How to ride an elephant

How to ride an elephant

The bulk of my work is done with second stage companies.  These companies have made it through the early start up survival mode and are now interested in positioning themselves for the second stage of funding.  They are defining their culture, aligning customer experience, creating value by becoming more clear in their identity.  In these companies, the CEO is inevitably the driver.  There is a clear vision from the top and the C-suite team is doing the work to make it happen.  Even when it is a ground up employee involved initiative, the C-suite makes the call, raises the flag, and calls the troops into battle.  So most of my work involves collaborating directly with the CEO who by force of will, energy, magnetism, communication skills, or muscle, makes decisions, takes charge, and makes it happen.

In the last few months I have been working with a much larger company that didn’t fit this pattern.  I stumbled a bit out of the gate because I was trying to engage them as if they were the same animal – they are not.  I kept trying to report directly to the CEO and to get him to just make the call, to get him to stand up and lead by mandate.  Out of frustration with my lack of success, I called another old friend who happens to be CEO of a different large company and asked him for advice.  I laid out my story and thank goodness for old friends – he offered fantastic new perspective.  I commented that my new client leader seemed to be leading by consensus, which meant in a company this size that nothing ever got done and when it did,in my opinion,  it wasn’t necessarily done well (you know….engineers doing graphic design and administrators doing facilities planning).  My friend shared that as the top of his large company, he simply doesn’t have the time to muscle through all of the important work that needs to be done and has learned to apply leverage.  His strategy is to educate his leadership team on the issues that he thinks need to be addressed and then wait for one of them to step up.  If no one steps up – he educates more.  Once someone has raised their hand and taken on that issue, then they own it.  They make their choices on how to execute and they own the results and my friend can move on to the next critical issue.  This strategy has served him well and made his company very successful under his tenure.

My friend also explained that in large companies every turn takes a certain length of time and you can demand execution up front and then spend the rest of the time trying to implement against lots of road blocks OR you can build consensus for a longer time up front and then execute quickly on the back end.  In his experience, both methods take about the same amount of time to get to full implementation.  In essence, I was being taught patience.  Thank you my friend.

I am a doer and was taking a doer approach to my current client.  It seems like this time, perhaps my job is to be a teacher, continuing to provide the CEO with the information he needs to educate his leadership team so that one or more of them steps up to take ownership of the various issues I have identified.  The CEO understands that Alignment of Customer Experience, Employee Experience, and Business Strategies will give them the edge that they need .  I was impatiently waiting for him to proclaim that and assign tasks accordingly.  He is instead choosing the equally valuable strategy of leverage over muscle to get there.  Ah, now I get it.

Switch - elephant_rider_path

All of this reminds me of  the book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard.  The authors, Chip and Dan Heath, talk about how the difficulty of  change is increased because you have to bring along both your intellect and your emotions.  Those two things are not equally balanced.  Your intellect is the rider.  Your emotions are the elephant.  The rider only gets there by planning, strategy, and leverage.  There is no way to get the elephant to do what you want by force.  In our own lives and in the running of a large company, leverage over muscle just might be the way to ride an elephant.