Today, our Big Idea for career management. We are continuing the theme we began in yesterday’s blog post — that there are more than a few very smart executives who are experts at leading turnarounds but have a blind spot when it comes to inoculating themselves against those who would go to great lengths to discredit or derail organizational change.

If there is one thing that is certain in business, it is that more people dislike and distrust change than embrace it.

The next certainty is that there are two levels of rumors, those that are internal to your own shop, and the far more threatening kind, the professional rumors that make the rounds at search firms and the peer group gossip sessions at state and national meetings. Both of these can be career limiting.

Given the tightening executive job markets in industries like healthcare facing disruption and consolidation, senior executives, especially those leading turnarounds, simply cannot afford to take the risk of ignoring these kinds of negative accusations or their ramifications.

Some employees are so invested in that which makes them comfortable — the status quo — that they will go to great lengths to say or do things that derail the change — even gossiping, lying and defaming the person leading the charge. They will deny until the cows come home that there is any reason for change, that things are really not broken. Even if they acknowledge that the organization is struggling they will still find a way to justify their insurgent-styled resistance. And, if suspected, they also will deny ever participating in that sort of negative behavior.

Chief Executive Officers, especially those strong, confident leaders who are willing to take on the biggest challenges, are particularly vulnerable to these negative tactics. It amazes me that sometimes the very smart people who lead turnarounds can be so unaware of the risks they face from the people who ferociously cling to the worn mantra, this is the way it has always been. 

It is not as if their weapons of resistance to change are new:

  • The CEO is having an affair with someone they work with
  • He or she was pushed out from their last organization for some bad behavior — they were abusive, creating a hostile work environment is common, or some undisclosed financial misstep
  • They financially drained the past organization with lavish expense account spending.
  • Then there is always this: People at the last job were glad to get rid of him or her, sort of an exclamation point to the other rumors

Whether the information is true has little bearing on whether people will buy the lie or how often it will be repeated throughout the organization.

Executives who cavalierly dismiss responding to these attacks, or who refuse to consider a proactive strategy to mitigate this nonsense before it gathers the patina of credibility, are running an unnecessary risk. Board members may ignore the rumors for a while but left unaddressed these issues can, over time, take on the cloak of truth as in where there is smoke, there must be fire.

Here are seven steps to immunize one’s self from these rumors or to minimize these distractions or outright attacks:

  1. Develop a master plan for the first 100 days of your administration. This plan should include immediate priorities, the process you will use to address longer-term issues, and a robust communications strategy. You must understand the issues. This is a critically important first step. To borrow words from Benjamin Franklin and others, If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. 
  2. Understand the culture you are inheriting. It may be dysfunctional, or even toxic, but it is from that mesh of human factors and behaviors you will build for change. Ignoring that reality is to place one’s tenure at unnecessary risk.
  3. Factor in one of nature’s natural laws: the more change that will be required to achieve success, the more resistance you will face, especially as you address the firmly entrenched sacred cows. For some on the team, these inappropriate values or behaviors will be defended as hallowed tenets not to be touched. Understand those issues and prepare in advance for the pushback.
  4. From day one, clearly establish a new set of individual and organizational values. Your personal and professional integrity must at the center. You must set the example, so be prepared to set a high bar in terms of honesty, transparency and consistency. Your every action and interaction with your team members will be under a microscope and no doubt questioned. I call this being behaviorally aware.Sometimes the most innocent of situations can produce the seed for rumors. A long-time friend tells a story that provides an excellent illustration that occurred shortly after he joined a prestigious church affiliated hospital in the south as a Vice President, his first leadership job. One night, as he was preparing to leave for the day, he noticed that one of the executive assistants in the administrative office was also leaving. It was late and the parking lots were not well lit. There had been some reports of burglaries around the hospital’s campus. He offered to walk her to her car — his own vehicle was parked nearby. She gladly accepted, saying that she was uncomfortable going to her car alone after dark. Once they arrived at her car, they chatted for a few minutes and then he left. This was on a Tuesday. On Friday his boss, the CEO, asked this new Vice President to drop by his office. What seemed like an innocent, in fact honorable act of kindness, had been observed by some fellow employees. The rumors were already beginning to circulate. The CEO asked him to explain what happened. Then he offered this friendly advice: “Next time, call security and ask them to escort her to her car. You have some challenges in your departments that will require change. You cannot afford to let others compromise who you are, to blunt those changes. Often it is an innocent act of kindness can bet twisted.”You must reinforce values at every step of the journey through what you say and how you act. Remember, no executive is bullet proof. Again, taking this for granted is an unnecessary risk.
  5. Be visible, be engaging, but be mindful. Phantom CEOs or other leaders who are rarely seen, or who engage their rank and file team members on an irregular basis, are particularly vulnerable to an undermining attack. Be visible and communicate. As you make rounds checking on the team, have talking points regarding values and change that you want to reinforce. Selling your ideas, your values and the new cultural guideposts is a critical part of a CEO’s job. Be willing to listen without judging. Correct the record when necessary but do it in a supportive way.
  6. Leaders are people and people have personal lives. When appropriate, and yes, there are times when it is appropriate, incorporate personal stories into your internal messaging to reinforce your values and beliefs. Rumors of marital infidelity are regrettably still one of the most common assault tools. The bigger the turnaround challenge, the more aggressive the defenders of the status quo will be. Be ethically and socially aware. Spouses should not be used as mere messaging props. They are our partners in life and in work. They can be an invaluable source of strength and counsel and their appropriate interactions with the organization can do much to support your personal values.
  7. Never let up. Being a leader means being consistent. The steps you take in terms of communication and setting the example are not responsibilities that you can ever retire to a closet shelf. Whether you lead a small organization in a rural community or a massively complex system in a big city, setting an ethical standard for performance and behavior, being a consistent and transparent communicator, are part of your everyday, from the halls of the office to the aisles of the grocery store you are, like it or not, a public figure. Do not take that for granted.

Now here are two other career management tips for this week:

First, your ability to effectively communicate is a critically essential leadership skill. If you feel that communicating — in writing or in front a small or large group — is not your strong set, then do something about it. There are a whole host of resources that are available to help you compensate.

Second, if you agree to be someone’s professional reference, it is perfectly acceptable to ask about the position and challenges. If you do not feel you have enough information to specifically address potential questions about experience, skills or accomplishments, then be honest. Having to say “I can’t speak to that” more than once in a reference can be detrimental to the applicant.

That’s it for this week. I invite you to check out my blog post on Thursday at JohnGSelf.Com and I hope you will follow me on Linked In, my company Facebook page or on Twitter. And remember to check out our new career management video Saturday mornings on my YouTube channel.