December 2014. The University of Wisconsin was headed for the Outback Bowl to face Auburn after finishing the season at 11-3. On Wednesday, December 10, 2-year head coach Gary Anderson announced that he was leaving to become head coach at Oregon State. Effective immediately.
In the wake of the stunning announcement, athletic director and legendary former coach Barry Alvarez stepped in to coach the team through the bowl game. Alvarez, revered by the team for his winning record and strong cultural presence, was the players’ choice as a replacement for the last game of their season. They were a team that had seen a lot of leadership changes over the previous three years and they wanted someone they could count on.
Bringing in new leadership is hard on everyone, even under the best circumstances. But it is especially hard for a company in turmoil when a new leader is brought in to fix a mess. In these cases, whatever has been done isn’t working. Sales are down. The best talent is leaving. The ones who stay are demoralized. The ship is sinking, and there aren’t enough life rafts to hold all the survivors.
In almost every scenario, the new leader believes he has a mandate. The best way to win over the board and the team is to make changes. Huge, sweeping changes. Everyone loves a good reorganization, right?
Korn Ferry reports (from a 2020 survey) that the average tenure of a C-suite executive is about 4.9 years. Not surprisingly, the younger the executive, the shorter the stay tends to be. Between the first few months of getting to know the job and the company and the last few months with one foot out the door, that leaves just a few short years to make an impression on the company’s performance.
Great companies have cultures so strong they can withstand changes from any new guy. They have peers, mentors, and experienced staff who help the new leader understand the culture and work with it instead of breaking it down.
But companies can lose their way if there isn’t a strong culture or team in place. We know one large corporation that has seen a revolving door of leadership – a dozen different people in the last five years in a top executive role that gets redesigned after every departure. And each time a new leader comes in, the goals and priorities of the organization change. Divisions are restructured. People are fired. New initiatives are rolled out. Survivors tell us it’s been a miserable experience.
Every new leader wants to prove that the company hired the smartest person in the room. They want to make their mark on the company, to get a big win, fast. The problem with fast is that it takes time to understand the current situation and how it got that way. Back to Stephen Covey’s basic tenet: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
It takes time to figure out the root cause of what seems like a flawed process. When you pull the string, you’ll often find a messy pile of workarounds and temporary fixes for other big new initiatives that went wrong. It takes tremendous courage to speak up and say, “that won’t work,” especially when layoffs are still in process. You don’t want to be next. So you smile and nod and figure out how to make it work, even when you know that it won’t.
New leaders must take the time to listen to the people who have been in the company for a while. Find out what’s working – and why – and what’s not working – and why. How did we get here? What would you do if you were me? Listen to the people who will be directly affected by the changes.
Sometimes, it’s not the big showy trick play that will turn the game around. Sometimes it’s just about focusing on getting better at the basics. Take what we do well and do it more and better. Take what we don’t do well and eliminate it or redesign it, so it works for all of us.
Consultants. Meetings. Travel. Rebranding. Communication, both internal and external. Process changes. Systems upgrades. Millions of dollars get spent on significant initiatives that last just a few years and don’t make anyone’s life easier or better. (Well, maybe except the consultants. They get paid and then get to walk away.)
Getting any transformation right requires a mix of a familiar culture and trusted baseline values plus incremental changes that clearly demonstrate a move in the right direction. Think of it like your family’s holiday traditions: you can introduce new, fancy side dishes every year as long as nobody messes with the turkey and Mom’s dressing from her great-grandma’s recipe.
Your bottom-line question should be: how does this make life better / easier/ more efficient for my workers in the branch in Topeka, Kansas? How does it help my customers get better service in Ocala, Florida? If the change is only about impressing the executive staff or feeling important in your new role, you’ll need to think again.
If I were in charge of the latest reorg for the company with the revolving door, I’d make sure the team felt safe. Comfort doesn’t have to mean complacency, but employees have to trust that the process is for their benefit and not just change for the sake of change. I would find an internal leader who had remained loyal, weathered the storms of economic and leadership shifts, and has a proven record of success that people believed in. Someone with influence, someone everybody knows, from employees to clients. She’d be able to stay true to the best components of the company culture and represent strength and stability. And she’d have some smart ideas about how to change what needs to be changed because she has been through all the previous changes.
By the way, Barry Alvarez led the Badgers to an Outback Bowl win over Auburn: 34-31. The players had it right. Bring back what works– a solid foundation for us to stand on during a period of turmoil so we can focus on winning.
About the Author:
Rich Thompson, CEO of XPG Recruit, is an expert on staffing, human resources, training and leadership development. He is also a former All-Big Ten football player for the University of Wisconsin. XPG Recruit provides recruiting for staffing companies. The XPG Recruit Athlete division places former athletes into business careers and works closely with universities through its sister company, Podium X.