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Sarah Lewis

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10 new leader let downs


The so-called ‘new brooms’ in an organisation might bring new blood and enthusiasm, but they don’t always get it right. Sarah Lewis investigates common pitfalls – and how to avoid them.

The pressure on new leaders or senior appointments to make an impact, and quickly, is tremendous. The organisation has spent time and money attracting, selecting and securing the chosen candidate, now they want to see the value they have bought. It’s a brave person who can hold fire while they take time to look and learn; take time to find out what works here, and how it does; to find out who the people are who really ensure the work gets done and to find out who is brave enough to deliver bad news. This knowledge is often hidden, while, to new eyes, what doesn’t work, who doesn’t look or behave like management, and who, too often, isn’t at the end of their phone or at their desk, is all too obvious.

In their attempts both to improve things and make a mark quickly, ‘new brooms’ frequently commit one or all of these mistakes:

1. They believe in year zero
New brooms often act as if everything that happened before their arrival is irrelevant. They have no interest in why things are the way they are, they know only that they are wrong. The wholesale change that follows as they (re)create the organisation in the image of their last organisation, or a textbook organisation, tramples over history, accidentally throwing out precious babies with the bath water.

2. They create tomorrow’s problems
‘Today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions.’ said Senge. And it follows that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. New brooms, in their enthusiasm to create new solutions, often inadvertently create the foundations for the next set of problems, for the next new person to solve. The experience on the ground can be of repeated extreme pendulum swings.

3. They create ground zero

This approach often accompanies the year zero mentality: since nothing created before I arrived is of value, nothing will be lost in its destruction. Creating ground zero usually starts with the drawing up of a new organisational chart followed by frenzied activity restructuring, firing and rehiring, redrawing all paper work (job descriptions etc.), and retraining to create the brave new world. All too often the map changes but the terrain remains the same.

4. They have the answer

At last our leader is in a position of power where they can put this great new idea they have come across into practice: LEAN, Team-based working, BPR. The list of management fads from which to choose is endless. The trouble is that there is no one right way to organise. Organisations are full of irresolvable tensions, they are dynamic entities that flux and flow, seeking to resolve the irresolvable. In this way they can keep everything in play. Once there is only one answer, only one way, the benefits of equi-finality and fluidity are lost.

5. They love tidiness
This approach is often related to having the answer. To the newcomer the evolved solutions are messy. The organisational chart is not neat, things aren’t arranged logically, the rationales for the way things are done are idiosyncratic, it doesn’t seem equable, everything is an acceptable exception. Like Trinny and Susanna they tear through the mess, creating order, boxing things up, cloning and standardising. Everyone must start at 8.30, no exceptions. Bang goes the best customer service girl we ever had, who can’t get in  until 8.45. Tough!

6. They cut through the gordian knot
Our new broom doesn’t have the time or the inclination to engage with office politics, so pretends they don’t exist. As they set about finding out what’s what, they dismiss any notion of being manipulated by the players. It’s easier to take everything at face value and then apply their own superior 20/20 vision to get to the truth. Often the people who lose out are those who really don’t know how to play politics and who strive to deliver a truth, as everyone else angles to demonstrate their irreplaceable value.

7. They believe context is irrelevant.
Leaders who believe they are impervious to office politics often also believe that context is irrelevant. They have a plan for change. There will be winners and losers. It’s very cold out in the employment market at present. The leader is in a very powerful position, determining people’s futures. Without a lively awareness of this context, it is very easy to mistake people’s quest to retain job security with the expression of a heartfelt endorsement of the new leader’s genius and a real desire for change. From here it is all too easy to get rid of dissenting voices.

8. They fire the opposition
The new leader is insecure: they need to prove their worth. They don’t want to hear that their plan has flaws, that there are benefits to the current, irregular, way of doing things. Expression of such thoughts is heard as disloyalty, easier to label such dissenters as resistant to change.

9. They devalue social capital

The new leader is seduced by the organisational chart and all the paperwork that dictates who must report to whom, how the job must be done. Focussed on this they fail to notice the intricate and delicate relating patterns, communication, information flow, informal problem-solving, that facilitate effective working. Seeing such informal networks as essentially irrelevant to achieving the task, they (re)arrange people without regard to these informal relationships and communication. The social capital of the organisation is reduced, its efficacy damaged.

10. They disregard sense-making as a powerful change process
Too often a new broom is overly focussed on the behaviour change they require, and they work hard to ‘make’ people do things differently. Failing to appreciate that our behaviour is related to how we make sense of the world, they invest little time in working to change people’s mental maps, their experience of reality. They work to drive new behaviour into people rather than to release it.

It doesn’t have to be like this
Skilled professionals can help you discover the strengths of the existing organisation, can help you see and appreciate the less tangible assets such as the social capital, before you tear into making wholesale changes.

They can help you work with existing complexity, realising the value of the evolved equi-finality, flexibility, diversity and difference before you become overwhelmed and seek to simplify by standardising, and reducing complexity.

They can help you ‘be active’ in your engagement with the organisation in ways that build on the best of what exists, that help people actively and willingly engage with new realities, and that grow positive change, before you lose patience and decide to impose a brave new world order.

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