Lasting change can only happen when the leaders authentically transform their mindset and believe in the mission. It all starts with inspiring a shift in mindset, and moving away from the sentiment of "that's just how things are around here" to "this is how we are going to think and act from now on." And that starts at the top. When leaders embrace a new way of thinking and match words and actions with authenticity. Then and only then can they lead change and transform a culture.
A great example can be drawn from my time in Navy SEAL training. The initial six months is called BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL). One of the most fascinating things about BUD/S is the evolution of the students' mindset. Those that thrive during the worst parts learn to channel all of the pain, shivering and misery into aggression. An aggression so powerful it drives them with an unwavering pursuit to make it to the end. An aggression that fuels the metamorphosis from a young scared tadpole to a strong, bold and confident frogman.
During Hell Week, your legs are so swollen that there is little to no definition between your calves and thighs. Your wet sandy clothes grind away your flesh until you have hardly any skin between your legs, around your waist and under your arms. Days of running with 200 pound boats on your head has left your scalp a scabby pussy mess. Flesh eating bacteria attacks some students so badly that they have to be medically dropped from training. One of the guys in my class finished Hell Week (the brutal crucible that weeds out most of the class) with two fractured shins -- but he kept his mouth shut and fought through the pain so he wouldn't get rolled back to another class, having to repeat the misery again.
How is the human body and mind capable of such feats? As one of the famed lines from the Navy SEAL Ethos states, we are common men with an uncommon desire to succeed. The training is both mental and physical, but it's the students' mindset that leads them to success. By the time a class reaches Third Phase of BUD/S -- which begins in the fifth month of training -- they are in the best physical condition of their lives. They know they will graduate and move on to advanced training. At this point, there is literally nothing the instructors can do to break them. They laugh and yell "hooyah!" when the instructors begin a good old fashion beat down session with 100 burpies and endless pushups. They embrace the suck.
The mental fortitude required to finish the most challenging special operations training in the world is what defines us in battle. It's what ensures that we will be more prepared than the enemy. It's what allows us the ability to adapt amidst adversity.
To achieve success on the battlefield, there must be belief in the mission. The battlefield commander must exhibit a passionate connection to what they are trying to accomplish. The same applies on the business battlefield.
To successfully lead change and transform an organizational culture, senior leaders must first transform their mindset and embrace the fact that they will be pushed outside of their comfort zone. Then and only then will their words and actions become authentic. Authenticity and belief are what inspire the team to come together and achieve lasting change.
Often times, not everyone in the boardroom will believe in the time and monetary investment required to make significant changes to their organization. They allow fear to overtake them and lack the vision and foresight to truly believe that the organization can become something greater. Or sometimes there will be a consensus as to the "what" but lack of alignment on the "how." Many in the room will just want to push harder using the same processes they have always used hoping that things will improve. But isn't doing things the same way expecting a different outcome the definition of insanity?
Applications From the Battlefield to the Boardroom
I had an interesting conversation with one of my clients recently who is the Director of Training and Development at a major healthcare company. She was telling me about a major turn-around that occurred at her last company, also a healthcare giant.
On the surface, things didn't look so bad. Revenue was remaining relatively stable, but its rapport with customers and physicians was eroding rapidly. On top of all that, they were actually losing $1 million per day. And many of the company's problems could be attributed to its culture. The company's 150 year history had forged a very conservative culture that forced employees to be so steadfast that they had become risk-averse, intolerant of change and practically accepting of mediocrity.
In the late 1990's the company had merged with another large healthcare company which had a much more progressive culture known for risk-taking and innovation. Unfortunately, this only solidified the existing rigid culture. But for all its benefits and blemishes, a company culture is your legacy -- for better or worse. It can't be traded in like a used car. That said, the negative aspects of a culture can feel like you're carrying an 80 pound ruck sack, especially during significant change -- a merger for example. That's why the culture-driven transformation is so important. It is possible to leverage the positive aspects of the culture while eliminating the negative elements as you go. This makes change easier to implement -- especially when changing culture IS part of the change effort.
As a last ditch effort, the company brought in a new CEO -- its fourth CEO in five years! My client went on to tell me more details about how the employees reacted. "Here we go again, another lame attempt to turn this company around. An attempt that will most likely fail. Get ready for more misaligned initiatives piled onto our already full plates."
But that's not what happened. This CEO brought with him a new mindset. A positive new approach that would be contagious. Instead of laying out a new strategy and culture-shift plan that was conceived behind closed doors with no input from the troops, he did the opposite. He took time to visit the employees, get their take on things and engage them in the planning process. He developed peer networks of well-respected and influential employees to help lead the transformation. These employees were also sensitive to the realities of the company culture.
What did all of this activity accomplish? Several things.
He was gathering great ground intelligence that would be used to develop a sound mission plan. This data uncovered the flaws in both the strategy and culture -- which were totally misaligned anyway. It also brought the positive aspects of the culture to the surface, highlighting elements that could be used to drive the transformation. And last but not least, by involving employees across the entire organization he was giving them a voice. He was gaining buy-in and shifting mindsets.
When he started the transformation with a new mindset, everyone followed him into battle. Why? Because they knew he believed in the mission. They were able to successfully revitalize the culture while preserving and championing its strengths.
Over the following years after the new CEO began leading this effort, it became clear through surveys, conversations and observation that most of the employees felt rejuvenated and proud to be a part of the "new" transforming organization. And the best part? The company's financial performance reflected the changes. A few years later the company went from losing $1 million a day to earning $5 million a day. The operating income went from a $300 million loss to a $1.7 billion gain. By approaching transformation with a new mindset, the company successfully increased its stock price from $5.84 to $48.40. The mindset alteration and new behaviors transformed the culture -- a culture designed to achieve great financial results.