New Leaders, Beware the Savior Syndrome

By April 3, 2023Latest, Viewpoints

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You’ve seen the picture…the new transformational leader rides into town on a white horse to make a quick mark on the organization. A man (or woman) in a hurry, he or she has been told or believes that they have been tapped to make rapid change at all cost. Often the hiring CXO, in her/his enthusiasm to attract a new leader, paints a picture that looks somewhat like this: it’s all broken, you will have every resource you need, do what you need to do. And quick!

That’s a trap. And a recipe for professional failure.

A successful transformer knows the success equation: speed to action divided by ability of the organization to embrace change x the right talent. Yet in an increasingly complex business environment, action without evaluation can only be termed a fool’s errand.

Too often we see new leaders exhibit what I call savior syndrome: the belief that whatever he or she is walking into is—to use the vernacular—all screwed up, and s/he is the only one who can fix it.

  1. Do your due diligence Unfortunately executive search as a process is often designed to sell buying enterprise brands to executives with transformation brands. Few of the majors are able to get under the covers, understanding the context and the work that transformers do, so they seduce you with the headlines without understanding the reality on the ground. During the recruitment process, ask the tough questions so you know what you are getting into. On the first day, you’ll have a leg up.
  2. Respect the past The bull in the china shop meme is usually not the best look. Transformation is incremental at best. Not everything under the previous regime was completely ill-thought-out and reckless. The business context has likely changed; ditto the cast of CXO characters, the technology, the organization structure, the risk…you name it. Organizations evolve slowly, and the best way to bring both stakeholders and team along is to call out and incorporate the good movement they’ve made in the past.
  3. Avoid smartest (wo)man in the room syndrome Smart is good, but when the transformer plays the I’ve-there-done-that-and-I-have-all-the-answers card, it naturally puts the team off. Denigrating the hard slog they’ve experienced under the last regime devalues their contributions. After all, they understand institutional challenges better than you do, and more often than not, know how to effectively fix what’s broken with the right leadership. Ask them for their opinions and incorporate their suggestions whenever possible. After all, transformation is a team sport.
  4. Gauge the culture Ok, we all think the statement culture eats strategy for lunch is trite, but it’s true. Being able to ascertain how an organization makes change, and the maximum speed at which it can make that change without breaking is the most fundamental tenet of successful transformations. It takes several years to understand how any organization really works, so looking for markers and learning from history is key. Flex the playbook.
  5. Drop the techno babble Coming into an organization that has been communicating in its own, perhaps clunky, terminology is hard when the transformer is expert. Speaking in complicated industry-accurate terminology off the bat is off-putting  and can be seen as condescending (it tends to give credence to number 3—the smartest (wo)man in the room syndrome). Introduce the new glossary over time as the team—and your stakeholders—become partners in the transformation.
  6. Time organizational changes  The tendency to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water is all too tempting for a man or woman in a hurry.  Successful transformers know that good leadership fosters capable teams, that it’s possible to identify the DNA of change in the existing troops. Certainly, bringing in new or missing capabilities is key, but spend some time understand who’s on board and what they are capable of  before you bring in new troops or get the boys in your old band back together.

And last but certainly not least: Keep your mouth zipped. Banging on about the sins of your predecessor and how much is broken in public isn’t becoming of a respected transformation leader. Business context and commitment to making change are dynamic; the environment in which the transformation occurs is ever-changeable. Remember, it’s highly likely that you will be else’s predecessor.