It was time for Jonathan, the former COO of a large retailer, to reflect on what went wrong.
Jonathan had been brought in to lead a broad transformation initiative. Change was the order of the day, largely because of an array of disruptive challenges in their sector. Bricks and mortar stores were falling like leaves in a windstorm. Everyone was aggressively pursuing online sales, even though it was unclear how to make it profitable.
However, after a few years of introducing change, it became clear his organization had only succeeded in falling further behind competitors. In the end, there were just too many problems to solve. The downward spiral took hold, and the company was forced to close.
As literally the last man standing in the company, Jonathan had to stand by and watch the pain in the faces of the store managers and sales staff who not only lost their jobs, but also lost a company they truly loved.
When it was all over, he called me to reflect on what went wrong.
“In the end, it wasn’t the big stuff that got in our way,” he told me. “It was the hundreds and hundreds of half steps that did us in.”
Speaking to him a few months after the retailer was shuttered, I could really tell that the whole experience had taken its toll. Still, I was fascinated by his comments on half steps.
Often, when a company fails, it’s typical for analysts and consultants to look at the big things that didn’t work out. Yet, in my experience, failure is a by-product of not spending enough time looking at the little things.
In Jonathan’s view, his organization was repeatedly unable to go all the way and do the things that needed to be done.
“When we had to cut costs, we knew how far we really needed to go, but leaders didn’t have the stomach or confidence to go there, so they went only so far, hoping it would be enough.”
The half-measures extended to talent decisions as well. “Many of our leaders knew they had performance issues on their teams, but they gave the poor performers too many chances which eventually caused us to pay the price.”
It also showed up when they invested in new initiatives critical for the success of the transformation. Projects would get just barely enough funding to get them off the ground, but never enough to truly help leaders drive success. Another half-measure that he shared.
Jonathan’s experience is, I think, quite common for organizations in transformation.
McKinsey posted a podcast this week on the hallmarks of transformation that supported an idea in my book, The Leadership Contract: for transformation to work, we need leaders throughout an organization—from the C-suite all the way to the front lines—to be all-in on the need for change, and do what needs to be done.
When transformation initiatives are launched, I think senior leaders assume that everyone is behind them and supportive of the change being introduced. When we live in that assumption, we can’t see all of the subtle ways that leaders undermine the transformation. Initially leaders might indicate they are all in, but then we see later in execution of priorities that they may not be. This is not evident in overtly obvious ways. It’s seen, as Johnathan learned, by taking half-hearted, half steps.
What are the implications for all of us in leadership roles? I believe we need to do a better job of paying attention to the small things, the half steps as Jonathan called them. We need to understand the transformation battle is often lost with our failure to follow through on the little things.
American novelist Louis L’Amour captured the essence of this leadership challenge when he said: “Victory is won not in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later, win a little more.”
If your company is attempting to transform itself and you are being counted upon to help lead the change, make sure you step up to your accountability. Don’t fall prey to half steps, there’s too much riding on it.
As L’Amour noted, and my client Jonathan learned, when leading transformation the difference between success and failure is often measured in inches.
This week’s leadership gut check asks: Are you truly committed to do what is necessary when transforming your company?
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