When you’re significantly changing organisations, products, or services, strategic choices and directions will inevitably be challenged. The strangest thing from my perspective is that senior leaders seem to overlook or ignore this. The project is over there, resourced with people and funding; you should just get on with it and deliver! Why are you asking questions, aren’t you up to the job?
There will almost certainly be decisions along the way that will lead to the unpicking or undermining of today’s revenue, profit, or organisation. You innately assume your senior leaders will not only be prepared to work through these questions with you, but actively want to; but the questions may be considered uncomfortable.
Using a location analogy, we are not rearranging the furniture; we are changing the shape of the room, and there’s every chance that some of the furniture won’t fit any more. For example, when you develop a revolutionary new product, there is a strong chance that it’s going to compete with existing products. This results in the essential question of how to work through and make the hard calls, to answer questions that cannot be pushed to one side forever.
A Kodak Moment
History is littered with examples of companies letting go of significant market positions, because they couldn’t bring themselves to cannibalise their existing products to take advantage of new inventions. Kodak is a good example and one of the most recognisable – in fact, ‘Kodak Moment’ has taken on a new and unflattering meaning. Their executives ignored the potential of digital cameras (which they invented) because film was one of the most profitable areas of their business. Today you probably can’t remember the last time you bought film.
Environment of Group Think
There can be an environment of group think – yes, even amongst executives – which is the antithesis of innovation and entrepreneurship, and prevents gutsy strategic calls. Those who work in the corporate world can be doing so because they like the lower risk option of being employed, having a regular income and a clear status.
If strongly held, these preferences innately conflict with risking the business and sacrificing the short-term for longer-term gain. After all, that short-term outcome will affect the profit and share price of the organisation. Time may be devoted to exploring and debating new and exciting opportunities and scenarios, but the energy and commitment to the hard decisions necessary to pursue higher risk/reward options happens much less often.
Choosing the Right People
You need to distinguish between those of your executives who are willing to embark on the personal change and journey your program will require, and those who aren’t. This will increase the likelihood of you looking to the right executives for support and guidance, enabling better management of others in their capacity as stakeholders.
Understanding the skills and experience you need to deliver your program, and seeking these widely, will avoid the need to rely on senior executives inappropriately.
Developing a supportive peer group network across the organisation will broaden your awareness of the skills available and increase your ability to access them.
Personally, one of the toughest transformation myths for me to deal with has been the availability of support from my senior leadership. It is an expectation gap I don’t think I ever really closed.
There was a part of me that always hoped I would be supported the way I look to support those that work for me.
It was hard to come to grips with the reality that many executive leaders in the corporate world prioritise power and status. When such leaders help others, it can often be to build loyalty and because it’s expected, rather than emanating from genuine altruism or a sense of the greater good.
The coaching training, and research into the world of neuroscience, that I embarked on in recent times has provided me with valuable insights into the behaviours I encountered.
In this article, I explore aspects of the understanding I have developed of what drives various behaviours, as well as the various types of support you may be consciously or unconsciously looking for – and when and where to access help when you need it.
What Drives People to Support or Not Support Each Other
It shouldn’t be so surprising, but from an evolutionary perspective, if empathy were too strong then humans wouldn’t have killed animals to eat. The hormone activated in this scenario is testosterone which, when elevated, reduces the level of compassion experienced by a person.
It’s important to note this is not a gender issue.
When any individual’s testosterone level drops, his or her oxytocin level rises, increasing the desire for connection and vice versa. It is no accident that we describe insensitive and competitive environments as testosterone-fuelled.
From a business perspective, we love the competitive, driven, and results-oriented attributes of this style. In today’s world, though, we are often looking for more balanced and considered behaviour, especially where it involves leveraging the skills and experience of a team.
These two modes of operating do not sit easily together without conscious thought and the understanding and willpower necessary to hold onto the best elements of each style.
How Our Brains Work
We can learn a lot from the insights we are progressively acquiring into how our brains work. The older parts of our brain, the reptilian and the mammalian components, still behave in ways that they have done for tens of thousands of years.
When humans hunted they benefited from working cooperatively but they also competed with each other. While it was vital to combine resources to find and kill animals to feed a tribe, it would also have been natural to use information about another individual’s weaknesses to ‘win’ the largest share of food or personal status within the group.
All mammals use some form of leadership model or hierarchy. Most are based on physical superiority and the ability to dominate their competitors within the group. Humans aren’t so different in this respect!
If a person in this mode is managing or dealing with someone who is in team and connection mode, both will feel confused and misunderstood. The same will hold true in reverse.
Paying attention to a colleague’s or manager’s current operating mode, as well as their default one, will reduce the chance of you expecting support from the wrong person or at the wrong time.
Increasingly, our society views the ability to think, plan, and connect as more important than physical prowess. Although we love our sports heroes and their impressive physical feats, we have also come to understand that their achievements are inevitably a combination of physical, mental, and emotional attributes. The ability to work well with others is as important as drive and focus.