I bought a new car recently, and to start it, I just have to press a button. As a management consultant, this small change has been fascinating to experience first-hand. It started out as a small adjustment, but ended up with a complete mindshift.
For the first week with the new car, I would walk to the car with my keys in my hand, open the door with my keys in my hand…and then put the keys into the cup holder because I couldn’t put them in the ignition (where I wanted to put them).
The following week, after I locked the front door, I put my keys right in my pocket, walked to the car, got in and pushed the button to start it up (with a slight feeling of liberation).
By the next week, I realized that I only needed to touch my keys when I am dealing with my house or my office, and even then, only when I have to lock up or unlock. So, I now think of my keys completely differently. Before, they were a constant companion, kept ready for action whenever I was moving. Now, there are days when I put them in my briefcase in the front hall in the morning and take them out in the front hall at night – without touching them in between. I no longer need to touch my keys to go places (even now that sounds strange to say).
My experience reminds me of last month’s great Crain’s article on the transitions that family businesses go through. It described changes large and small made by next-generation leaders of family businesses. The whole article is worth reading, but a quote from Mike Kotsis of Atlas Wholesale Food Co. stands out:
“Old habits” are one of Atlas’ biggest challenges, Mike Kotsis said. “Some people here have done business the same way for more than 20 years,” he said. “Every time we implement a new process, employees tend to get stressed and revert to the old process.”
I have clients who are 10, 25, 50 and 100 years old. Tomorrow, at a 25-year old client that is going through a leadership transition, I will be facilitating a strategy session with about 25 members of the leadership and middle management teams where we will revisit the vision that was created when the new leader came in two years ago. As can be expected, the company is having its bumps as it goes through the transition, so we need to talk about the vision again – maybe to change it, maybe just to re-understand it with more experience under our belts.
In tomorrow’s session, we’ll use techniques from The Art of Engagement, in which one of the lessons learned at the end of the book is, “People don’t need help in starting new actions; they need permission to stop the old ones.”
Given my experience with the push-button start on my car, I’d say it a bit differently: People need help in starting new actions and permission to stop the old ones.
And in helping people start new actions, it’s important to have the right expectations. In the coaching I have given and received, it’s not unusual for it to take months for people to make a change so that they consistently act in a new way. During that time, they don’t understand completely, make mistakes, backslide into old behaviors and get discouraged.
With help, they also usually make good progress that, over time, gets the company and its people to a better place.
Read more blog posts like this on Crain’s Detroit Business.
Well, the pressure has lightened a bit on the management teams I’m working with for Q3. Of course, that means this is the right time to address all those deeper issues that made things harder to deal with over the last two years while things have been in such tumult (“it sure would have been good if we had dealt with this earlier,” folks were saying then).
But I’m a realist, and the fact is that folks need a bit of a breather. The good news is that leaders don’t have to be completely in sales-and-crisis mode and can spend a little time on the evolution of their business.
In keeping with the spirit of my clients’ planning sessions this quarter, I’m going to keep things on the shorter side. The key issues my clients are focused on this quarter include:
Staying on sales. Sales are still taking significant time and effort, so companies are staying focused on driving revenue.
Talent management. My clients are continuing to focus on improving the performance of their people. It’s still not holistic, but it is progress. They’re putting attention on team dynamics, management training and personal development and not spending much time on recruiting and compensation.
New markets/businesses. My clients are, in some ways, back in start-up mode – launching new products, entering new markets and developing businesses around those.
Board of directors. Several clients are implementing or building up their board-level capabilities so the leadership has better-quality guidance and there is a separate entity overseeing the highest corporate-level strategic issues.
Managing investments. Cash continues to be tight, and so leadership teams are tracking their investments more closely than in the past and rebalancing their spending based on the results they’re seeing.
This will no doubt be another interesting quarter when management and strategy will matter.