Monday, February 21, 2011

Being a Change Agent May Be Dangerous

You have been brought in by top management to shake things up in your area. Everyone seems to agree there is a need for real change to respond to a dynamic competitive environment. You have been a successful executive at your previous company. You are ready to take on this new challenge.

Less than 6 months later, you are forced out, with top management putting all the blame on you. This is the story of the chief executive of Time Inc., as reported in a recent article. Until we have the case study from Harvard Business School, we can only guess at what really happened. There are a few general lessons we can take away even now, though.

Expectations need to be clear on all sides. How much disruption (top staff defections, for example) is top management willing to tolerate during the difficult early transformative period? Culture counts. What worked in your former company may cause strong resistance and even hostility in a company with a much different culture. Your words will have great impact, for better or worse. Everyone will be listening closely; their futures are at stake, after all. A few impolitic words - perhaps said in jest - will come back to hurt you. All this does not mean you should not be bold as a transformative leader. Be smart, too. Keep in mind that there are many landmines in the new territory you are entering. Being a change agent may be dangerous to the health of your career.

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