytime I mention something we did at my former company, people roll their eyes, and say stuff like, “Yeah, well, you aren’t at that company anymore,” as if my previous experience has no value at all. And it just shuts down the whole conversation.
Matters have gotten way worse since the company hired a new CEO from another big successful company and he brought in a whole crew from his former company. Essentially, almost everyone who has been here for more than three years is a member of Team Legacy (my labels) and almost all of them are hostile to anyone on Team New People.
Team Legacy is left over from the glory days of the company, which are over. Although our products and services are still super relevant, almost every business system is outmoded, inefficient, and clunky. I am forced to communicate with certain Team Legacy people using email because they refuse to step up to using systems like Slack and Teams.
Many people from Team Legacy are still convinced that they can’t get anything done in meetings held using web conference and are waiting to make some critical decisions until people can meet in person again. We were almost there, and then the Delta variant reared its head. Now another six months has gone by and there is no end in sight. All the folks on Team New People had already been using web conferencing before the pandemic to avoid the cost and wear and tear of travel.
My mandate is to make a lot of big changes fast, but I am constantly running into walls put up by the folks from Team Legacy. We have shared all the positive impact in terms of cost and time savings from all the new platforms we are trying to embed. I have used everything I know about proper change management, but we still have more people digging their heels in than not.
When I try to have the conversation with influencers from Team Legacy, all I get is, “You’re not from here, you just don’t get it.” I am tearing my hair out. I would like your perspective on this.
Not From Here
Dear Not From Here,
This sounds so tough. And I can’t think of a single client who isn’t up against this kind of thing in one form or another. All the change in personnel and in requirements to comply with new systems and processes has left people feeling inept and unsafe. When people feel unsafe, they tend to lean on the people and ways of bygone days when they felt safer. People just want to be able to do their jobs well. Company cultures are built over time, and you’re attempting to shift one where you’re the new kid. As Stan Slap once said, “Never underestimate the ability of your culture to bury your strategy.” He is the master of stating the sad, scary truth. You can read up on his definition of culture here. Your challenge is huge and I have nothing but respect for what you’re attempting to do.
The job of a culture is to protect itself. Until the people steeped in the culture can see how what you bring to the table will help them, they will resist with every fiber of their being. The only thing that will save you is building relationships. One at a time. Person by person. Relationships in which you are vulnerable, are willing to show yourself, and, most important, willing to do so in a way that demonstrates that you intend no harm and have people’s backs.
My own team recently got a new leader who has been a huge proponent of using Teams—and it has been a long, hard road, let me tell you. She has had to loop back and teach all of us multiple times how to do things properly. She has had to be patient, generous with her time, and kind. I’m sure she thinks we are all a bunch of hopeless Luddite technophobes, but if she does, she has never let it show. She redirects—kindly—when we make mistakes or admit we don’t know how to do things even though she has shown us several times. I have been really impressed. The thing about culture is that it isn’t rational, so trying to effect it using rational arguments will get you nowhere. You’ll have to win hearts before you can win minds. It takes so much time—way more than you want it to take and probably more than you think you have. But you aren’t going to get where you want to go without making that investment first. Take a deep breath and a big step back and know you’re going to have to slow down before you can speed up.
Your first move is to examine the ways you and other members of Team New People (TNP) feel superior to members of Team Legacy (TL). Then you must look at the teeny, little things you say and do that telegraph that sense of superiority. Your first reaction will be that you don’t do any such thing—and I guarantee you’re mistaken. So cut it out. You can’t control the behavior of others on TNP, but you can sure control yours. You’re probably revealing a lot more judgment than you realize, and nobody likes to be judged. Nobody.
Then it’s time to get to know everyone on TL whose buy-in you need. Schedule one-on-one meetings where you both answer questions that are designed to increase connection. Check out this old chestnut from The New York Times: The 36 Questions That Lead to Love. Yes, I know these questions are designed to facilitate a romantic relationship, but there are some great ones that would be perfectly reasonable to repurpose in a professional setting. This will allow you and each of your people to begin seeing one another as an actual human being instead of a member of TNP or TL. It will give you insight into what is important to each person, how they want to be treated by you, and what will make them feel acknowledged and successful. You can then tailor your communication style in future 1:1s and even in moments in team meetings.
As you’re doing that, you’ll want to articulate your vision for your department: a clear vision of a possible future for your group and how it makes an invaluable contribution to the success of the company. Ken has excellent advice to get you started here. Once the vision is articulated and shared, you can work with your team to formulate the goals and action steps that will help you move toward it. Don’t worry, you’ll still have final say on the goals and the action steps, but if your team is involved in shaping the plan, they will be much more likely to get behind it.
It’s entirely possible that some folks on TL won’t be able to make the transition needed to be successful in the new culture you’re forming. That’s okay; eventually, they will self-select out and find an organization they will be more comfortable in.
As you go, the next time someone says, “You’re not from here, you just don’t get it,” instead of letting it shut the conversation down, try saying, “You’re so right, I’m not, so please help me get it.” Stop trying to persuade and convince people. Just ask questions and listen, listen, listen. People will talk if you listen, and when they talk they will provide clues for where you can find openings. People will have great ideas about how to effect change—then, when you implement those, it will have come from someone on TL. This is the age-old strategy of letting people think something was their idea. It’s still around because it works.
Stop talking about your expertise and how great things were at your old company. Instead, talk about the expertise of the people on your team and how to leverage it. Talk about things that are going well in your new company. Especially, share examples of how people on TL are supporting and benefiting from the changes. Your previous experience does have value, but nobody will care about any of it until they care about you. I once worked with a wonderful speaking coach who said, “They won’t buy the message until they buy the messenger.”
Leadership is hard and getting harder every day. Stan Slap also said, “If leaders could get where they needed to go by themselves, they would go there and send a postcard.” It’s funny because it’s true. You won’t get anywhere without your people.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t what you were expecting. And it’s probably going to be a lot more work than you signed up for. But I guarantee you’ll be successful, eventually, if you try even some of this.
At that point, you’ll be an experienced technical expert and a true leader. So go forth and win some hearts. You will be amazed at what you can all accomplish together.
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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