One of my coaching clients (we’ll call him Andrew) is a CPA with a local firm. When his father-in-law recently retired, he passed the baton to Andrew to lead his property management company. To help with the shift in careers and teams, Andrew came to me for some advice.

“There’s a lot of work to do to bring the company and its team up to speed and get everyone on the same page,” he said, “but do I go in on day one shaking things up the way I want them, or do I hang back to watch and learn?” 

Andrew and his father-in-law have very different management styles, and Andrew is aware of this. He’s eager to get things right from the start and minimize friction as much as possible. So I recommended he and his team dig into the Core Values Index™ because it would help him and his team understand each other from the start — and it’s a very proactive step. Taking the time to do this assessment will help them design their future as a cohesive team for the long-term health of the company (not to mention Andrew’s success).

Lately, I’ve had several opportunities like this to help organizations (and leaders like Andrew) design a culture from the beginning rather than from the middle. 

These opportunities arise at different times for different reasons:

  • Company players have changed
  • It’s a new organization
  • Some wholesale thing has occurred (like Andrew’s takeover)
  • 3 out of 5 people on a team have been with the company for less than a month

When you’re working with circumstances like these, the culture is fresh, developing, and highly malleable. This is a great opportunity to say, “What do we really want our culture to be?”

The crux of my story here is both a word of caution and an invitation: when presented with opportunities like these, we have a tendency to wait and see what happens, to watch and observe, not wanting to put our fingerprint on it too soon for fear the team may see us as overbearing — and then when it isn’t what we thought or hoped it would be, we scramble to backpedal, fix the damage, and get things back on track. It’s the classic conundrum: is this a journey or a leap situation? Is it the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step or a leap across a canyon you can’t take in two small steps? 

Instead of taking that passive, wait-and-see approach, when dealing with situations like those listed above, my tendency is to be proactive. Right from the get-go, figure out what that culture is. Figure out where you want to end up, and chart your course accordingly.

I know that sounds overwhelming, and it could sound a little bit like a bull-in-the-china-shop approach— or like a new boss coming and simply taking over without respect for history. I assure you, however, I’m not advocating either. Rather, I am advocating both the journey and the leap. I promise if you just start with that mindset, you’re already on the right path, despite the seeming contradiction. Don’t feel like you have to be in a hurry. There’s immense value in waiting — taking time to observe, assess, and practice thoughtful decision making. 

However, remember one crucial thing: While you’re waiting, the team is wondering, worrying, curious, and confused — about who you are, where you are taking them, how things will be different, what they can expect, where to find the new boundaries, and more.  

And, while you’re waiting and observing, realize you’re not observing them in their natural habitat and truest behaviors. You’re observing the stilted and cautious version of a “beast” being watched (the beast being the team, not an individual — just sayin’). You want to start with a plan they can understand — a direction, a vision, an idea — even if the plan is to observe. If that’s the case, be clear on what you are observing, what you want to learn, and why that’s important to you. Give them the tools to help them help you, otherwise they will be on edge wondering what you are looking for and why you are looking for it.

Think about it this way: There is a beautiful example of the value of waiting and observing that I learned during the 14 years I spent working in higher education. There was a new campus, I believe in Washington State, that had a massive courtyard. Instead of immediately building sidewalks in a uniform aesthetic pattern, leadership explained to the campus that they would wait for students and faculty to create their own dirt paths across the campus. Once the real humans inhabiting the space established those intuitive, practical routes, only then did the building crews install sidewalks. It wasn’t, perhaps, as design-oriented as the architect may have wanted, but they ended up with beautiful lawns and sidewalks that created the shortest distances and most efficient paths between buildings.

That gives new meaning to “go with the flow,” doesn’t it? 

Wayne Gretzgy famously said to skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been. Get out in front of it. Let the puck come to you. 

As leaders, we “get out in front of it” by being communicative rather than secretive, by including the team in what we are thinking and why and inviting their insights. After all, they know things are going to change — that’s no surprise — so why pretend it’s not? And why make it harder by letting things go wrong now, only to have to fix them later? 

Take a leap, then walk the journey.


Photo by Taylor Friehl on Unsplash