It is very common nowadays to hear CEO’s and Business leaders talk about Innovation, Digital and Culture in regards to their company’s need to adapt and embrace the change that technology has introduced.
For the most part, these calls are genuine and are due to a deep understanding and realization about their need to change in order to survive the digital disruption.
So if that’s the case, why aren’t we seeing organization transform fast enough?
To many corporate old timers, this is a rhetorical question if not a naive one.
Moving up the corporate ladder
Excluding the fringes of corporate experiences (whether good or bad), the evolution of an employee’s journey as they rise through the ranks remain universally similar.
Entry level joiners usually come with a great motivation to learn, work hard and make an impact on the company. That’s why it’s fairly easy to spot the ones that display this behaviour from the rest, making it easier to promote them for their next challenge.
At a more senior level, as an IC or Manager, an employee learns that they need to rely not only on their mastery of a technical skill or process but on their ability to garner support and influence. They continue to come to the workplace with the passion and experience to make a difference.
As they progress to climb the ladder, in the same company or another, they realize that the correlation between impact and reward has become more obscure, and to continue to climb they need to play to their manager’s agenda which may or may not have impact included in it.
That junction is critical as the employee may have to potentially compromise on his or her professional integrity, pay lip service and join the political dance. But with the reward of promotions, bigger pay and larger headcount looming ahead, many buy into this approach.
And with that, a motivated and skilled employee that has delivered value to the organization for years has transformed and become part of the old guard, maintaining status quo, at least until their turn for promotion comes.
Politics has a place
Now don’t get me wrong. Politics should not be avoided by pretending that it does not exist. Politics is inevitable with people. The problem starts when politics becomes the main course.
When people forget about impact and change to solely focus on allegiance, promotions and agendas. These toxic situations cripple companies and can exhibit the worst of corporate behaviour such as empire building, bureaucracy, red tape, hung decisions and a fear culture.
The Old Guard
So what is the Old Guard?
Think of them as long standing corporate executives that have risen to the level that allows them to live a comfortable life, yet not worry free, and are focused on ensuring a sustainable future cash flow for them and eliminating anything that may put that in risk.
Now, you can’t blame them for this desire. All in all, an employee always needs to balance and align between their own personal needs and the ones of the employer. Hence people move jobs, functions and countries.
But you would expect these two to align, especially if the executive remains in place.
Smarter with Age
Let’s face it. Most execs figure out how corporations work. Have experienced the benefit of networking and know how to always say and be on the right side.
And in many cases at the top, it pays more to talk the talk than to actually take risk, challenge the status quo and change something. Aside from disrupting your own political agenda, that can move you to the threat box. You don’t want that.
What you do want are Yes Men and lots of them. These bureaucratic beasts don’t really care about the company, products or people. They are there to cater for your every need and ensure no one rocks the boat from under you.
They are excellent at managing up, respect the hierarchy and ensure there’s enough red tape to stifle any change. They are protocol managers as opposed to people leaders and are patient with promotions that they eventually get.
This culture is destructive to the organization as it promotes mediocracy over meritocracy and forces the true talent and leaders out, leaving in the managerial types who follow protocol, add bureaucracy and adore hierarchy.
The funny thing is that many times there’s very close alignment between the people at the very top and the ones at the bottom. They both want to change, impact and improve the company’s performance.
This leaves us with the age old problem of middle management.
A courageous CEO with a strong leadership team can overturn this culture and keep bureaucrats out, no matter how long their tenure was.
The problem is that many leaders prefer not to go into these confrontations as you never know when you’re going to encounter these executives again.
So if we cannot rely on the CEO perhaps we can rely on an invigorated and transformed HR function?
HR or people operations in some places has traditionally been a semi-admin function that ensures welfare, structure and getting talent through the doors.
They rarely have an independent business context and are usually fed that context by the organization’s hierarchy.
So instead of potentially being the true guards of the talent and the company as a whole, they protect the managers and serve as a rubber stamp to leadership.
But it does not have to be this way.
HR is in a unique position to be the impartial function that has the company’s agenda as their one and only goal. They should employ the successful, high-integrity and high performance members of the organization to ensure that politics don’t get in the way of real change agents.
They should be able to decide who should lead employees and who should remain an IC, and most importantly they should lead the transformation of the performance system which is long overdue.
Don’t feel too comfortable
With the fast pace of technology and business today, no company or exec should feel too comfortable with their company’s momentary success. Instead of keeping the status quo and subscribing to the ‘flavour of the month’ newsletter corporations love, they should challenge themselves and their orgs to change and do better now, not tomorrow.
HR can and should reinvent or recreate it’s business partnership role so aside from recruiting talent and providing welfare to the employees, they can and should be actively involved in providing support to the change agents and limiting toxic cultural situations that result in prolonged status quo.
A good rocking of the boat is sometimes all it takes..