In my last post, I shared the story of a client who was about to make the mistake of overhauling an organization as its new executive director without first attending to a critical first step: assessing the decisions of his predecessor.

This is a critically important first step in any new leadership position, and it’s all about honoring the people — the humanity — that is the foundation of any organization.

How do we honor the way something is done — and the human(s) behind a decision — not by saying that it must be right but also not by saying that it must be wrong? We ask what is great about it, what can we improve about it, how well did it meet the goal, what’s the gap?

That sort of gap analysis is wholly understood in business circles — nonprofit organizations, Fortune 500 companies, and everything in between. But it’s so rarely applied in the day-to-day. And it’s applied even less to people

Even though we might be talking about a process in this situation, we’re really talking about people. And we’re talking about connection. How do we blend the new leader, vision, and perspective with the existing team when that new leader has no understanding of how the organization got from zero to them? While the incoming leader may objectively be correct in that some processes may be flawed or inefficient or redundant, those processes (and decisions) are, nonetheless, the foundation that has held up the walls of the organization. And if we just take that foundation away, we run the risk of those walls collapsing, which is to say losing the trust of our people.

On the other hand, if we honor that foundation, we can repair the cracks, reinforce the walls, and tackle the seismic retrofitting… you see where the metaphor is going.

In the case of my client and his new position as executive director, he began to face the challenge of assessing before making any new decisions. And he also faced the challenge of adequately honoring the foundation those who’d come before him had laid.

But here’s the plot twist: he got fired. 

In hindsight, I’m surprised, but I’m also not surprised. I’m surprised because it turns out that the organization wasn’t honest and up-front with him. I’m not surprised because the work we’re doing with him is evidence that he failed to take some steps that would have helped the situation immensely.

Here’s what we learned: This was a classic example of two parties that were not solving the same problem. 

The organization wanted to solve one problem (how do they maintain the status quo?) while my client thought it was a different problem (how do they build a better mousetrap?). Everything he was doing was in service of solving the problem he perceived. But his solutions, as you can imagine, flew in the face of their objective. Both parties were going in two totally different directions. 

Here’s the big misstep: He never stopped to clarify. 

As I’ve said before, when something isn’t working, it’s rare that 100% of it is not working. This organization was thriving all along; it clearly wasn’t broken. But my client’s mindset said he needed to fix things because they weren’t done the way he would do them. 

But you can’t go in and carte blanche change everything. You can’t be a bull in a china shop. You have to first understand where things are so that you can understand why things are. You have to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And what problems they are trying to solve.

Then — and only then — you invoke the stop-start-keep: What’s working that we want to keep? What’s not working that is harming us (or keeping us from our goal) that we want to stop? And what are we not yet doing that if we were to start doing would have the greatest positive impact?

In my client’s case, he never had those conversations, so he went in like a bull in a china shop. Understandably, the organization’s response was something akin to, “We never asked you to change all those things. We just wanted you to pick up the reins and continue the horse on the path that it’s on.”

And because of that disconnect, that lack of communication, they let him go.

But it may have been out of his control from the start, anyway. The way he told the story after the fact, I think the organization actually had someone else in mind for the position. My theory is that this other person wasn’t available when the organization needed them, then became available later. And when that happened, the organization let my client go in favor of their first-choice candidate.

We’ll never really know for sure, but that’s my hunch.

Regardless, my client learned some valuable lessons: honor the people (and decisions) that have come before you, clarify the problem, and work together on a common solution. But before all of that, make sure both sides are solving the same problem and are mutually clear on the objective and requisite measurements. 


Photo by David Travis on Unsplash