During a recent four-day leadership retreat, a CEO from a large company said, “I get it! We have based our entire business strategy on the assumption that we need to take a defensive posture in our market. What would our strategy look like if we assumed instead that we could aggressively grow our market rather than have to deal with it shrinking?” That realization was the beginning of a five-year change effort that produced more than $100 million of net income.
The turning point was the CEO’s mindset shift. When he and the other executives altered the way they perceived their circumstances, they found the road to success.
Transformational change efforts often fail because the leaders do not have the mindset required to see what is necessary to succeed. Their beliefs, worldviews and assumptions about people, organizations and change keep them from accurately perceiving and understanding the dynamics they face. Consequently, they respond with strategies and tactics that do not match the transformational reality. They make poor decisions, rush headlong into the unknown, skip necessary tasks or trigger resistance in employees. When their efforts founder, they cannot figure out how to right the ship, because they do not understand the storm.
Many traditional leadership beliefs and assumptions limit change success. The belief that speed is paramount causes leaders to push change faster than employees can assimilate it, which actually slows it down. The belief that there are not enough resources causes leaders to skimp on change or overlay it on top of people’s already-overflowing plates, which impairs ROI. The assumption that change must be controlled at all costs often causes leaders to rigidly follow predetermined project plans, when success really requires frequent course correction as circumstances shift. The leaders’ belief that their primary responsibility is to ensure that their individual departments, regions or processes excel causes turf battles and competition across boundaries. This also keeps leaders from integrating their change initiatives, causing redundancies and chaos that waste enterprise resources and slow the change.
The CEO at the retreat had made assumptions about his changing market and his organization’s skills to deal with it. When he became conscious of the beliefs and assumptions he used to formulate his conclusion (i.e., to take a defensive market strategy), he realized that they were not founded on truth, but on fear. With this new awareness, he was able to do what his organization needed to succeed.
This example illustrates one of the most fundamental change leadership skills: introspection. Leaders must have the ability to look at their own mindsets to discover why they see things the way they do. Only then can they assess whether their perceptions accurately portray reality and what is needed to successfully transform their organizations.
Jim Kouzes, author of “The Leadership Challenge,” recently explained that self-reflection and requests for feedback from others were among the lowest-scoring dimensions for those who take his leadership assessment. In other words, leaders don’t look inward very often. They are too busy looking outward.
The problem lies in the fact that leaders, like all people, process the concrete information they acquire about their external world through the “invisible” lenses of their values, beliefs and worldviews. Their internal world determines what they see in their external world and how they respond to it. Most people are not aware of these internal filters or the profound impact they have on how they perceive and evaluate the changes they face.
However, misguided assumptions are never the real problem. Being unconscious of them is the true culprit. And because leaders possess such power and authority, their unconsciousness can have far-reaching negative impacts.
HR executives can play a critical role in assisting leaders to develop the necessary self-awareness. Make self-mastery and personal change a cornerstone of all your executive and change leadership development programs. Formally help your leaders become conscious of their mindsets so they, and your organization, do not get blindsided by their unconscious assumptions.
What level of success could your organization achieve if your leaders were more self-aware and open to addressing their mindsets to produce breakthrough change? The leverage for transforming your organization—and its performance—just might hinge on its leadership mindset.