Back in the early 90s, I joined the senior management team of a regional retail chain. I was new to the company and had moved there from out of town. The rest of the leadership team was made up of longstanding executives — people who had been there for years (in some cases, decades).
Not surprisingly, my colleagues enjoyed telling the positive story of their achievements. And that was fine, they had certainly accomplished quite a bit.
But the market and competitive landscape were changing; they were blind to the ways in which we were being newly threatened. In my view, if we didn’t evolve our strategic positioning, we were in danger of falling behind, or worse.
Were these executives unusual in this way? Not at all, unfortunately. Organizations work hard to build cohesiveness and teamwork among their employees and people like to feel good about the things they are doing well. Toss in the human tendency for confirmation bias and it’s easy to overlook a lot:
Sales were off a bit last month? That may have been due to bad weather or some other factor — it’s probably just a blip.
Donations are down from prior years? It’s probably the economy or the change in tax laws.
Given this predisposition towards the positive, how do you raise issues and deliver news that may not be welcomed? There is a perceived (often real) risk that by pointing out bad news or blind spots — even if it helps avoid bad things from happening — one will be labelled “not a team player,” perhaps getting sidelined or even fired as a result.
Here then, are some suggestions for highlighting — and slaying — those organizational sacred cows…
Just the Facts
It’s important to make sure your insights are not driven by instinct or emotion — but that they can be supported by facts. In a business environment (if not the world at large!), facts should form the basis for decision making.
Make sure you gather your data — published or internal research, financial trend data, analogous examples, etc. — and build a clear and well-structured explanation. As I have often counseled other consultants, clients have their own opinions. If your advice seems like it is based on just your opinion… well, they most likely prefer theirs.
In my retail experience mentioned above, I spent months gathering data — external from industry analysts as well as our own internal consumer research. Then I developed a framework that leveraged the data in a way that my colleagues could think about shopper behavior and merchandise categories in a different way. And I developed a structured process for a weekend offsite where we could share this framework and discuss it and its implications.
By centering the conversation on facts, rather than opinion, we were able to move together in a new direction.
Give it Time
When ideas run contrary to long held beliefs or are based on a different way of looking at things, it takes time for people to internalize and accept them. Change is especially difficult when prior beliefs have led to positive results in the past.
In my retail experience, I took my time in suggesting changes. The process may have culminated in a weekend offsite, but I had spent months leading up to that by meeting individually with fellow executives, sharing initial bits of data, and voicing my personal observations.
I didn’t try to press a conclusion, but rather asked for their interpretation of this data and analysis. By the time we arrived for the offsite, everyone in attendance had been given time to think about things in a new way.
Senior executives may enjoy mystery novels when reading for fun, but they don’t enjoy enduring a mystery when being presented to. Here, the old adage for structuring recommendations applies: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.”
The advantage of this approach is that by beginning with your recommendations, your audience can listen with the outcome in mind and follow how you got there. If, instead, you save your recommendations for the end, you’ll have given listeners time and information that may result in their reaching an entirely different conclusion.
That said, when the conclusion you are building towards would be considered “bad news,” it can make more sense to lead the discussion through the logic, with step-by-step “reveals” that bring them towards this new view. For example, when a growth strategy I undertook for a glass bottle manufacturer led me to conclude that, rather than there being growth opportunities, instead some plants would need to be closed or consolidated, I avoided leading my presentation with that conclusion.
Slaying the sacred cows is never easy and I confess that in my own experiences as both employee and consultant, the results have been mixed; some people and organizations are simply unwilling to see things in a new light.
It’s worth noting as well that effective leadership requires establishing a “safe” environment for the raising of new and even controversial ideas. Absent that, employees will either keep quiet — which means that threats and opportunities may be missed — or leave for places that are more welcoming to diverse points of view. Neither outcome is positive for the organization.