The Change-Savvy Innovator-In-Chief

by | Feb 3, 2012 | Board Capacity Building

CEOs who succeed in the Innovator-in-Chief role are what I think of as change-savvy. The change-savvy CEOs that I’ve worked with and observed:

  • Are technically very knowledgeable about best practices in the rapidly changing area of change planning and management, which means she isn’t wedded to conventional planning wisdom and out-of-date approaches. You’ll never hear a change-savvy CEO extolling the virtues of traditional long-range (or strategic) planning as a change tool, much less catch her fondling a ten-pound five-year plan.
  • Realize that successfully bringing off out-of-the-box change against all odds requires that she make leading the change planning and implementation process a top-tier priority. In practice, this means that the change-savvy CEO makes a firm commitment of time to leading change from the top and never tries to delegate one piece or another of this leadership role to lieutenants.
  • Recognize that leading out-of-the-box change as Innovator-in-Chief of the organization is more psychological and political in nature than technical. Not only does the change-savvy CEO understand that fear is more often than not at the heart of staff resistance to change, she also takes strong, visible steps to allay that fear through the clear articulation of vision and other motivational steps that are intended to inspire and energize participants in the change process. The change-savvy CEO also pays close attention to the transformation of key stakeholders into ardent change champions.
  • And command the respect of staff members and key stakeholders, primarily by playing a very aggressive and visible change-leadership role and practicing what she’s preaching in the change arena. A change-savvy CEO knows that her leadership credibility depends on walking the talk, never contradicting in practice what she’s saying publicly.

In addition to the characteristics I’ve just described, the CEOs I’ve observed who have been most successful at accomplishing out-of-the box change have possessed three powerful character traits: courage; deep emotional self-awareness; and fundamental self-confidence. Being courageous and steadfast in leading change planning and management is a critical CEO trait. It never fails: The farther change planning moves outside the box in your organization, the more fear, anxiety, tension, and often anger you’re likely to see. As you’ve probably observed, fear (which feels quite weak) is often quickly transformed into indignation (which feels far stronger), and who’s a more convenient culprit and target of anger than the highly visible Innovator-in-Chief who’s leading the change charge?  The CEOs I’ve seen do a great job of leading out-of-the-box change are loaded with calcium. That doesn’t mean they’re insensitive Genghis Khans bludgeoning staff into change — quite the contrary. But it does mean they don’t cave under pressure. They expect the resistance and frequent anger, and they withstand it.

The absence of deep emotional self-awareness can seriously limit the impact of a CEO in leading out-of-the-box change. I’ve seen CEOs who couldn’t capitalize on the talents and commitment of strong women on their executive teams because they found such strengths threatening. I’ve observed CEOs who were unsuccessful in building critical partnerships and joint ventures with other organizations because they saw the world as a dark and dangerous place filled with competitors waiting to do them in. And I’ve come across CEOs whose need for security and control made them intolerant of the give-and-take of wide-open discussion and led them to impose on their organizations mechanistic long-range planning processes that substituted neatness and order for creative questioning and exploration. In these and other cases, what has struck me over the years is how hidden, unrecognized emotions can sabotage CEOs, causing them to see the world through an internal lens that distorts objective reality, and, hence, leads to inappropriate behavior.

I know that this might sound like psychobabble to some readers, but long experience has convinced me that the most effective change leaders are emotionally so self-knowledgeable that they aren’t easily sabotaged by deep-seated emotions they aren’t aware of. A few years ago, I worked with just such a CEO, who headed a large and highly successful senior services nonprofit. We were chatting one evening after getting through the first day of an intensive 1 ½-day work session kicking off the organization’s change planning process, when she confided that at one point in what’d been a great day she’d felt like lashing out at two of her board members. She said that when they’d raised some pretty pointed questions about her decision to pursue a merger with a sister agency a couple of months earlier, she out of the blue felt like a little girl again, being harshly judged by her parents, and the sudden surge of anger caught her off guard. Fortunately, she didn’t lash out, knowing that the anger — while a real emotion that she’d truly felt  — was totally misplaced, having to do with a vulnerable little girl inside, not with the strong CEO she’d become. That’s what I mean by self-awareness.

The fundamentally self-confident CEOs I’ve worked with and observed have embodied a character trait that I think of as true humility. They are so secure, psychologically speaking, that they are able to celebrate — and capitalize on — the strengths of the people around them, both board and staff members. They’re blessed with robust, healthy egos that aren’t easily wounded and don’t require constant protection. They are able to keep things in perspective, seldom seeing a personal challenge, slight or even insult as a cause celebre. Rather, they are able to take the long view, resisting the impulse to lash out now in the interest of achieving an important objective down the pike. They’re keenly aware that the person who’s treated them with apparent disrespect today might very well turn out to be a valuable ally some day if they bide their time.

Virginia Jacko, my colleague and coauthor of our book, The Blind Visionary, is a great example of a fundamentally self-confident CEO who’s wasted absolutely zero time defending a fragile ego. President & CEO of the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Virginia, who is blind, recounts a story in our book that vividly demonstrates the value of a healthy ego. Not long after her appointment as the first blind CEO of the Miami Lighthouse, Virginia learned that a prominent Lighthouse volunteer had commented to a current Lighthouse board member, referring to her appointment, “Can you believe the inmates are now running the asylum?” Were Virginia’s feelings hurt?  Of course. Did she lash out in anger?  Of course not. She didn’t take any action, and when she eventually sat down in a meeting with her detractor, she made clear her desire to work together, letting bygones be bygones. The upshot?  The person who’d made the derogatory comment became a close ally, even nominating Virginia for a major community award. That’s the kind of emotional maturity that makes Virginia a highly successful out-of-the-box leader.

Excerpt from Leading Out-of-the-Box Change (Doug Eadie, Governance Edge Publishing, 2012)

About the Author: Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists CEOs in building rock solid partnerships with their boards.

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