Executives Need Help Coping With Corporate Change

Numerous books and articles have examined how leaders can effectively drive change in their organizations.

It’s commonly assumed that during these major transformations executives themselves are fully informed and secure in their roles. But often that’s not the case. They may face heightened competitiveness within the organization, constant distractions, and a host of other challenges.

I’ve noticed three in particular that arise frequently and can work to undermine their confidence:

1. The need to learn new approaches or step up specific competencies because their roles have changed — Although their job titles remain the same, internal changes may require executives to take on more responsibility, be more collaborative, be more strategic, hold their direct reports more accountable, etc. Many struggle to adapt.

2. Heightened uncertainty and ambiguity — Even when not buffeted by transformation initiatives or accelerated change, executives often find themselves operating in the semi-dark. Being in an executive role doesn’t mean they are privy to everything that’s happening at the CEO and board level. Their uncertainty tends to be magnified when change becomes more rapid or far-reaching. Finding that action could be more risky than inaction, executives may opt to hunker down and ride things out rather than participate fully.

3. Concern over their own future — Many wonder if their position in the company is threatened. Will they be judged by new criteria? Will they be capable of learning new competencies required by their changing role? Will they still be “relevant”? Executives who’ve been in their positions for a long time and don’t wholeheartedly buy in to new directions may worry that they’ll be perceived as obstacles.

Any one of these three challenges can chip away at an executive’s confidence, and all of them can occur at the same time.

Balance with transparency

In my coaching work, I’ve found that transparency often plays a critical role.

The superior that the executive reports to may have explained the “what” that needs to change but not the “why”.

For example, superiors may need to spell out how shifts in customer buying habits necessitate a different strategy and a new structure. If executives reporting to them are not fully informed, it may limit their ability to align and motivate their own teams.

Of course the need to be transparent often runs up against the need for discretion. If the company is close to making a major acquisition, for example, it may not want to disclose this for competitive reasons, even to some of the executive team. Only the CEO, the Board of Directors, and a few others may know that the deal could be finalized in the next 60 to 90 days.

But the uninformed executives may be working with their own teams to pull together strategic plans for the next two years, five years, etc., almost all of which will be significantly impacted by the acquisition; and they may already be taking steps to implement these plans.

As is the case with many other circumstances where withholding information seems necessary, organizations need to evaluate and balance the risk.

They need to ask themselves if it’s really necessary to withhold information that might enable their executives to be more effective.

If organizations do determine that there are good reasons why details about new directions can’t be disclosed, they can still make it clear to their executives and other employees that they are trying to be as transparent as they can. Employees want to be included, but most understand that not everything can be shared.

Explain the details

Another problem related to transparency occurs when leaders assume that they have fully communicated a new direction to their executive team, but it’s not as clear as they think.

It will help those executives to know exactly what the new directives mean for themselves as individuals and for their own teams. And what will be the signs that they are meeting their objectives.

Often this uncertainty persists because even high-level direct reports can be reticent about asking their bosses for clarification. They may think they’re supposed to understand the new directive and don’t want to seem slow on the uptake. Or they don’t want to imply that their bosses haven’t made themselves clear — especially if those bosses tend to react impatiently when asked for clarification. The desire to stay on the right side of a superior is powerful.

This is why it’s important for leaders to actively encourage their executive team to ask questions. “If any of this isn’t clear …” In some cases, the leader may want to probe more specifically. “Do you understand what this means for your team?” or, “Is anything concerning you about this?” or, “How will things be different for you now than the way they were before?”

In addition to encouraging questions, leaders need to listen actively to what their direct reports say so that those executives know that they’re being heard and their feedback is receiving due consideration.

Guide through the changes

When transformations require new or stepped-up competencies, some executives will have a hard time letting go of their old approaches. For example:

  • If their expanded responsibilities require them to take their strategic thinking to a new level, they’ll need to look at their environment with a wider lens and consider a more diverse set of hard and soft factors. In a period of transformation, overall corporate strategy may still be evolving, and there may be no colleagues who have already adapted to the new direction to use as role models.
  • If transformation means executives need to insist on a higher level of accountability from their team, they will no longer be able to tolerate under-performance that the company culture may have tolerated before.

It’s one thing, however, to manage team members who either make their numbers or don’t. It’s another matter to hold someone accountable who has several teams reporting to them. When projections aren’t met, the reasons for it can be more complex, even subjective. Simply demanding results, which may have worked well for an executive up to this point, may not work — and be perceived by their team members as being out of touch. It can lead to disengagement at a time when full participation is critical.

Article Continues Below

Leaders are in a position to help executives navigate these transitions, but, as with transparency, it begins with taking stock of their own situation and performance.

In the case of strategy, for example, is the new corporate direction really clear? Similarly, if stricter accountability is the new mandate, are leaders still tolerating under-performers on their own executive team? If so, the rest of the team may be inclined to do as the leaders do rather than as they say.

Once leaders have made sure their own houses are in order, they may be in a position to offer valuable assistance as coaches for executives who report to them. Or to find colleagues who are in a better position to serve as coaches with certain individuals.

Degrees of difficulty

Much has been written about how bosses can be effective coaches.

It’s helpful, for example, to study how to become a better listener, assume the positive, and ask open-ended questions. I also like to highlight the need to develop a trusting relationship by being open yourself — being vulnerable rather than playing the perfect performer — so that members of your executive team are more likely to share their real concerns.

It’s important also for leaders to recognize that, when working with executives who are struggling to adapt, that there are different degrees of difficulty.

Sometimes those executives’ attachments to their previous way of doing things is not that strong. If their prioritizing has to be sharper, the solution may be as simple as going through the list of the initiatives they’re responsible for and calling attention to whatever they’ve kept on the list that should get less attention or be discarded.

If more strategic thinking is required of executives who have tended to remain absorbed in operational matters, leaders may recommend that they lock their office door for an hour or two each week so they can step away from tactical details and consider the bigger picture.

If executives’ attachments are stronger, they may find it hard, for example, to drop a low-priority program because it means so much to the individual in charge of it, who sees it as a chance to showcase what he or she can do. The leader’s questions to the executive may have to be more pointed and persistent: “Are you holding on to this because it’s in the company’s interest?”

If the level of attachment is very strong, it may not even be fully conscious. No other “way” of doing things pops up on the executive’s internal screen. Even when these individuals work with an outside coach, achieving change at this level can be hard.

Bring in a coach

And bosses aren’t as free as outside coaches to put these executives on the spot or delve into deeper, long-term patterns of behavior without seeming intrusive. No one wants to be “psychologized” by their own boss.

One option in this case, for both bosses and professional coaches, is to drop the effort to convince individuals of the need to change and get them to try new approaches as an experiment. When new approaches work, they tend to be self-authenticating.

Of course it may turn out that, for some executives, the required adjustments don’t fall within their capabilities. They may need to work with colleagues who are strong in the areas they aren’t. Or the new role may simply not work out for them.

Too often in times of transformation, however, the transparency and active guidance that could make a difference aren’t provided; and the company either loses good talent or moves ahead with one or more executives who aren’t pulling their weight.

For over 25 years, John has coached senior executives from leading companies in the US, Europe, India, China, and Southeast Asia, and he’s done over 3,000 full-scale assessments of new hires and candidates for promotion at more than 100 companies. (See johnbehrgroup.com)

He has MS and PhD degrees in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and he teaches courses in business psychology and psychological tests and measurement at Northwestern University.

Topics