Creating A New Religion
A lot of my professional work for the past two decades has had the following structure. A CEO or managing partner calls me up and says something like this –
‘We’ve been managing this firm for profitability and cost control, and pulled it off. We’re in terrific shape. Now we want to initiate a new era of inspiration. We want our people to be client-centric, to become trusted advisors. We want them to collaborate across boundaries so we can become a one-firm firm, and we want them to focus on developing our juniors so we can be a great place to work. Can you come and help convince our people to do all this?’
Since these are all goals and values I advocate and believe in, I have (in the past) frequently accepted this assignment. I have often been successful at building enthusiasm for these strategies. It’s not because I’m so talented, but because most people, it turns out, would love to work in a company or firm that subscribed to those values. Getting buy-in is not that hard.
However, I frequently run the final strategy meetings with anonymous voting machines, and after everyone has voted that these are strategies they want to pursue, and that they want management to pursue, I then ask the question – how many of you think we will actually do this, will run the company this way, and actually will implement these strategies?
In the overwhelming majority of cases, people indicate with the anonymous voting machines that they do NOT think the new strategies and policies will be implemented. Notice that the people voting are not some group of lowly employees – they are the partners or senior vice presidents of the enterprise. If they are skeptical about the company’s own ability to implement its own declared strategy, can you imagine how cynical the employees are?
First, their fear that they will not themselves live up to their own high aspirations when faced with temptation. Second, they believe that those in leadership positions will not ‘keep the faith’ – leaders will continue to manage as they have done in the past (usually driven by short-term financials) rather than the way they say they are going to manage in the future.
During the past 20 years of doing what I do, I have seen leaders of all kinds. Some really DO want to change, and are sincere about trying to lead their organizations in new directions. Other leaders truly are as cynical as their colleagues suspect them to be. These leaders want everyone else to change and live to high standards, but fully intend to go on managing the same old way. This second type is just trying to get more from others (the organization) without having to give more.
What has been fascinating to observe is how hard it has been even for the sincere leaders to get their colleagues and subordinates to believe that they have changed, and that they will manage to new standards.
People almost never believe this. They just don’t accept that there has been ‘a conversion on the road to Damascus.’ They never believe there truly is a new religion in place. They always believe that their leaders are going to go back to managing the way they have done for the prior 5, 10 or 15 years.
When you think about it, the cynicism is to be expected. Why should people think the leopard has changed its spots? What could the leader possibly do that would get those closest to them, those who know them very, very well, to think that they have shifted the basis on which they will make decisions? And if those closest to the leaders have a hard time believing that the leaders have truly changed their thinking, what hope is there for convincing the rest of the organization?
I don’t mean to become a cynic myself, but I have to report that new strategies and change efforts are easier for a new CEO or managing partner to implement than for the existing CEO or managing partner to be credible about. Leaders who want to convince their organizations that they have changed have a very difficult task.
Anyone out there have suggestions about how to overcome all this organizational skepticism?