Change is often needed, but miserable in practice. When you are the change as an executive onboarding into a new role, be especially conscious of converging into the organization before trying to evolve it. Change only what you must, and do it only when you must. Focus on creating conditions that inspire, enable and empower people and teams to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose.

In his book, The Problem with Change, Ashley Goodall makes a strong case that change often results in chaos and confusion – the “blender life”. Given that, leaders should pay much more attention to creating conditions in which people can do the best work of their lives in teams, changing only what’s necessary to do that.

On the one hand, this is not a new problem.

“Every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized.  I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet new situations by reorganizing… and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.” – Gaius Petronius, A.D. 65 Roman governor and advisor (arbiter) to Nero

In brief, Goodall argues that

The problems with change are:

  • Unbounded anxiety from an uncertain future is worse than discrete, specific fears.
  • Learned helplessness born of a lack of control/agency.
  • Loss of belonging and bonding from disrupted social ties and frequent, enjoyable, stable, ongoing interactions.
  • Displaced attachment to places and rhythms of life.
  • Loss of meaning: coherence (makes sense) and significance (matters).

The way forward is to create conditions in which people can do the best work of their lives in teams by:

  • Make space to give people running room.
  • Forge undeniable competence, celebrating moments of excellence.
  • Share secrets to build sense of belonging and community.
  • Be predictable to give people confidence in themselves.
  • Speak real words because people can deal with the truth quite well.
  • Honor rituals to provide reassuring anchors in a topsy-turvy world.
  • Focus most on teams for stability, and social needs.
  • Radicalize HR to focus them on listening to, supporting, and addressing employee needs.
  • Pave the way, understanding that “desire paths” worn across the lawn are features not bugs.

Implications for executive onboarding

Goodall’s work has helped ratchet up our current best thinking on three executive onboarding concepts: 1) Converging before evolving, 2) Managing your own message, 3) Co-creating the pivot between converging and evolving.

Converge before evolving

This remains our most important insight. 40% of new leaders fail in their first eighteen months generally because of poor fit, poor delivery or a poor ability to adjust to a change down the road. You have to fit in first. You have to become part of the team before you have any chance of evolving it.

Focus on building relationships first. Most change agents don’t survive their own change. Don’t be the change agent. Begin as a sponge, learning everything you can about the people, their teams, their organization and its history, rituals and unwritten rules of the road.

Manage your own message

You’re going to get positioned in people’s minds one way or another. Choose your own positioning and message. Know that your message is your current best thinking. Lead with questions, not answers. Get others to help ratchet up that thinking.

Co-create the pivot

In line with Bryan Smith’s five ways to persuade: tell – sell – test – consult – co-create, if at all possible, co-create the future with your first team as you pivot from converging to evolving. This gives them space, lets them celebrate their excellence, lets them bring in their secrets, gives them confidence in themselves. Use real words. Build on existing rituals. Drive it to and through teams. And follow the desire paths already etched out. It’s not about you being right. It’s about creating conditions for your teams to do their best work.

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