How Do You Help Those You Lead Take Risks?

Organizations, by their very nature, are designed to create processes and systems.

There’s a good reason for this:  there’s a need for the various parts to work together to create outputs.   On one hand, this makes sense: without results, we won’t stay in business.  But on the other hand, there’s a flaw in the design: the desire for order and stability creates a gravitational pull towards preserving the status quo.

You know this preservation mindset. It’s heard in these comments:

  • That’s how we’ve always done it around here.

  • I’m just following the process.

  • I don’t make these rules.

  • That’s not my job. That’s for (insert the name of some other department here) to figure out.

Defaulting to the status quo squashes risk-taking and stifles innovation.

It might seem that the larger the company, the more entrenched the status quo should be. After all, a larger company has more parts, which should mean more processes and systems to preserve, which would in turn create a bigger more regimented bureaucracy.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Some large companies are terrific at embracing change, while some small companies are so stuck that they run like a government agency from the 1950s.Why the difference?  Why do some organizations embrace change, and others lag behind?

Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter, author of Leading Change and considered by many as world’s preeminent authority on change puts, states why most large organizational change efforts fail:

The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.

Changing behavior is easier said than done.  In an organization, the responsibility to make sure change happens falls on the shoulders of the leaders.   And the most effective way for leaders to influence change is by example.

Therefore, it serves leaders to know themselves: to be aware of their own beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and behaviors towards change.  As a leader, do you say “take risks” but actually penalize those who do so?  Or do you truly walk your talk?

Unsurprisingly, many leaders don’t feel empowered to challenge the status quo.  After all, most of them live somewhere in the midst of the org chart.  They have direct reports, but they also report up to other leaders.  (Let’s just skip managing in a matrix for now.)

Caught in the middle, these leader feel the pressure of competing priorities and differing needs of their stakeholders.  Like “the servant with two masters”, they run from place to place trying to keep everything running smoothly.

It’s the exceptional leader that empowers those they lead.  Ones who create a space for people to put forth their ideas–and can tolerate a level of ‘failure’.  These are the leaders who are serious about innovation and making things better.  Consider this story from Steven, a senior executive at a large retail firm I worked with this past week:

Earlier in my career, I was the manager of a large record store in Los Angeles, which was part of a chain of stores. One day, the owner came in and asked me how things were going with the store.“Fine”, I said.

If things are fine, then why does your face not look ‘fine’ when you say fine?, he replied.He’d seen right through me.  In fact I was really frustrated.  There were a lot of things that Corporate had us doing at the store level that seemed really stupid to me.  These “initiatives” made extra work for the employees, frustrated customers, and hurt the bottom line.   Seeing that he was unwilling to settle for my superficial answer, I summoned up some courage. I blurted out:

I think there are a bunch of things we’re doing here that don’t make sense.

Like what? I rattled of my list of top frustrations.  He listened to me patiently.  Then he said, “Come with me”.

I followed him outside to the sidewalk.   The hot afternoon sun blazed down on the street, as traffic streamed up and down the busy boulevard.  He pointed up at the big sign out front and said,If that sign had your name on it instead of what it says now, what would you do differently?

I told him all the things I’d been thinking about, things that’d been running through my head and keeping me up nights.  I found myself suddenly energized by having this platform to really speak my mind about what we should do.I finally finished.

Steven, that sounds great. Let’s make that happen.  And promise me, from now on, when you think about being a leader, you’ll think about everything like you were the owner.  You’ll act as though it was your name on that sign, and not ‘Virgin Records’.

That was Richard Branson. Steven has never forgotten that moment, and it’s informed how he’s led ever since. He’s made it a point to give people space to experiment and try new things.  Or, as Sir Richard Branson has said:

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.

What behaviors do you model to help those you lead embrace change and takes risks?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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