Our challenges as leaders are great. The problems of this economy are many. The politics within government are divisive. And yet so many people want change and they want it to start happening now. Reflecting on the last thirty days, I am reminded of the following two quotes:
“Change is a door that can only be opened from the inside.” - Old French saying
“It’s not my job to motivate players. They bring extraordinary motivation to our program. It’s my job not to de-motivate them.” - Lou Holtz, former head coach of the University of Notre Dame football team
First, I believe that many people forget that change involves stepping outside one’s comfort zone. And while fear or the threat of imminent disaster can motivate people, it does not motivate them in the same direction and as well as clarity, support and empowerment. We have to help people open the door from the inside to make real change happen, and this is a difficult personal action. It requires being around people with whom we trust, believe have perspective, and offer support.
Second, I believe that while many want to create effective and sustainable change, too many people experience a daily work environment that is constantly de-motivating them to change. With a lack of real support, trust or empowerment, motivated and committed to change kinds of people are constantly battling poor leadership and even worse poorly designed systems which prohibit that which the organization requires. The result is a rampant case of cynicism and the development of silos with the work environment.
So, how does one get people to open the door from the inside?
Max Dupree, former CEO of Herman Miller, wrote that “the first duty of a leader is to define reality.” Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 2001, called this “confronting the brutal facts.” As he writes, “when you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of your situation, the right decisions often become self-evident. It is impossible to make good decisions without infusing the entire process with an honest confrontation of the brutal facts.” Furthermore, he adds, “a primary task in taking a company from good to great is to create a culture wherein people have a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.” This will require us as leaders to “lead with questions, not answers,” and to “engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion.” While defining reality is hard work, it must be done in such a manner so that people’s confidence and absolute faith that they and the organization will be successful in the end, regardless of the reality before them.
One critical element of helping people open the door up from the inside starts at the executive team level. As Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote in the April 1995 edition of Executive Excellence magazine, “Organizational learning is not possible unless some learning first takes place in the executive subculture.” While many do not want to admit it, there is an executive subculture within many companies, and often it is the source of the problem. Filled with big egos and little true perspective, these individuals often reinforce a good-old-boys perspective of entitlement and grandiosity. For some, the company works for them rather than they working for the good of the company. Thus, the best CEO’s are constantly leading their executive teams through in-depth learning in order to prevent a misaligned sub-culture and to help them develop a more realistic and motivational work environment. They understand what Kevin Cashman wrote, namely, “Leaders get what they exhibit and tolerate.”
As we head in to September, let all of us remember that the development of a clear and united executive team in combination with the on-going development of a high-trust culture will make a world of difference. This fall we need people to open the door and stay motivated for the work ahead.