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What if New Leaders Ran
Your Company for a Year?

Challenging Thinking Series

Challenging Thinking is a series of Think Pieces—essays, videos, and other content—that ask and answer bold questions about leadership. While the leadership-related topics vary widely, each piece will inspire novel thinking.  

New leaders bring many advantages to their roles. So how can you capture and engage the energy of new ideas, new perspectives, and a willingness to innovate?

By Liza Hummel

New Leaders Ran Your Company - Thinking PointsI’ve talked with quite a few organizations in the last year who aren’t where they should be operationally and, often, they aren't sure exactly what is wrong. They aren't leaking revenue like the Valdez, but they aren't seeing the numbers they'd like. Maybe their client portfolio is down, or retention has dropped. Most of the time, the cause of the problem eventually surfaces as something like: “Our business model doesn’t work in this new, technology-based and ultra-competitive world.” Clients see this as a people issue.

On the tactical side of the organization, the history and decisions that have guided the company have become a hindrance to moving forward. They were meant for the pony express, not today’s Slackbots. Processes are outdated and methods need to be reconsidered.

When organizations realize they need to change the practical side of work, they turn to their long-time, loyal leaders—the ones who have stuck it out over the decades. These are the people who pulled the company through a rough economy, turned around a dipping revenue streak, navigated the jungle of layoffs or mergers. These leaders have proven their value, and the company is sure it can rely on those same people to propel it into the next 20 years.

So, what’s the problem with using your go-to, tenured "A" team? It isn't so much a problem as a missed opportunity. Humans are habitual creatures. We fall into patterns over time. Habits may take months to fully form, and years to break. Case in point, I have a permanent bruise on my toe from constantly stubbing it on the new, and slightly larger, sofa that now sits near the entrance to my living room.

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Now think about how those habits translate into running a company. People get used to doing the same thing, the same way. In fact, your brain craves it. (It’s called homeostasis.) You might recognize it as culture or status quo. Whatever you call it, it’s not good for implementing change and paving a new, different future. It’s no wonder innovation is one of the top challenges keeping CEOs up at night.

Enter the new leader. New leaders most often come from two places: outside the organization or promoted current employees. When done well, they are from various generations, represent gender diversity, and come from countless ethnic backgrounds, among other demographics.

The differences in the ways that new leaders make decisions, bring in ideas, and ignore long-standing biases, raises an interesting question: What would happen if you put your company in the hands of new leaders for a year?

What I’m suggesting is a social business experiment, to not just rely on the tenure track but to see what benefits could be gained from new leaders taking the steering wheel in your organization.

The case for new leaders

When we make decisions, we weigh the opportunities and consequences of the choices before us. Without the fear and prejudicial experiences that might factor into certain decisions, new leaders are more likely to take chances or tackle goals differently, even if those methods have been tried before. (We’ll call this the YDKWYDK Effect—“you don’t know what you don’t know.”) After all, technology has changed. Markets have changed. Personnel or clients have likely changed. What didn’t work five years ago could be just what your company needs now. Or what was bleeding-edge yesterday is today’s key idea. In addition to bringing new ideas, new leaders are going to be less likely to preserve current systems that aren’t working to full potential.

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These new leaders have recent knowledge of how goals are accomplished at another company or at another level in the chain-of-command, and they can draw on this knowledge to take a fresh look at the processes that are in place. Consider a new leader hired from outside the organization. Chances are, things were done differently where he or she came from; the culture was different. What can these people teach your organization about how to do it better? What best practices can be gleaned from their experiences?

Every new leader’s perspective encompasses different history and different pain points, and it enables the new leader to see different possibilities and outcomes. In short, new leaders are primed to be innovators.

What new leaders don’t have is a devotion to current processes. New leaders haven’t become ingrained to the habits of the organization or the role, yet likely are aware of them and can respect and navigate them.

What would an organization of all-new leaders look like?

What if you put your company into the hands of these leaders? What would be different at the end of that year? New leaders, especially those promoted from within, are closest to the organization’s ground-level practices and customer realities, so they see where changes could be implemented. Their new perspective inherently helps them discover challenges and question assumptions, meaning new leaders can analyze people and processes to make their lives and the lives of their teams easier. The status quo would be reimagined. Those monthly department update meetings that take all morning? Cancelled and replaced with weekly 15-minute team stand-ups. That manual shipment tracker? Gone and replaced with scanners and software. Those are just the little things. For a generation of new leaders that grew up in a world of on-demand news and outdated-by-the-minute iPhones, expectations for fast change don’t stop at the workplace door. New leaders expect transformations in how companies function, including keeping up with technology. These ideas can result in higher productivity, happier clients, and more accurate data and predictions.

New leaders aren’t going to have a bias against dropping low-performing products, nor will they be inclined to preserve current solutions that aren’t working to full potential (Sheena Iyengar cites increases in sales when companies cut extraneous, redundant products). All this creates focus for your workforce, and less juggling means leaders are more likely to get into flow.

