The past two years of my professional life can most accurately be described as an unwieldy roller coaster. I say this endearingly, as I’ve always been one for the adrenaline, but let me tell you, the slow climb to the top has been cardiac inducing. On paper, the journey has been simple. I was hired into Virginia based CEB’s rotational program, moved into an Associate Account Manager role, and four months later was offered my own territory as an Account Manager. In actuality, CEB was acquired (by Connecticut based Gartner, Inc.) on my tenth day of employment and the adventures of acquisition quickly ensued.
To sparknote the immediate changes to the organization, a number of senior leaders were given compensation packages, my team was divided into two smaller working groups, a new product was launched and the entirety of internal operations changed (workday, salesforce, etc.). I will admit, it’s been daunting, and many have decided to leave the organization. However, I can’t think of a better environment to have practiced my education “on the field” while enrolled in the MSOL program. As I studied foundations of organizational leadership and the power and politics of communication, my own organization was communicating the implications of the integration both externally and internally. A semester later, leading organizational change and ethics in governance were integral as I found myself in the midst of a complete organizational rehaul. In the months since, and as the dust has settled a bit, I have struggled to find a voice within this new matrix. At least, such was the case until I read The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky.
As I’ve experienced it, the technicalities of an integration are fairly streamlined. Mass produce new email domains, enroll all of your new employees in the existing benefits program, roll out the new product, and so on. It’s adapting to these technicalities that has been difficult, even frightening at times; primarily because the benefits of change have been murky. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky write, “You know the adage “People resist change.” It is not really true. People are not stupid. People love change when they know it is a good thing. No one gives back a winning lottery ticket. What people resist is not change per se, but loss. When change involves real or potential loss, people hold on to what they have and resist the change” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). This perfectly illustrates what I’ve experienced within my own team across the past year. As an Account Manager, I sustain existing relationships while selling new solutions to my clients. When the new product results in lackluster sales, that directly affects thousands of employee paychecks. The feeling of potential loss most certainly hits close to home.
To provide a more specific example, and where I’ve personally found myself implementing adaptive leadership, the way in which we serve our clients in entirely new. Historically, the Account Manager owned the entire relationship, that being sales and service. With the Gartner integration, the historic CEB service model was split into separate sales and service teams. Now, the Account Manager (sales) shares the responsibility with a service oriented, Client Partner. In truth, it’s felt a bit like a bizarre domestic partnership, with shared custody.
In determining how to best work with my Client Partner I’ve drawn upon the SMOL education significantly. Not only were all of the Client Partners new to role, but when everything is uncharted and unfamiliar, we had to get strategic in ways to successfully work together. The opportunity to rely on past experience was non-existent. “The improvisational ability to lead adaptively relies on responding to the present situation rather than importing the past into the present and laying it on the current situation like an imperfect template” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). It was a change in mindset, and culture, as the the highly siloed, individualistic past was no more. Was it shaky? Absolutely. But when we saw problems, the team was quick to provide feedback. We continuously diagnosed and continue to evaluate ways in which we can improve the system. The coursework, and this specific text, have allowed me to offer broader suggestions to the group. These have included everything from communication styles to streamlining project management processes. I’ve found the partnership to be an interesting dichotomy of relief, in feeling as though I have freed capacity, and stress, in worrying the Client Partner isn’t living up to their end of the agreement. That said, the ability to work in this ever evolving matrix of corporate America will be critical to my personal success and the success of my organization as a whole.
As a self reflection activity, I find myself wondering if instances of frustration are because the changes are legitimately detrimental or because they push me outside of my comfort zone. I rationally understand it’s the latter, but in an environment of constant change it’s too easy to feel as though my coaster is destined to catapult off of the rails. To counteract this feeling, I’ve found comfort in “getting on the balcony” and taking a step back. “To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground events” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). I’ve found in times of extreme change, those around me have either spiraled into a disgruntled reality (from which I rarely see a successful comeback) or fearlessly thrown themselves into the waves. With a different perspective, removed from the chaos, I’m able to more successfully break down the situation, and remove my own emotions. At the end of the day, no matter how hard it may have felt, I knew there is a reason for the change. It may be a challenge, but instead of becoming isolated in frustration, I can taking pride in knowing I’m working hard to build something for the future.
In a preface to the concept of “get on the balcony” the authors write, “You know best who you really are by watching what you do rather than listening to what you say” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). It’s a simple concept that has really stuck with me. In fact, I wrote it down on a post-it note alongside, “Your behavior reflects your actual purpose” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). And, “Exercising adaptive leadership is about giving meaning to your life beyond your own ambition” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). All of these statements I interpret as putting the needs of others before your own. I know that definition is more closely tied to servant leadership, but I find servant and adaptive leadership to have a number of similarities. Most importantly, anyone can be empowered to step up and be a leader. What I’ve struggled with a bit in the MSOL coursework is the feeling that my organizational hierarchy does not warrant me the authority to implement much of the change I see needed. How much power do I have to influence the “authorizers” within my organization?
In here lies what I celebrate most about adaptive leadership, regardless of title, you have the ability to ignite change. Across the past year, I’ve been empowered to do so by my own boss, whom I’d describe as a case study in successful adaptive leadership. Her, “…inspiration taps hidden reserves of promise that sustain people through times that induce despair. You enable people to envision a future that sustains the best from their past while also holding out new possibilities” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). She has been, and dear God I hope will continue to be, our metaphorical beacon of light. Every day, she finds what Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky characterize as the “productive zone of disequilibrium (PZD).” A concept described as producing, “…enough heat generated by your intervention to gain attention, engagement, and forward motion, but not so much that the organization (or your part of it) explodes” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). She intuitively understands when the team needs to be pushed outside of a comfort zone and when we’re nearing a ledge. More importantly, she possesses the emotional intelligence to inspire change. When the implications of the integration truly began to affect employee morale, our North America VP began adding “feedback Fridays” to his regularly scheduled Friday team meetings. This technical solution to an adaptive challenges was not successful because it only surfaced concerns without taking steps to truly consider change. In response, my own boss began speaking with us individually to incorporate our ideas into the decision making process. In this way, she not only proved she truly cared about our individual opinions, but showed she valued our feedback in the decision making process.
I know adaptive challenges are not only for my boss to tackle, but in watching her take action she’s created an open environment of discussion and trust. I feel comfortable voicing concern and taking the lead on change initiatives. When appropriate, she champtions us individually to step up. I am confident within my environment, because I know I’m not in it alone. Our successes are won as a team and when things don’t work, we try something new. More importantly we take time to understand why they weren’t successful.
Adaptive challenges can, “…only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). This concept of thrive is not simply a term of survival, but it means, “growing and prospering in new and challenging Environments” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009). I can acknowledge change is hard, but we don’t grow as people, or as an organization, unless we’re challenged. I can guarantee I’ve learned more in my two years as Gartner than I would have in the same two years with CEB. I find myself “on the field” every day, adapting and learning how to find success when the term success in itself at times feel ambiguous.