Leader to Leader: Avoiding the High Cost of Conflict During Growth and Change

“Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him.” — Thomas Carlyle

I live and lead by this quote, especially during change, which, in today’s workplace, is often an everyday event. I have led teams through 20+ years of change, and have learned that the most important thing you control is how you react to it. Your reaction is key to your success as a leader because it’s vital to the success of your team. An open mind can break barriers; a resistant one can break companies. To coin another phrase: you reap what you sow.

Conflict doesn’t just come in color, gender or sexual orientation, it comes in generations X, Y, and BB, industry, and corporate hierarchy. In fact, the most conflict and prejudice I’ve ever experienced in the workplace involved areas of operational function and expertise (think marketing vs. finance, production vs. creative, creative vs. legal, technology vs. everyone — at least in this story).

Case in point: When I led operations for a startup, our chief technology officer created enormous conflict between his management team and just about everyone else. He ran his division tightly, and spent most of his time criticizing what other departments were doing. Here was an officer of the company who was intelligent, articulate, and expert in his field, but who disputed everything, so couldn’t learn from anyone. His intolerance and uncooperativeness were a huge drain, and were often reflected in his senior managers. It was easy to see he wasn’t a leader to help an organization grow.

Our marketing team had launched a premium product a month before I started, a high-ticket item for our VIP elite that included a custom card (similar in look and feel to a credit card), that gained them access to entertainment events, and special backstage access at concert venues. Orders were pouring in, but only the first batch went out, with incorrect information, no less. Why?

In any company, especially a startup, new processes need to be walked all the way through during implementation to ensure all the dots are connected, including who does what and when.

This is where I come in. It’s painstaking and detailed, but it’s necessary and worth it because it’s where barriers to productivity are found, and where revenue can be made or lost. In this case, there were about $500,000 worth of reasons to figure out what was going wrong.

I spoke with our fulfillment partner, who had yet to receive any new or corrected files, and worked my way through every department responsible until I found the problem: data was being generated, but not being delivered. All these new members, and not one file had left the building. The files were stuck fast in the technology department waiting for someone to pull the trigger. Extraordinary!

I also discovered that certain people knew the files were still on our side of the firewall, but they felt it wasn’t their responsibility to push past it and help resolve our problem. What???

The fulfillment house told me they could make up lost time if they received the files that day, but organized the correct way. Our support tech told me it would take only an hour to do, but warned of repercussions from the CTO and his VP. I gave the go-ahead, and got the VP on the phone. All I heard was concern over how the CTO would react … but no realization of how our customers would react.

The CTO was, of course, furious, and wasted even more time arguing his point with anyone who would answer his call. Yes, I did speak with him. Unfortunately, his was a reaction that would repeat itself often, and looking back, quite possibly, cost us the company.

Growth means change, which means the ability to learn, adapt, and shift gears quickly.

Resistance impedes progress — you want a corporate culture that reflects your best strengths, not your worst nightmare. You need all the positive energy you can muster when you’re poised for growth and change. Just think how different things would have been if the CTO’s negative energy was channeled in a positive direction.

How often does this happen in your organization? How often is a line drawn in the sand that stops the flow of progress? How often are business leaders unwilling to yield, making decisions based on resistance rather than revenue?

The chief technology officer was my superior, and I did learn from him. I learned that some managers are not leaders: they overreact, don’t set the right tone, and are incapable of creating a sense of unity. I learned that leaders need to grow, to be invested in expanding their own capabilities, as well as their team’s.

I learned that an open mind is the fast track to change.

It’s not about who makes the final decision, but why it’s made. I learned that you get the behavior you tolerate, and if you expect to have a global dialog in this world of change, you have to learn to be open to (and communicate with) all those X,Y, BBs, designers, lawyers and tech people sitting right in front of you.

One final note: an interesting thing happened when I ran this article by some people I know, prior to posting. When they read the opening quote, they focused on the word “man” which sent up a red flag right away.

I learned from this too…if you only focus on what you don’t like, you may miss the big picture. Wow.

 

 
Copyright 2013. 2014 Michelle Kerrigan

Leave a Reply