We Hired You To Drive Change…Now Conform


An acquaintance of mine was recently sharing her on boarding experiences for a job she just started. She was hired her based on her experiences with dynamic talent management projects and they assigned her the mission of driving progressive change in the organization’s candidate selection and leadership development programs. An early indication of the obstacles standing in her way became clear when a colleague said, “Before we brainwash you into doing business as usual around here, tell me your ideas.” At least they were self-aware of their problem!

I’ve been hearing about this same phenomenon across other organizations and industries. The organization’s leadership team has steered the company to a significant level of success due to a combination of certain strengths but given recent industry shifts, the future upward trajectory of the company appears limited due to a combination of certain weaknesses or a perceived lack of required capabilities. The leadership team then decides to drive strategic change by hiring a new leader that exhibits these complementary attributes. The next progression of events can be described as being very similar to the medical occurrence of transplant rejection.

Transplant rejection occurs when a transplanted organ is not accepted by the body of the transplant recipient. The immune system of the recipient attacks the transplanted organ because the purposed of the immune system is to distinguish foreign material within the body and attempt to destroy it. This is what seems to happen with some leadership teams. They ask for someone new to join the group to essentially offer a unique, dissenting voice. They must play resident devil’s advocate to stimulate diverse ways of thinking and ideas to enact change. However, these teams display a tendency to reject the new ideas in favor of their tried-and-true approaches. The initial strategy of incorporating a change agent into the mix is replaced by directly or indirectly motivating the new employee to conform. The new leader then typically elects one of two options: assimilation or attrition. In assimilation, the leader adopts the team’s prevailing methods and customs as a means for survival. In attrition, the leader recognizes that making a case for change is a losing battle and leaves the company. In either scenario, change is compromised.

In the medical world, doctors overcome transplant rejection by determining donor-recipient match. In the talent management realm, we must adopt a similar practice of ensuring leader-team match based on two critical components. First, we must ensure proper fit between the individual leader and the current team’s style and organizational culture. Second, we must ensure match between the candidate’s capabilities and the competencies required to drive change and elevate the business beyond current performance levels. Some leaders may be a great fit with the team, but do not bring the necessary behaviors to the table to help the company adapt to industry shifts and evolve. On the other hand, some leaders are potentially effective change agents yet, when hired into the wrong team, they could appear like a bull in a china shop and clash with others. Identifying and selecting leaders with both the mentality and tools to drive change AND attributes to connect with colleagues is a balancing act. We can break this balancing act down into the simple model of starts, stops, and continues.

Continue What Got You There
I’ll start with the “continues.” We must identify leaders who can continue (or at least respect and support) the traditions and strategies that have made the leadership team and organization successful. Some organizations refer to this as their DNA. When teams are self-aware and understand how the flipside (or dark side) of their strengths may actually be holding them back from further success, the immediate reaction is to assume that they need to overcorrect in the opposite direction. Operationally-sound leaders think they need to shed their current methods to become highly creative and innovative. Collaborative, enabling leaders see an opportunity to switch their mentality and adopt an entirely top-down, forceful behavioral style. These are ineffective shifts and likely not humanly possible. It is important to remember to retain and maintain the behaviors that led to success in the first place. Leaders that are hired to drive change must also display these core competencies in order to support a continuation of effective behaviors (or at least allow others who exhibit these skills to contribute to the team).

Stop Doing What Is Not Working 
There are two kinds of “stops.” First, we need to evaluate candidates and select leaders with low risk for the counterproductive behavioral styles that are holding back the success of the current team and leading to derailment. For one of my healthcare clients, the focus was on screening out leaders who were overly cautious on high stakes decisions and reacted to pressure by appearing as closed-door managers in a highly collaborative culture. They already had too many of those individuals. However, given that they were trying to hire more ambitious, big picture types, they needed to incorporate a second kind of “stop” in the candidate evaluation process. The goal here was to stop the potential problem of hiring leaders with too much a good thing. For this organization, it meant that targeting confident change agents must be tempered with reducing the likelihood that you will end up with arrogant risk takers who are not willing to partner with others on decisions. In some cases, we must put a figurative ceiling on these behaviors. Be careful what you ask for, you just may get too much of it.

Start Doing What Needs To Be Done
The “continues” and “stops” mitigate the risk of leader rejection from the team. Combined with that approach, selecting for the “starts” is what allows us to stack the deck in favor of not just leader retention, but also successful execution of strategic change. This new leader still needs to bring some unique ingredients to the overall team recipe to take things to the next level. We typically think of change as being linked to creativity, risk taking, the development of new products, etc. Yet the need for change could also be represented by a team that is highly innovative and cutting-edge and requires a new leader to the join the group to provide stability related to finances and operations. The behaviors that the leadership team needs to start demonstrating usually represent a balancing of the current preferences and capabilities of the incumbent leaders. The end result is not a 180 degree shift and likely resembles a more balanced, versatile team composition. 

The start-stop-continue model, with a focus on balance, is a matter of identifying leaders who display the “continue” behaviors, do not exhibit significant risk for “stop” behaviors, and show high potential for the required unique behaviors to enable the team to “start” moving in a new direction without losing their DNA. Keep in mind that selection of the right leaders with the requisite capabilities, fit factors, and low likelihood for derailment is really just the beginning. Ongoing leader and team development is critical to promote long-term success. Back to the transplant analogy, talent management professionals and executive coaches serve in the capacity of doctors who help the patient (i.e., leadership team) through the post transplant recovery process (i.e., ongoing leader and team development) so that the team can gel and overcome challenges.