Experience is a tough teacher; you receive the test first then learn the lesson. We’ve all learned quite a few lessons at the hands of that instructor.
When underperforming firms, or firms which have issues they are ill-equipped to solve, need to make changes in order to right their ship, so to speak, interim leadership is sometimes brought in to provide experience and an extra set of hands to implement change. In many cases, the businesses are private which means the owners are the ones running the organization.
These situations are tricky because change is hard, especially for founders or the second or third generation who may be in charge. The interim CEO is there to drive change, implement new processes, and retrain or hire new people in order to solidify the foundation for sustainable improvements. In theory, if a business is failing, the business leaders want to do whatever needs to be done to save it.
Leaders Facing Change Need to Possess These Characteristics
It’s a good theory, but it doesn’t always prove workable. In some cases, despite best efforts, change in companies comes slowly or not at all. Over time, in many situations, a business executive may say they want change, but that does not necessarily mean they are wired to accept or lead change. Leaders in businesses undergoing substantial change need to possess these important characteristics:
- Humility accompanied by a belief that they do not know everything about their business
- Personal ability to change how they think and operate, including possibly the role they will play in the firm moving forward
- Capacity to be “all in” with supporting transition in their business, which often means operating outside long-held comfort zones
Many business leaders have “strong type A” personalities. Their personalities served them well in building the business and overcoming obstacles, but now the business is in trouble and they find themselves facing unfamiliar issues. Their initial attempts to solve the problems failed, so they seek help from outsiders to implement a change of management plan. However, accepting help from “an outsider” is tough to swallow, and supporting a program of change (with all the pushback from employees) causes some leaders to backpedal. Often, it is simply too tough to break with old ways, and familiar people, which had sustained them for years.
My father was a businessman, and he taught me at an early age this important lesson: the difference between a rut and a groove is depth. Many business leaders need help seeing they are in a rut and getting out of it.
Supporting a Process of Change
Not every business owner who needs change is capable of supporting a process of change. When thinking about ways to correct problems and solidify a firm’s foundation, those making the tough decisions need to determine if they have the three characteristics mentioned above: a measure of humility, willingness to change, and the ability to unconditionally support a change process. If they do have these characteristics, success is much more likely to ensue. If they do not, an interim CEO will need to be inserted to run the company during the change process.
In most cases, strong leaders are willing and open to change, and they recognize the importance of change in their firm. But change is tough enough without passive roadblocks at the top of the organization. The most important criteria for successful organizational change is having a leader (or owner) who has the courage to see beyond the horizon and ability to personally champion a new direction for their company.
Mark Rittmanic, founder and CEO of the consulting firm FortéONE, has conceived, built, led, and sold several successful businesses. He applies lessons learned from those experiences to help others achieve their goals. At FortéONE, he leads business development and identifies growth opportunities for the firm. Mark is a former U.S. Army Captain who understands the importance of structure and processes and their role in business.