From Organizational Turbulence to Sustainable Success: A Path for Leaders

By Next Step Partners
Partner, Next Step Partners

Fast growth is thrilling; everyone in your organization paddles in the same direction and does what it takes to race ahead. But then as the growth exceeds the capacity of the organization to sustain it, things in the boat get strained. You can’t seem to make it out of the rapids.

If you are a leader in these turbulent waters, you might find yourself fed up that so much time and energy is spent on internal drama. After all, isn’t your biggest resource your people? Why are such talented people wasting time and energy mired in conflict and frustration?

It might seem that everyone is committed more to his or her own turf and silos than the future of the organization as a whole. Decision-making happens in hallways and “back-door” conversations, and no one actually knows who has the most influence, which leaves everyone vying for it.

The organization may set goals, but many of them are not achieved. Management skills are not valued—you are considered a leader if you were part of the founding group, paid your dues and powered through to achieve the remarkable results.

You thought you were in an organization that was soaring, where everyone was a great team and decisions were made easily. What happened?

The Whitewater Threshold and Your Organization

Your organization hit the “Whitewater” growth threshold—when there’s a mismatch between the culture, leadership approach and systems that worked in the past and what is needed for the future.

The good news, as Les McKeown tells us in his book Predictable Success, is that this is a typical stage of organizational development—one that all successful organizations must navigate carefully. As McKeown describes it, once the growth reaches a certain point, the heady days of “fun” inevitably give way to the frustration of “Whitewater.”

The real question is whether your organization will get stuck indefinitely in “Whitewater” or be able to break through to “Predictable Success”—that balance of dynamic and sustainable growth and impact that everyone wants.

Whether you are the CEO, a member of the leadership team or head of talent, if you recognize that you’ve hit “Whitewater,” or been there for awhile this is the moment to shift your approach, recalibrate the organization’s vision and create some new systems that allow for broad accountability and transparency.

The path to predictable organizational success | Les McKeown

In our experience, it is leadership that determines whether you’ll make it to Predictable Success. This article outlines a way forward for leaders who are committed to building the systems and culture for an organization that will thrive for the long term.

1. | Assess the Gaps

Conduct an assessment of what the gap is between current leadership capabilities and the ones you will need to lead into a successful and sustainable future.

There a variety of ways to conduct assessments, including interviews, focus groups or a research-based on-line assessment such as the Leadership Gap Indicator from Center for Creative Leadership. Make sure to get as broad as possible a group involved in being part of the process—say the top 30 or 50 leaders.

The objective is for the top leadership to become aware of what leadership capacities made the organization successful in its growth phase, and of what needs to be added or dropped to get to the next level. By embarking on this sort of assessment you are immediately building buy-in among the home-grown leaders who built the organization that to get to the next level they will need to change how they operate.

Often in companies at this threshold, the capacities that contributed to past success are persistence, entrepreneurialism, technical skill, optimism and close-knit teamwork where members sacrifice time and energy to get stuff done. While all organizations are different, the capabilities that are often identified for moving forward are emotional intelligence, leading across boundaries, dealing with complexity and strategic thinking.

2. | Commit to Transparency

Most organizations at this stage are facing a battle between those who say the organization needs greater accountability, systems and transparency, and those who are afraid that the organization will lose its entrepreneurial mojo and stop feeling like family. This battle can be debilitating for an organization, leading to declines in morale and wasted time and energy that can affect the bottom line.

One of the biggest challenges is that the leaders who built the organization and were drivers of its growth—the heroes of its earlier days—can become the biggest obstacles to change. To move out of “Whitewater” it becomes essential to be direct with them about the need to cooperate with the change or to shift their roles and expectations to avoid getting in the way.

We have worked with leaders at many organizations in the “Whitewater” phase. Until the leaders begin to model the transparency and accountability they desire for the organization and summon courage to risk holding opponents of change to the same standards, the organization will continue to be mired in turbulence and will risk increasing losses.

3. | Face Up to the Pain of Change

Many organizations flounder here, expecting themselves and their people to power through changes to organizational charts and decision-making structures. But the reason that 70% of change efforts fail is that the human side of the equation is rarely understood and addressed skillfully.

Prepare for yourself and your leadership team to be uncomfortable and to face resistance during this period of change. Expose the underlying assumptions that keep the organization stuck. Pay attention to the fact that change is frightening and destabilizing, even for the most seasoned and emotionally intelligent professionals.

As a leader, it’s important to identify your own personal trigger points when facing resistance, fortify your ability to stay the course in the face of resistance and lead your people through difficult changes by surfacing the emotional component of the change. The result helps them reframe their perspective.

One-on-one leadership coaching or team coaching will help you focus on and build the exact skills you need to navigate the change—whether related to your own personal resilience or your ability to help others open their minds to the change.

4. | Break down the Silos

As the organization shifts from a core group that does everything to teams devoted to specific products, programs or functions (such as Finance or Communications/Marketing), it is common for the leaders to become more committed to their own team’s advancement than to the organization as a whole.

Silos are much easier to create than to break down. We often see leadership teams that have become competitive and self-promoting in their meetings, making it hard to get anything done. The solution is to reboot the mindset and communication of the leadership team. Each individual needs to learn how to lead as part of a team committed to the organization’s future, not to his or her own turf. This is where work with an outside facilitator can be extremely valuable; we have seen how leadership teams can be transformed over the course of six to nine months of work.

Navigating through the rapids that lie between rapid growth and organizational sustainability and health isn’t easy. There’s no cookie cutter approach. What works for one organization won’t necessarily work for yours.

It requires letting go of some of the organization’s founding myths and embracing new systems and transparency. But if you can articulate a unifying forward vision, and break through the resistance to change; if you can spend time in the messiness and discomfort of change and not give up, the organization will transcend turbulence.



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