In today’s tough and fast-changing environment, CEOs must help their top leaders to work through fear and denial and to learn new rules.
SEPTEMBER 2009 • Derek Dean • McKinsey Quarterly
When business conditions change as dramatically as they have in the past year, CEOs need to be able to rely on their best leaders to adapt quickly. But what should they do when their strongest executives seem unable to play a new game? The costs—organizational drift, missed opportunities, unaddressed threats—are so big that it’s tempting to replace leaders who are suffering from paralysis. But this is a mistake when, as is often the case, these executives possess valuable assets, such as superior market knowledge, relationships, and organizational savvy, that are difficult to replace.
Before sending promising executives off the field, CEOs should try to help them learn to play by new rules. While part of the task—making a compelling case for change, helping him or her meet new job demands—involves appealing to an executive’s rational side, there’s also frequently an emotional element that is at least as important. Empathizing with the complex emotions executives may be feeling as the assumptions underlying their business approach unravel can be a critical part of overcoming the fear, denial, and learning blocks keeping them stuck.
Helping senior managers swim through this thick stew of challenges is a perennial problem that has become more acute for many organizations over the last year. The credit crunch and global economic slowdown didn’t just cause the unraveling of many business models. They also unsettled the assumptions and confidence of many senior managers. Mopping up the collateral damage in the executive suite is now a mission-critical task for many CEOs and is likely to remain one even when business conditions begin to recover.
Among the many emotions that can influence how executives interpret and respond to events, there’s one worth addressing on its own: plain old white-knuckled fear. In times of rapid change, when the actions that used to lead to success don’t any more, even strong leaders can experience intense, unproductive levels of fear caused by threats to their identity, their reputations, their social standing, and even their basic survival needs of a job and a paycheck. Ironically, leaders with the strongest track records are often more susceptible to fear during tumultuous periods because they have less experience facing adversity than their colleagues with more checkered pasts do.
Spiking levels of fear can convert frank, flexible, open, and self-reflective leaders into defensive, close-minded, rigid, and literal ones. These leaders may take things personally, feel persecuted, cease productive self-reflection, and lose the ability to process new information and respond to difficult situations. Others in the organization will notice this, of course, and will let the executive know in subtle ways—reinforcing fear and defensiveness.
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