November 20, 2013

Advice for change junkies like me

If you know me, you know I love a challenge.

It's not fun unless I'm in the middle of solving a hard problem. Even better, it's a hard problem with high stakes requiring organizational change. The act of jumping in, assessing a situation, defining the opportunities, putting the right team together and watching them gain momentum - it is a rush! That's definitely where I find my "state of flow". Over the years, as I've chased my flow, I've had the opportunity to learn (and re-learn) two key lessons that may be helpful for other "change junkies" out there.

The current state is always worse than you think (and you can't fix everything at once).

When walking into a new change situation, I go in believing I have a handle on the challenges I will face. But I've learned this belief is kind of like wearing rose colored glasses, because you can't really know the truth until you get in there and get your hands dirty.

Too many times I have felt blindsided by an unanticipated speed bump. One recent example was the resource I relied on to execute my paid search marketing. He sat in the Search Marketing "center of excellence" within a matrix organization and was dedicated to my business. Given other fires burning, the search program wasn't my top priority. Yet over the course of a month's worth of status meetings, it became clear he wasn't performing. I had to put aside a number of other priorities for a few weeks in order to get it resolved. In this case, it was a fundamental misunderstanding of the chain of command and unfortunately, it cost the business a few hundred-thousand dollars.

I ascribe to the same advice shared in this HBR blog about turnarounds: you must address these unexpected challenges head on and at the time you uncover them. It's important to communicate openly about these speed bumps as you hit them, because it's likely to be a common, simmering problem that the team hasn't felt equipped to handle yet. And to insure your management chain understands that a new priority has emerged. Don't continue to feed the elephants in the room.

Work on being resilient.

There are so many speed bumps one can encounter - some you may be able to anticipate because you've hit them before, and unique ones that surprise you. I've learned that no matter how objectively "good" or "right" an idea, initiative or strategy may be, the organization has to be ready for it. This is true in both small and large organizations. And ready is more than lip service, ready means a shared urgency for making the key decisions and taking needed actions now.

This shared urgency is elusive, so you need to be resilient. I used to characterize this trait as being persistent, and while there is definitely an element of persistence in resilience - it is a necessary component - but not sufficient. Persistence implies staying the course valiantly fighting all obstacles in your way. It also implies a bit of tunnel vision, so you can miss the forest for the trees. Too much persistence may also get you labeled as stubborn and one-dimensional by peers and leaders - neither of which will help move your priorities forward.

Resilience, on the other hand, is what allows you de-personalize your response to setbacks so you are better able to synthesize new information, alter your approaches and persist in trying to execute the right ideas. But let's be clear, resilience is hard and sometimes even harder for professional women in leadership roles. It's a skill like any other that takes time, patience and awareness to develop.

The good news: if you can approach leading change situations by being open to the unexpected and working on resiliency, you will be better equipped for your next change fix!