A leadership crisis appears to have erupted within the Minnesota Vikings. After the recent game against the Green Bay Packers, it was reported that members of the Vikings’ defense acted in defiance of Mike Zimmer’s game plan. (For those who don’t follow the Vikings closely, Mike Zimmer is in his second year as Vikings head coach and has a reputation as an old school tough guy coach). Their defiance played a major role in the Vikings’ loss and elimination from the playoffs.
If you are a head football coach, this is the nightmare scenario—and it’s not unique to professional sports teams, as the following real client story illustrates:
Bob (not his real name) was hired to be the new leader of an organization that had experienced declining customer satisfaction scores, revenue and profitability for several years. Bob’s board recognized an imperative to “transform or die” and hired Bob because he appeared capable of being a strong leader, challenging the status quo and making necessary changes to create a brighter future. He worked with his leadership team to create a compelling rationale for change. Along with the team, he set a vision for centralizing certain functions that had historically been decentralized into the operating units and established a plan to “fund the journey” of transformation by cutting expenses and seeking new sources of revenue. He also replaced executives who were unwilling to commit to the new vision for the organization. These changes were applauded by the board as necessary and courageous.
After a year, though, employee engagement scores were cratering. Employees grumbled that Bob only cared about financial success and didn’t care about customers. Some of the most vocal employees (and former employees) went directly to the board to express their unhappiness. Bob’s initiatives began to stall and the board started to complain that Bob was not listening to employees and not inspiring enough. Whispers began that maybe Bob was not the right leader after all.
Is Bob doomed? What can he do to save the situation? Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to these questions. “The CEO’s Role in Leading Transformation,” a classic article from McKinsey on leading transformation, crystallizes the challenge. The article outlines four roles the CEO must play in successful organizational transformation:
- Making the transformation meaningful.
- Role-modeling desired mind-sets and behavior.
- Building a strong and committed top team.
- Relentlessly pursuing impact.
On the one hand, CEOs are advised that successful transformation requires relentless, forceful leadership. According to the McKinsey article, the CEO must “consider and share with others the answers to such questions as ‘Why are we changing?’; ‘How will we get there?’; and ‘How does this relate to me?’” The CEO must also “make tough decisions about who has the ability and motivation to make the journey” and make changes to top leadership when he/she deems it necessary. John Kotter, in his classic article “Why Transformations Fail,” suggests the No. 1 reason transformations fail is the leader “not establishing a great enough sense of urgency.”
But what happens when the imperative to be forceful runs up against an equally important and seemingly conflicting imperative to engage and empower employees? Kotter’s No. 2 reason for transformations failing is “not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition.” Similarly, the McKinsey article states, “When a CEO’s version of the transformation story is clear, success comes from taking it to employees, encouraging debate about it, reinforcing it, and prompting people to infuse it with their own personal meaning. … The most important and hardest part of the transformation [is] ‘to convince people of the need for the program.’” In other words, without buy-in from employees, transformation will fail.
So can Bob’s situation be saved? My experience from 30 years of coaching leaders and as a CEO myself is a qualified yes. But it won’t be easy. Success will require:
- Not overreacting to the criticism. At the end of the day, the only way to lead is to be the primary evaluator of your own performance. Trying to please your board or your employees is a recipe for failure.
- Being a world-class listener. World-class listening means being able to see and understand what the world looks like through the eyes of your stakeholders. It also requires the ability to communicate that understanding. This is how trust is built.
- Be a learner. Look for new perspectives. My clients are always sending me new books to read. In turn I send them articles and other resources relevant to their circumstances and challenges. The key to finding new solutions is to find new lenses through which to view your reality.
- Be advisor receptive. Find an experienced coach you trust who has “been there.” He or she can be a guide in helping you to find your way by asking perceptive questions, challenging your thinking and sharing experience (without demanding you take his or her advice).
- Make decisions and act. In any situation, there are three possible outcomes: Die slow, die fast or don’t die. The worst option is dying slowly by avoiding difficult decisions.
What follows is a list of thought-provoking articles to kick-start your development as a leader in 2017 and to shift your perspective. A warm holiday drink and cozy fire could be the perfect accompaniment to your reading:
Happy holidays and best wishes for the new year!