Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

You’re No Messiah

Full the man who would be king

Image: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

A former student called recently to tell me about her new promotion, and said it came with a mandate to turn around an under-performing department. Everyone seems to be in search of turnaround artists lately. Whether you are being considered for a presidency, a department chair, or some other management post, you are likely to hear some version of, “Our organization is in trouble and we are looking for someone like you to you to turn things around.”

It’s quite the ego boost to be considered a potential savior and tapped to deal with a challenge that seems intractable to others. It feels good to be recognized as a “fixer,” and certainly those with successful turnaround stories are more marketable than those with a history of maintaining the status quo. Suddenly you may feel taller and stronger as you imagine yourself swooping in to perform acts of magic.

But be careful. You may be good, but a messiah you are not. And the minute your chest begins to swell is the point at which you should pause to consider whether you are destined to let arrogance interfere with your effectiveness. There is a strategic way to turn things around and there is an egomaniacal way. Both can work in the short term, but only one approach is likely to lead to lasting results.

Let’s begin by talking about the mode of operation employed by rookies and megalomaniacs. Believing themselves to be organizational messiahs, those individuals delight in identifying all that is wrong and all those who are incompetent. They ask no questions upon arrival because they assume no one else has anything of value to contribute. They use phrases like “legacy employees,” and discount the value of institutional history. “I’m sure we’ll figure things out,” they respond when others suggest caution about tossing out people with strategic relationships or specialized knowledge.

While messiah-acting leaders often bring intelligence, focus, and fresh perspectives, they generally lack one ingredient critical for long-term success — the ability to create an environment in which people feel safe to perform, much less experiment and innovate. While these leaders may articulate a compelling vision of a better future, they tend to fail on execution because of their propensity to alienate the people they need to do the work. A sense of psychological safety is essential for intellectual and creative expression, and people who feel constantly belittled cannot deliver much for long.

It is not surprising that those who imagine themselves to be organizational saviors tend to have short tenures. If you ask them why, they will say they accomplished the "disruption" they came to create, they need constant change, or they felt bogged down by the slow-moving and unsophisticated culture in which they landed.

Those answers will be mostly lies. Here’s the truth: After making an initial splash, messiah-acting leaders run out of fuel — both resources and people’s goodwill — and have to move on before things start crashing around them.

So if flashy, visionary, messiah-acting leaders are generally ineffective, what is the alternative?

The answer lies in selecting a leader who is inclined to honor and build upon past success — someone whose organizational philosophy is in line with appreciative inquiry, an approach developed by David L. Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. Proponents and practitioners of appreciative inquiry seek to understand what is already working, rather than what is so profoundly wrong. They assume the best of others and understand that inferior past performance may simply be a function of bad direction or misalignment of resources. They eschew the shock-and-awe, slash-and-burn tactics favored by the messiah-style leaders, and instead attempt to leverage the talents already available within the organization. Because they exhibit respect and show appreciation, they are rewarded with cooperation and a willingness to try new ideas.

Certainly, a regular infusion of new people and ideas keeps organizations healthy and vibrant, but constant and wholesale churn makes it impossible to maintain momentum. Strategic leaders understand that structural and cultural issues can inhibit organizational performance as much as people with the wrong skills and attitudes. That is why they attempt to improve the organizational ecosystem before instructing all the “legacy employees” to pack their boxes.

In “Leading the Team You Inherit,” published in the June 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Michael D. Watkins urges new leaders to focus on people, alignment, operating models, and integration. Following his advice, a new leader might ask:

  • Do people in the organization have the necessary skills and attitude?
  • Are they focused on the right activities?
  • Are they working in ways that get things done?
  • Do mutual interdependencies exist to support and leverage each person’s success?
  • Are they sharing the right kind and amount of information?
  • Do people feel safe to offer ideas and express opinions?

So the next time you are asked to turn around an organization, you will have a choice to make. You can position yourself as an organizational savior, or you can demonstrate a little humility and admit that you will need others to be successful.

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