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Christian Nimsky's Weblog

Navigating Corporate Transformations As A Tenured Leader

Christian Nimsky

Over the last several years I've found myself in situations where I've come into an existing team with some sort of "transformational" mandate.  The mandate could be a full-on turn-the-business-around kind of thing or just a high growth scenario that requires the organization to adapt to seize new opportunities.  This post shares a few observations on challenges that existing or “tenured" leaders face in such situations, the definition of an “tenured leader" being one who is not new to the organization, even though they may have recently been promoted into a leadership role.

As a new exec the challenge with assessing leaders in a transformational situation is that most leaders are pretty good at mirroring what you are looking for and in the early months there isn't always the opportunity for a "true test" of their actions and ability.  Like many who inherit a team in a turnaround or other kind of "transformation" scenario, my initial impulse is rarely to scrap the entire team and start over so I typically take some time to work with people and assess what kind of changes would benefit the team the most.  Below are some changes I have repeatedly seen in a transformation scenario.

Exits: Over the course of the first few months it is relatively straightforward to identify and address anyone who is clearly not going to fit.  While not an easy task, it is relatively straightforward and induces a change dynamic that is sort of a known quantity in many organizations.

A New “Inner Circle”: Often a new exec identifies the need for one or more chief lieutenants that are well connected, have characteristics desirable in the new culture and can get things done across the organization.  This is especially true if the organization has a lot of upward/horizontal management obligations that take up the new executive’s time.  In the early days it is a relatively clear cut process for the new executive to make the case for their promotion, elevating those individuals into new levels of responsibility and influence.

New Faces: Hiring in new talent is also relatively straightforward.  Where gaps are exist (or have been created by necessary exits), hiring in really strong people is a way to set a new bar.  We've done that at CR to great effect.  As that bar gets raised, some of the existing leaders - including those recently promoted - experience changes that give them opportunities for growth at the same time.

During all of these changes tenured leaders can face one or more challenges:

  • They may experience survivor syndrome as other team members leave.
  • They are put into uncomfortable roles, especially as they are promoted.
  • They may be asked to assume a higher level responsibility than peers.
  • They are often given larger scopes of responsibility.
  • The formal and informal organizational landscape shifts as new people are brought in around them.
  • Oh yeah - they have a new boss too!

This can be an exciting time for tenured leaders. On the plus side they have the advantage of institutional knowledge and a network in the organization.  They also have new allies in the form of new teammates and can start to implement things they may not have had the opportunity to under prior management.  The new teammates also present a challenge in that they may reshape the power structure and they bring different knowledge and perspectives that alter the ongoing narrative.

So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation?

Realize you have a choice on how to approach things.  Organizational transformations represent both risk and opportunity.  Some people find growth in the turbulence and others fixate on managing personal risk and often end up stagnating.  The danger in fixating on risk is for most people is they end up spending too many calories justifying and defending their portfolio of responsibility, causing them to appear “non-strategic” or “resistant” or both.  If you truly don’t like the direction the new executive is taking things, voice that concern and be prepared to leave if you feel like you can’t sign up for the new approach.

Ask for help.  At CR we have some emerging leaders who are in the middle of many of these changes and are great at asking for help.  I find that people who ask for help tend to have more ongoing success than those who hunker down and try to just grind through the change while quietly holding on to the perspectives and approaches that have served them well historically (but perhaps not in the future).  This should include asking some of your new peers for help.

Take risks and let stuff break occasionally.  I've seen many leaders who - in the face of exits around the team and an influx of new (but uninitiated) peers - throw themselves into fixing or covering for all the little gaps and dysfunctions in the organization.  While this can temporarily “save the day" it can also create risk by downplaying areas that need improvement and by pushing you - the perfectly capable and newly anointed leader - into a mode where you are mired in the operational side of things.  Nothing is wrong with operational competence, but if it comes at the expense of your ability to contribute strategically you could find it limiting your growth in a transformational scenario.

Get outside of the building.  While important as a general rule of thumb, for tenured leaders getting outside the building is even more critical because their new teammates coming in have already been outside the building, and you don't want to be contributing solely from an "institutional knowledge" standpoint.  It is also wise to network in a transformational scenario because you might need those connections at some point.  First, there is always the possibility that the transformation doesn’t work and the company finds itself in a financially desperate situation where you need to look for a new gig.  If the transformation does work, in the future you may be asked to help recruit staff, to bring new ideas into the building or to even find new partnership opportunities.