And fresh ideas are brought in at the highest command: no more running ideas up the chain, spending hours building your case and gaining buy-in at each stop. Practices would be disrupted at the decision-making level. Think it, do it, move on. This would greatly affect the productivity of those at the lower levels, eliminating redundancy and tedium with a single idea of simplicity.

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And because many new leaders grew up in a world that was (and still is) much less bound by borders than previous generations experienced, they have an expectation and optimism for crossing into new territories, whether in an actual geographic sense or (more metaphorically) exploring new products and services. The internet has blown up barriers to access, contributing to a “democratization of knowledge” as a student at the University of California, Berkeley puts it. Technology enables immediate sharing of ideas and products between millions of people, so your organization can tap into new markets.

All these new methods suddenly adopted with little fear of rejection or dismissal would unleash a bevy of ideas, bursting forth from their hidden places like quail from the brush.

Of course, there are many, many reasons your seasoned leaders are still valuable to your organization. Among them, business acumen, client rapport, and industry knowledge—all difficult to teach without time, experience, and application opportunities. Your loyal leaders have spent their careers becoming masters in these areas as they relate to your organization, and their project experience is invaluable. They know what solution works and when, and how best to influence their teams. They aren’t done with you yet—and you shouldn’t be done with them.

Tapping into the benefits

The drawbacks aside, it’s unrealistic and in many ways unwise to turn out all your experienced leaders and replace them with new leaders. But it’s not unrealistic to consider where your organization could go and what it might accomplish if you were to think and act like an organization of new leaders.

Here are some ways to start:

Put your ear to the watercooler. Listening to employees can bring sweeping changes to your business model, revenue streams, and retention and engagement numbers. As we've discussed, just as new leaders can come from anywhere. each person, whether an aspiring leader or not, will have a unique perspective and, potentially, new ideas that can push your company in cost-effective directions.

Start with the culture. You can still achieve the same company transformation to take you into the future without forced job changes or early retirements. Build a culture that is open to change and innovation, where ideas can be freely shared and listened to across all levels of the organization. Look around to see what doesn’t make sense in the current landscape. What processes or decisions haven’t been challenged recently?

Instead of… Try this…
Asking for ideas from stakeholders Ask for ideas from interns
Saying, “We tried that already.” Say, “What would make us successful this time?”
Laboring through a manual process Find tools and technology that can help cut time and energy required
Criticizing an idea Seeking to understand the rationale behind it

Adopt new behaviors to lead change. To realize this utopia of new ideas, try sharing concrete behaviors people can use to open their minds, and gain their buy-in for applying them. "It's much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior," says neuroscientist Elliot Berkman. "People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others."

In other words, just because your company says to change, doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly intrinsically driven to do so. And the longer a behavior has been around, the harder it is to break. People need to know why the new way is better.

Dig deep into your workforce. Focus on engaging and involving those people across the company who are above and below your leaders. Ask questions to understand their feelings and ideas. Listen. Promote collaboration and cross-training. Find out what matters to them. Why do they come to work every day? What would make their jobs better or easier?

Charge loyal leaders with helping new leaders navigate risk and test ideas for success. For those especially resistant to change, try focusing them on their legacy. How do they want to be remembered? Do they want to be someone who coached others to success and shared their life lessons? Or would they prefer to be remembered as someone who kept the stage for themselves, asserting their views onto others?

Millennials need support. Workers ages 18-34 have already surpassed Generation X as the largest share of the American workforce. One in three workers are Millennials. In another three years, they will make up half of the global workforce. They’re stepping into leadership roles quickly. But with just a few years in the workforce, they often aren’t ready to take on that responsibility—they need to learn skills like communication, relationship-building, and coaching. You can support young leaders who need to gain a broader understanding of the business by encouraging them to network with other teams or to observe meetings. Getting new leaders involved in client or strategic discussions will help build their confidence and set them up for success when considering the appropriate factors in making decisions.

Unlock a culture of collaboration. Learning from others is a valuable development experience that can shape your company’s culture, foster collaboration, and drive down conflict between workers. Schedule reminders for yourself, or ask your favorite digital assistant to remind you. Jot down an idea—any idea—on a whiteboard before you dismiss it, even when you are alone. This will help you get into the habit of analyzing and reviewing before moving on.

Be the change. Pin pictures on your walls of images that remind you what you want to be. I want to radiate a warm, positive attitude, so I have an image of a friendly cup of hot cocoa with heart-shaped marshmallows at my desk. I look at it any time I’m feeling less-than-generous. There’s also a picture of a Formula One car and a Ferrari quote: “What’s behind you doesn’t matter.”

Think like a new leader

By opening your door— and mind—to the perspective of a new leader, you can mine a quarry of fresh ideas waiting to be shared. Cultivate collaboration with changes in behavior and focus on shaping all leaders to take cues from each other’s strengths. With the right encouragement, your company can embrace the best everyone has to offer and reap the benefits of innovative changes.

Liza Hummel is a consulting associate in leadership development at DDI. She is a roller coaster enthusiast and has ridden numerous record-breaking coasters. None compare to the ride that is being a people leader.

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