Leaders Library: How Embracing Change Allows Culture to Flourish

Growth and change. They’re connected, they’re everywhere and they’re unavoidable. Whether at home or at work, growth and change have been on my mind a lot lately.

On parent-ship and leadership

As my kids get older I can feel the strain of change. Instinctively, I always want to help guide them and direct their actions.  But as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, I recognize that my kids want and need their independence and freedom – it is how they change and grow. As parents, we long for the days when our little ones held our hands and needed our daily guidance, but the truth is they grow up. They need to experience independence in order to continue to grow.  As the saying goes – it’s a kid’s job to spread his / her wings and it’s a parent’s job to let them.

Organizations are not any different.  They too need to change in order to grow.

Recently, we started a book club at work (more on that in a future blog).  A recent selection by Chris Laszlo and Judy Sorum Brown called Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, focuses on is transformational change.

As parents and leaders, we either love that topic or we fear it. But we have to recognize it is all around us, and we must deal with it. The question becomes how? I knew my kids needed to experience independence but how?  We know an organization needs to change but how?

How our culture can hold us back

The authors suggest that when we talk about change, we talk about culture and how hard that is to change. Cultures exist everywhere: in friendships, in families and in organizations.  A culture is an intangible, valuable thing; it carries a ton of pride and rightly so. It’s also personal.  As individuals, parents, team members and leaders, we all have a role in building and sustaining it.

Then the authors point out that culture is the result of how we get things done.  At home we call this parenting; at the office we call it work.  The labels may differ but the definition is the same.

At its root, culture is the act of work played out by each individual, team and unit — over, and over and over — until, we see the way we work as the only accepted way of “doing” and “being.”

We tend to see our own behaviors as the organization’s culture and not our individual actions.  In fact, I think we disassociate ourselves from our actions until we no longer recognize our individual actions. Instead of owning them, we say things like “that is the way we do it here,” and “that is what XYZ said or needs or wants.”  We deflect accountability for our own actions to the culture.

The pitfalls of overprotecting

Too often, we try to protect (or over-protect) the culture because we have been successful with it and we believe it drives continued parental and organizational performance.  As a result, we stop challenging it.  A challenge is seen as a threat or negativity.

That’s why it’s so hard to stay on top. Change is seen as a risk, even a threat, but rarely an opportunity.

Organizations typically stop evolving and adapting until someone or something comes along that  topples them or disrupts them.  They are reactive to the situation, not proactive.  But who’s doing the reacting – the organization or us, the individuals?

Why challenging our culture is our job

We can’t continue to blame culture as the reason to avoid change. If culture is holding us back, then it’s time to change the culture. Flourishing Enterprise teaches us that to change a culture, you need to change the way you work.  You must have goals that cannot be accomplished by the way you are working today.

Change can either be frightening or inspirational – which one do you choose?  

This can either feel frightening or inspiring. To use a parenting analogy, I equate this to sending my oldest child to college. Whether I liked it or not, the time has come for him to be truly independent. He is on his own for the first time in his life. This doesn’t mean my role as a parent is over, not by a long a shot. But it does mean my role as a parent is changing. I will need to guide and protect him in new and better ways. To me, this is a little of both inspiration and fear,  but one will win over the other every time.

The book is spot on. It stopped me in my tracks. Most of us have a desire to achieve individual growth, and we recognize to grow we must change and evolve. So why are we not all inspired by change? Why are we also frightened?

The short answer: Uncertainty!

We wonder, will we make it?  Can we survive the change? Can we meet the outlandish goal? Do we trust that the team, the leader and the organization want the change?

We are uncertain, plain and simple. As a result, everyone struggles: the individual, team and organization. Frustration builds, relationships get strained and results slip.

The leader as champion of change

This book made me realize this doesn’t have to be the only option. But the experience of sending my oldest off to college made me realize this starts with me because I’m the parent. Just as in business it starts with the leader.

Even leaders fall victim to being adverse to change, but it is our job to champion it. We need to change the way we and the organization work. If we can do this, others will follow, and these new actions and behaviors will become the new and improved norms and culture. It will not happen overnight, and it won’t be easy, but it’s the kind of change where you will eventually be able to look back and admire how far you have come. In fact, you will feel an overwhelming sense of pride and inspiration at the result.

On August 26th, I jumped in and changed the way I parent (at least for one of them).  Check in on me in 4 years and I will let you know how well I did.  For now I’m parenting this next chapter through inspiration, with a few moments of fear along the way (hey – I’m only human).