As a company built on helping organizations and people be their best when it matters most, we recently faced one of our biggest changes ever.
Here’s our story.
It began about 18 months ago when the newly formed board of directors (consisting mostly of founders, owners and a great consultant named Mike Boydell from Boydell Inc.), came together to assess IHHP’s future. The goal was to grow the company in order to reach more people with what we at IHHP feel is a very important message. After some challenging (and sometimes painful) reflection sessions, it became clear to the leadership team that the key issue was the current management and operational style and they would need to bring in a new leader if they truly bought in to the changes that needed to be made.
As our message today is on change, we won’t focus on the in-depth recruiting efforts we embarked upon. Suffice it to say that those efforts led us to our new President, Sue Easby. Sue seemed perfect for our cause because she had a wealth of experience in growing organizations similar to ours, most recently selling her well-respected e-Learning company, InsightU, that had carved out a successful niche in the world of retail training.
Change, no matter how good it is for a company, is uncomfortable. For some it can be downright scary, threatening the safe and familiar no matter how dysfunctional the familiar might be. And it’s not until you’re on the other side, having worked through all the emotions of change, that you lose that feeling of anxiety or “uncomfortableness.” After all, looking backward is so much easier than looking forward … because forward represents the unknown.
The IHHP team, although eager for the changes the leadership team was implementing, were experiencing our own anxieties because this unknown factor – this Sue Easby – was going to come in and likely disrupt our status quo … our familiar. We discovered our team was just as skilled at awfulizing as any other! Even though we wanted change, actually facing it made us worry that this new person may expose us for who we were (maybe we weren’t so competent after all), and we became concerned about things like job security and our roles within the organization.
At the same time, the leadership team was extremely anxious because their core needs and previous decisions (or lack thereof) would be challenged during this time and they had already been through enough soul searching and change over the past year. We all stood on our side of the riverbank staring hopefully at the other side but scared to death of the path we would have to take to get there.
Sue knew her first priority was to build trust. The team would not follow her across that river of change if they did not trust she could get us to the other side. In order to build trust, Sue spent most of her early days just listening to us. This confused us at first because we expected she would show up and start making changes – after all, an experienced leader knows what needs to happen. Right? Well, not exactly. Every team and organization is different, and Sue knew she couldn’t simply implement a template of activities that worked at her last company. No, she had to truly understand what made IHHP a success and where the challenges were. She couldn’t do that if she didn’t listen.
Once we began to appreciate Sue’s process, we were excited to finally be given voice. We talked and we talked and we talked! You see, our team absolutely loves IHHP and what it stands for. As with most entrepreneurial firms, however, our leadership team felt they always had to have the answers or they weren’t good leaders. As a team, we had a wealth of ideas and suggestions on ways to grow our company – we just needed to be able to share them. And fully supported by our board of directors, Sue helped our voices to be heard.
With input from everyone, we worked to develop out our new 5-year strategy. Part of this process involved focusing on where we eventually wanted to be and what current misalignments stopped us from getting there. It was exhilarating. It was exciting. And yes, it was still scary. Because as humans we couldn’t help but sometimes employ the “What about me?” attitude as we worked through the planning.
Some of us approached this exercise through very constricted lenses. We didn’t see the big picture and we jumped to conclusions. Some had preconceived ideas of what needed to happen and were impatient to “just do it” while others were still wearing shackles of history and “the way things have been done around here.” So many times we heard Sue say “this isn’t going to be easy. It takes time and we need to work together through the process.”
The truth is that people buy in at their own pace – you can’t rush them. You can guide them, however, and be there for them as they work through the inevitable. Sue understood this and through regular communication like one-on-one meetings, team and company meetings and impromptu discussions in the hall and on Skype, she was able to help us all navigate the necessary changes.
When we asked Sue how she handled leading us through this change, she responded with a smile, “it hasn’t been easy!” As Sue says, she’s human too, and there were definitely times where she was viewing the situation or a person through a constricted lens. She found herself losing patience sometimes with people who held on to the past…the past they actually didn’t even talk about that positively. And she couldn’t understand why they hung on so tight when they were being given the opportunity to start anew. So Sue had to practice her skills of managing her own emotions first. What were her core needs and what information did she need to help her understand what was tying them to the past. “Afterall,” she said, “the red head in me is sometimes hard to tame, but I know I can’t help anyone else until I do!”
Since Sue arrived six months ago, we’ve been through a lot of change. And she was right, it hasn’t been easy. During this time, the open dialogue and honest answers from Sue (“I don’t know; let’s figure this out together,” “Let me find out and get back to you”) have, surprisingly, made us trust her more than we did the previous style of leadership, where they always had to have the answers … or worse, the dialogue just didn’t happen.
As you can tell, we’re thrilled to be introducing our new president because she’s helped us appreciate IHHP even more. Although we can all hear Sue saying, “we’re not done yet!” But we’re all in a much better place and working together to continue to implement future changes.