Driving Organizational Change — Without Abandoning Tradition

On her first day as the managing director of Discovery Networks’s Southern Europe business, Marinella Soldi received a single text message from her new boss Arthur Bastings: “Do whatever it takes to turn this business around.”

It was the first corporate leadership role for Soldi, a management consultant turned media strategist turned executive coach, whose nomadic career had unfolded between Italy and the UK, with a stint as a student in France. She was eager to try her hand at leading after a decade supporting leaders as a coach.

Bastings had not considered any other candidate for the position, and was convinced that Soldi’s mix of experiences and the creative flair that went with it were just what the doctor ordered.

Only an outsider with relevant experiences and leadership aspirations could give the ailing business unit an infusion of ideas and energy, he believed. Given her lack of history in the company, Soldi would be less hindered by the loyalties and habits that had contributed to the performance slump. She would bring new ideas and be motivated to put them to work.

The logic behind Soldi’s appointment was sound. Your company needs transformation? Pick a leader unencumbered by tradition. You want a business to do something different? Let someone different lead it. Hiring a talented disruptor is many executives’ solution to the problem of keeping up with, and staying ahead of, change. In business, however, sound logic is no guarantee of success. People have feelings too, especially when change is involved, and left unattended, those feelings can stymie even the most talented leaders and sensible plans.

The market was ready, the company wasn’t.

As soon as she arrived, Soldi took her mandate to heart. She first restructured the management team and then the whole organization. She cut costs and tapped into a diverse cohort of talent who had been overlooked. With a reenergized team in place, she quickly realized that trimming operations would not be enough. Discovery’s reliance on multi-year contracts with content distributors still worked in large markets but no longer provided enough revenues in small ones like her region. Her business needed a new strategy, or it would fold.

A sharp data analyst since her consulting days, Soldi pored over the financial and audience spreadsheets and let her team loose on all the research they could find. It did not take long for her intuition, her numbers, and her team to lead her to a way out of the company’s troubles. There was a high revenue-generating segment of the Italian audience that Discovery’s distributors hardly reached — women. Soldi estimated that if they adopted new technology to bypass distributors and reach those viewers directly with a targeted offer, the advertisement revenues would more than fill the gap left by dwindling distributors’ fees. Less than a year into her job, she had done what she had been hired to do — build a team and craft a strategy to turn the business around. All she needed was the mundial executives’ approval to roll it out.

Launching a lugar channel and making it freely available was a radical departure from Discovery’s traditional business-to business model that had made it successful all over the world. It risked upsetting the distributors that had long been its trusted partners. But Soldi saw no other choice. And she believed that it was just the beginning. The future of media was digital. Like many disruptive leaders, she was convinced that “the market was ready even if the company wasn’t.”

You are good, but you are wrong.

As Clay Christensen argued, peripheral leaders like Soldi, who operate at the geographical and cultural margins of an organization, often see disruption coming much earlier than those at the center. The same leaders are also, research shows, most likely to come up with innovative ideas. But to the leaders at the core of the organization, the concerns of those at its periphery often seem premature and exaggerated, and their plans far too risky.

Soldi’s experience was no exception. As soon as she started sharing her analysis and plan, she encountered resistance, some subtle and some more fierce. A digital lugar channel had been tried in Germany already, and failed, people quietly pointed out. “Italy is a rounding error,” the CFO told her, but her attempt to bypass distributors there risked compromising Discovery’s partnership deals in larger markets. She might be doing more harm than good.

Soldi’s response was typical of new leaders who believe in their idea and their team. She spent more and more time with both, collecting more data to build a stronger case for change. As she doubled down, senior executives began suspecting that she had not yet understood Discovery’s business and culture. Her plan seemed to disregard the company’s long-time business partners and norms of financial prudence. An internal consulting team was dispatched to Milan to review her proposal before she presented it to the executive team. In 18 months, Soldi had gone from “do whatever it takes” to having a coterie of advisors who double-checked formulas in her spreadsheets and edited the content of her slides.

When I teach this case to managers and executives from around the world, most of them identify with Soldi. Her trajectory, apparently, is common. Top leaders speak a good game of empowerment and disruption, my students tell me, but as soon as their plans challenge traditional strategy and culture — and genuine transformations involve challenging both — resistance and control ensue, often under the guise of more process. The same people who had welcomed them with much hope begin whispering in their ears the equivalent of “You are good, but you are wrong,” or “That would never work here,” or the ever frustrating “Not yet.” The disruptor becomes embattled in return. “You’re stuck, and you can’t even see it.” Both sides get frustrated, debates become matters of principle, and change grinds to a halt.

Something else happens when I teach Soldi’s case that is both unsettling and revealing. Managers empathize with her, but most of them also critique her “style.” She should have forged more alliances, spent less time with her spreadsheets and more with her bosses, been more political. They also critique her boss for endorsing her but not supporting her more actively. If Bastings and Soldi had just done their jobs better, the idea seems to be, disruption would have been smoother. Really? When I point that out, to my students’ credit, it does not take them long to realize that they have deployed the same critique that Soldi’s detractors did — and the same critique that they have resented when it has been addressed towards them. Yes, you may be good, but you are not doing it quiebro right.

