New Tricks For Old Dogs: When The Boss Is Asked To Change

As I spend time with leaders in various organizations, it has become clear to me that many leaders are being asked to do something extraordinarily difficult: to give up the leadership style that got them to where they are, and to adopt a new, less familiar one. Two recent examples illustrate the point.

Frank: "Command and control"

The vice president of marketing for a major global corporation, Frank (not his real name) had acquired the smoothness of style that comes from years of dealing with customers and other executives. It took a while, but after we discussed a consulting project, Frank opened up and lamented about his situation.

Frank had joined his company more than twenty-five years ago when an aggressive, take-no-prisoners management style was the norm. He thrived in this environment and advanced rapidly. In recent years, however, his company had adopted a new leadership framework. The "command and control" style that fit Frank so well, was to be replaced. "Control," "direction," and "demands" were out. "Teamwork," "participation" and "empowerment" were in.

Frank was given a brochure outlining the desired new leadership behaviors and he was expected to fall into line. (We chuckled at the irony of top management implementing the new leadership model using old-style methods.) What's more, every two years he was to undergo an upward feedback process, in which his direct reports would evaluate him against the desired new behaviors.

Intellectually Frank could appreciate the value of the new behaviors; in his gut he resisted the idea of changing his style. Could he overcome all those years of conditioning? Did he even want to?

Phil: "Don't re-engineer me"

The CEO of a mid-sized company I worked with recently is as brusque and unpolished as Frank is smooth. Let's call him Phil. In the process of interviewing Phil's reports for a team development effort, I learned that many had difficulty with Phil's abrasive style. Over and over, I would hear comments like, "Phil cuts me off" and "He doesn't really listen," or "Phil doesn't want to hear bad news." When we met to review the feedback, Phil displayed the very behavior his team was concerned about, cutting me off more than once. "I have no interest in being re-engineered!" he thundered.

Can Frank and Phil, and their numerous counterparts in other organizations, shed their old styles which have served them so well, and take on new and unfamiliar behaviors? Should they even try?

The choices

As a leader who has been asked to change, whether by the boss, your peers, or by your reports, what do you do? Here are three basic strategies to choose from:

  1. Pretend to go along. You can give lip service to the changes ("I know this will be difficult, but I'll do my best," said in your most sincere voice), knowing full well you don't really intend to change.
  2. Admit that you're unwilling to change. You can be totally honest, and tell people you just don't think you're willing to make the requested changes.
  3. Commit to making changes. You can make a genuine commitment to change.

Let's explore these options in more detail. Option 1, pretending, is tricky. You may figure you'll get some points for a modest effort, and that eventually the push for you to change will go away. But people are pretty smart about recognizing whether or not a change effort is genuine. Saying you'll do something and then not delivering can cost you trust and credibility. If you haven't done so already, you can easily develop a reputation for political gamesmanship. Your ability to get the best from others will suffer.

How about Option 2, admitting you won't change? This one takes courage. It requires bucking the trend, being willing to take the heat from boss, peers, or reports. You'll have to accept that some of your working relationships won't improve. But if you honestly feel you can't or won't change, and you can take the pressure, this option may be for you. (But be careful about thinking or saying you can't change. Most of us are capable of making change, given enough motivation and time. When you say you can't, more likely you don't want to change.)

However, each of the first two options has an additional downside: the possibility of limiting your career. Do you want to risk being seen as an organizational dinosaur who can't or won't evolve?

And Option 3? This may be the toughest option, but ultimately the most rewarding. If you can be successful in making visible changes in your behavior, you will have gained the respect of those you work with, and undoubtedly will have enhanced your ability to gain others' cooperation. At the same time, you'll likely be improving your leadership potential.

How to make the changes

Suppose you decide to make some changes. What does it take? How do you go about it?

As in the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb (only one, but the bulb has to want to change), you must have a genuine desire to alter your behavior. But that's not all. You will also need:

  • A plan. Choose no more than two or three specific behaviors you want to change. An example might be: "Let people finish before I jump in." Trying to change too many things at once is destined to fail.
  • A way to monitor the plan. We're often poor judges of the progress we've made, so you'll need a source of feedback to tell you how you're doing. This could be your boss, a peer, or your staff. It's usually a good idea to tell your staff what you're working on, and ask for their assistance in making the changes.

Coaching can help

For many of us, changing deeply ingrained behaviors can be stressful, and may require re-examining long-held beliefs and assumptions about yourself and others. A skilled in-house Human Resources or Organization Development professional, or an external coach (see accompanying article, "Getting the Best from an Executive Coach") can provide the necessary support and encouragement, and help you to overcome any remaining barriers to change.

What should you do if you're one of those leaders who is asked to change? It's up to you.