Hitting Rock Bottom

October 13th, 2015  | 

Published in Strategic Planning

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success,” said Niccolo Machiavelli, “than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

In my survey of more than 5,000 executives worldwide, only half (50 percent) said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that “New approaches and initiatives are received enthusiastically versus being resisted.”

Change is difficult for many because:

  • We’re giving up one thing for another. The more we have to lose—money, our job, prestige, power, a relationship—the more difficult we find change.
  • It’s often prompted by pain. We may see opportunities that require change, but usually it’s a problem that forces us to take action.
  • Things usually get worse before they get better.

Sometimes the person who’s most resistant to change is the person who’s supposed to be driving it.

How bad must things get before leaders decide to make changes?

For the University of Texas football program, it took hitting rock bottom at the end of the 2013 season before hiring Charlie Strong to replace Mack Brown.

While Mack Brown guided the Longhorns to their first national championship in 30 years, his final four seasons at Texas were his worst, including:

  • Three consecutive losses to rival Oklahoma, including humiliating defeats where OU “hung half a hundred” on Texas;
  • The worst home loss in Brown’s 16 years;
  • The worst defensive season in school history.

I examined the mindset Charlie Strong brought to eradicate the malaise of entitlement that had overtaken the Texas football program in my blog post, New Sheriff in Town.

How Much Change Can You Stomach?

Change is uncomfortable.

Your employees may say of the changes, “We’ve never done that before.”

A fondness for the past can overtake change initiatives as people with short memories and weak stomachs conveniently forget what prompted the need for change in the first place.

At the University of Texas, outward signs pointed to things in the football program growing predictably worse as Coach Strong dismissed players and losses mounted.

A new question surfaced that leaders everywhere must answer for themselves: How committed are we to pushing through the pain of these changes to achieve our goals?

The 2015 season for Texas started with an embarrassing loss to Notre Dame. But two close losses that followed seemed to indicate Coach Strong’s changes were bearing fruit.

Then the team collapsed the very next weekend in a one-side loss to TCU.

Reporters and columnists around the country immediately asked if Strong was the right person for the job. Critics called for his head. Even the Texas players were sniping at each other in interviews and via social media.

But something else happened. The team hit rock bottom. Players got mad and then they got fed up about their results on the field and their finger-pointing in the locker room.

“We needed that loss,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard. “It changed our whole perspective.”

Dan Neil, a former All-American offensive lineman at Texas who played for eight years in the NFL, put it another way: “If you’re looking to straighten yourself out, OU’s the remedy.”

So while it’s true one game doesn’t make a season, when you’re playing your rival and you’re a 17-point underdog, getting a win over the University of Oklahoma is one indication the changes you’ve committed to making are beginning to bear fruit.

Texas 24, Oklahoma 17.

3 Factors Drive Change

There are at least three essential factors that must be in place if your change initiative is going to be effective:

Set clear expectations. Whether you’re losing games or market share, discipline (or the lack of it) is usually one reason why. Be crystal clear about your vision, your values and the rewards of winning. Be crystal clear about what is expected of everyone in terms of their roles and responsibilities. And be clear about the penalties for not playing by the rules and not meeting performance objectives.

Character counts. When an organization’s next generation of leaders believe the top leader is committed to the changes, their buy-in will help drive improved performance throughout the enterprise. Ricky Williams, the Texas running back who won the 1998 Heisman Trophy, told The New York Times, “First time I’ve ever seen it with my own eyes, where a good chunk of the leadership came from underclassmen.” With the right people, peer pressure is a huge motivating factor because people of strong character don’t want to let their peers down.

Don’t give up. Let’s face it. One you’ve set your course for change, your biggest problem is execution. External forces make performing at high levels tougher than ever. What’s more, those who share your enthusiasm and commitment are usually outnumbered by those who do not. Give your plan time to take root. You won’t immediately see the results you want, but don’t despair. Target incremental Improvement. Celebrate legitimate victories. By whatever name you choose to call it—persistence or passion, stubbornness or stamina, drive or determination—the top leader must remain committed to the changes that are required to win as well as provide support for top performers.

If you are serious about getting better, you must be fully committed to considering new ways of running your business.

Do not change your principles.

You must, however, be willing to look critically at changing your practices—your business proposition, your programs, your processes, your people—to evolve and propel your organization to the next level of success.

Don’t wait to hit rock bottom before changing the things that are not delivering the results you expect. Be open to organizational change.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 200 strategic planning sessions, and he’s delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents. His fifth leadership book—How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices—examines 52 of history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies and will be published in 2019 by Simple Truths.

Sign up for my free bimonthly email button