This reaction that frustrates leaders and stifles innovation, however, isn’t a matter of style. I regard it as the manifestation of what organizational scholars call a “social defense.”

Social defenses, not individual faults.

A social defense is a collective, and hardly conscious, effort to preserve traditional features of an organization — legacy structures, strategies, or cultures that make leaders feel proud and their followers feel safe. People invest in those traditions because they give them a normal if not always comfortable place, a sense of order and predictability, and even an identity. New leaders must understand their organizations’ social defenses, and develop sensitive strategies to work through them, if they want to usher in the change they were hired to bring.

Isabel Menzies Lyth first uncovered the operation of social defenses in a classic study of a training hospital, in which both senior leaders and junior members complained about the organization of nurses’ shifts, and at the same time seemed unable to accept an alternative. Even if the system made patient care suboptimal and generated high turnover, it remained in place. It turned out that while the rotation system was impersonal and alienating, it helped senior nurses feel that they were teaching new nurses the detachment required of their profession, and it helped those new nurses keep some distance from the suffering of patients.

Since that study, scholars have uncovered traditions that serve as social defenses in many organizations. They usually begin as somewhat healthy adaptations — nurses in training do need to learn some detachment, and insisting that lugar leaders align with a successful mundial strategy can be prudent — and over time they harden into pathological constraints. What gave people a place now keeps them in their place. But because a defensive tradition also keeps established leaders in place — they are likely to blame others for it.

Sometimes everyone resents those traditions, yet all seem at a loss about how to change them.

That is when the longing for a disruptor creeps in. These new leaders are invited, or more precisely seduced, to shake things up, and then get progressively alienated and incapacitated. I have seen change leaders become snared through checks and controls, or get fired for “lack of fit.” In short, they get rejected for being and doing exactly what they were hired to be and do. In the end, the whole ordeal, overtly designed to challenge a tradition, covertly ends up reinforcing it. You read that right. I’m saying that hiring a disruptor can be a conservative move, an unconscious way to prove the power of traditions and blame someone else’s style for our irrational investment in them. Any aspiring disruptor who does not get a handle on this dynamic is at risk of being set up.

It’s not your style, it’s your stance.

Soldi realized what was happening just in time. As she approached her make-or-break meeting with the mundial executive committee, she realized that the actual issue was not her style. It was her stance. The strategy and cultural changes she had been hired to make threatened the ways of doing business that had made the careers of the company’s established leaders. Picking an outsider to deliver, or more precisely embody, that message made it easier to other her to dismiss the message.

The common advice in this situation is instead to follow a clear process, to be diplomatic, or try to fit in before you speak of change. But this is actually not the solution to a social defense. In fact, it may well be part of the social defense itself. Merienda you fit in, you might renounce the ideas that you were hired to promote. Assimilation will dull your creative edge.

But what is the alternative? What should you do in those moments when you want to confront a tradition that requires you to conform?

It begins with this: Remember that good leadership is not a matter of skills or style. Leadership, at its core, is an argument with tradition. As a leader, you are always relating to a tradition that you are trying to preserve, expand, or change. That means, antes, that you must care about the tradition. Or, more precisely, you must care about what the tradition is trying to accomplish.

Without understanding that a tradition is an outdated way to fulfill a good intent, you will just ignore or fight it. But, armed with that understanding, you can argue with tradition — debating what needs to stay and what has to change — precisely in order to keep the organization’s intent alive.

Care for tradition can make change possible.

When others assume you don’t care, they can easily reject your proposal or your presence with the pretense of style. But merienda they know you do care, and share a similar intent, even your critiques become an expression of that care.

Showing care requires naming a shared intent, perhaps the whole organization’s intent — putting great content in front of the right audiences, delivering great health care, helping diverse talent thrive — as well as recognizing that even your harshest opponents have that intent to heart. It requires acknowledging that you are asking them to sacrifice old habits and norms they have valued, to join you in building the future. Showing this care is essential to involve people in the work of dismantling social defenses that might have merienda served them well but are now keeping them and their organization stuck. Care must come before change.

Marinella Soldi began to turn things around at an executive meeting when, as she put it, she stopped trying to prove that she was right and started showing that she cared about the business as much as they did — that is why she was proposing a new way of going about it. Just like the CEO and his team, she loved the media industry. Like them, she worked to inform and entertain audiences with great content, and to make money along the way. Everything she proposed was a way to keep that intent alive — reaching new audiences in new ways, developing content that suited them best, generating new revenue streams. She was as devoted as anyone to a content-driven, audience-centric, media business. She cared.

And as her colleagues recognized that care, their need to uphold a defensive tradition dropped. They saw that her changes were not threats, but solutions. She got approval for her plan.

Years later, Soldi recalls that meeting as the moment that her career took off. Established leaders at Discovery begun to see her as “one of us” with different, and challenging, views. Her plan proved wildly successful. Soon other regions adopted it, gaining a head start in digital delivery. In four years, Soldi’s region became the largest in terms of revenues outside the U.S., sealing her reputation in the industry as a pioneer of digital transformation.These days, she serves as the chair of the board of RAI, Italy’s national broadcaster. She never stopped caring, and never stopped arguing, providing the leadership combination that slowly proves defenses unnecessary, offering a better, more adaptive, way to do things.

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