As I was writing this, I got to the end and discovered it isn’t necessarily a lesson on how TO lead through change and upheaval. It is parts “how to”, parts “how NOT to” and a story/lesson. I’d love to get feedback.
Change – We’ve all been through it. We can either embrace the change or we can resist it. Either way, we’re going to have to deal with it and we frequently cannot stop it. Change is a constant whether we are experiencing it in our business lives, our social lives or our personal lives. Change is like time . . . . it keeps coming and it will not wait for you.
But what about when the change is in leadership, is unexpected and results in a 180 degree turn in both personality and style? This feels less like the benign description of change and more like an upheaval. It can be especially so in the next level down in the leadership team. Some of the team may have been intensely loyal to the outgoing leader. Some may have a lesser sense loyalty to the person and more to the mission. But it still affects them too . . . it isn’t uncommon for a new leader to bring in her own team. That brings a level of uncertainty about one’s future. Are they doing well enough to stay? Will change happen just to bring in the new team?
A story of chaos
A past colleague was put in just such an upheaval scenario. He was hired into a department where there were actually co-leaders above him (Carl and Larry). One was one to dig into the weeds on every project and take ownership of every situation (Larry). The co-leader was one who was a delegator and let his staff do the work (Carl). Two differing styles to be sure.
The manager (we’ll call him Bill), had experience with two managing directors in a past organization. From his past experiences, Bill felt that a power struggle would ensue and one leader would be forced out.
Even though, the inevitable power struggle took place behind closed doors, all of the service teams knew what was happening. The office became a tense and stressful place to work. One of the two was a beloved leader who had personally hired most of the work team (Larry). The other was perceived as an outsider and was viewed with caution and apprehension (Carl).
Larry was everybody’s friend outside the office but there was no illusion that he was also the boss during the work day. The boss/line friend was never crossed. Larry did not treat everyone equally, however, giving plum assignments to his higher performers. Larry’s methods may not have been the best and were fraught with dangerous precedents but in the prevailing atmosphere, there were few waves.
Carl, was almost the exact opposite. He insisted that everyone be treated the same and tried to instill a culture that seemed as if the slate were wiped clean and all those with previous disciplinary issues were back on good footing.
When the inevitable happened and the beloved leader was invited to leave the company, it was like a bomb went off. To make matters worse, the VP who announced the change came to the work floor (open spaced office) and called everyone together. But . . . . not everyone. Bill and two of his peers were not informed. They were in their offices and had no indication of what was about to happen. Work ground to a halt.
Eventually the dust settled and people got back to business. Bill shared with me some of his observations in the days that followed. Bill became acutely aware of rampant microinequities by the new director. Bill and I had shared the experience of reading and attending a seminar on “The Power of Small – Why Little Things Make All the Difference”. The seminar is based on the book by Robin Koval and Linda Kaplan Thaler.
MicroInequities are defined as: are cumulative, subtle messages that occur when these signals are negative or promote a negative bias. MicroInequities are not one-time events. They are cumulative, repeated behaviors that devalue, discourage, and impair performance in the workplace.
Despite Carl’s insistence that everyone be treated the same, the microinequities started almost as soon as he took over. He gathered his friends (and presumably allies in the power struggle) in his office for closed door meetings.
He would pass other members of his leadership team in the hall and not even say hello.
And somehow, the low performing employees gained a new-found confidence in that they could rule the roost. It got the point that Carl’s leadership team (at least those in the “out” crowd) were eventually left feeling powerless to lead their own teams. If the leadership tried to coach or discipline their team members, the employees bypassed the manager and went straight to Carl’s office to air grievances. This led factions of employees working to undermine others and factions of employees working to undermine the leadership team.
Not a healthy scenario to say the least. The managers assumed a defensive posture and began to document everything and every conversation that took place both above and below them in the food chain.
Any coaching either to the positive or to the negative was also backed up with extensive proof to back the reasoning for the discussion. Something that had not been done before.
There were failures on so many levels it became hard to keep track of the drama.
Which brings us back to Bill. Fortunately for Bill, he had been through situations like this earlier in his career although not to this extent. He was seen as an ally by his peers and was occasionally sought out for counsel. This also left Bill treading a tightrope as it were.
He was new(er) to the department and came in at the end of the power struggle. As such, he had no longstanding loyalties to either Larry or Carl and was able to stay above the fray much of the time. However, this also left him nervous as to the future.
But Bill did what he was kept him successful. He stayed calm, put his head down and did his job. The day of Larry’s dismissal, Bill gathered his team and shared his thoughts. He knew his team was intensely loyal to Larry but he also knew that they were looking to him for guidance. His statement was brief. . . .He believed, as he was sure Larry did too, that the business at hand needed to be conducted. Clients didn’t know or care about the internal turmoil at the company. They were paying significant money to the organization and they deserved the best service. Since it was a Friday afternoon, Bill instructed his team to get through the day and that he was available to listen if people needed to talk to him in his office.
As the weeks passed, there were several attempts to pull Bill into the backbiting and turmoil that was taking place under Carl. To his credit, Bill would listen and offer unbiased advice when asked. He continued to work with Carl and his new VP to draw up some structural and strategic work plans to enhance the profitability of the department. He kept his mouth shut and didn’t engage in any office politics. By being a trusted confidant to many, he was fully aware of all the underlying turmoil and his discretion kept him off the negativity radar.
Leading through upheaval
As we discussed, change happens constantly. Some transitions are smoother than others. Leaders have choices during the bumpier changes. As human beings, they can get caught up in the emotions of the moment (easily done) or they can step back and take a measured and thoughtful approach. To be clear, the measured approach must be genuine and intentional. In times like these, any person in a position of leadership with a history or pattern of being disingenuous will not be believed no matter how earnest they are. They won’t be followed and they won’t be trusted.
“If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.” – Benjamin Hooks, former director of the NAACP
There are several examples of how to lead through upheaval and chaos. Just read the stories of many of our armed forces heroes. And many didn’t have the rank but just did what was natural. I won’t call it a serenity, but these leaders have an overwhelming propensity to remain calm and clear-headed. This, in turn, will instill a sense of calm focus on your teams and they will share the clarity of the dust settling and the path forward.
Back to Bill
In our story above, Bill is left with his own inner turmoil. This story hasn’t ended for Bill. Chaos presents opportunity. Bill sees this. But is the opportunity worth the turmoil? Although he likes what he does, Bill told me that he has a sense of foreboding and that further turnover may be on the horizon. His fear is that this upheaval will result in lost contracts and customers and a potential sale or shuttering of the company.
Bill also shared that he is passively working his contacts to see if another outside opportunity presents itself. He has always been a big believe in contingency planning. He feels he may be approaching a crossroads and he needs to think about his family and his future.