Forget Your Org Change; Start with Self Change


When I first grabbed onto the reins of the change juggernaut at NBC News, I was preoccupied with everyone else: Were people willing to change the way they worked to embrace the internet age? How could I motivate (or force) them to join new technology initiatives? Who was with me and who was against me?

As I settled into the job, I realized this outward focus was actually not the most effective way to spark organizational change. As in so many other realms of life, effective change starts from within.

If I was to have any hope of changing others, I had to change myself first.

You’re Probably Going to Fail at Changing Others

Most organizational transformation efforts are doomed. A recent study by McKinsey found that 60 percent of executives felt their transformation initiatives had failed. A Harvard study put the number at 70 percent.

That’s not surprising. Nor is it surprising that organizations reflect their leaders. So when a change-resistant organization meets a change resistant leader, it’s pretty clear the odds for successful transformation are low.

In my case, it was clear the organization had little appetite for change — after all, we had been the dominant broadcaster for generations and the idea of a global broadcaster being upended by YouTube was unimaginable. What was less apparent (to me at least) was how resistant to change I was.

Change Agent, Heal Thyself

Yup. First off, I was dead certain that I was right about the need for change at NBC. After all, that was my job. More elementally, I also was unwilling to question my approach, viewing negative feedback as carping from those resisting the inevitable. I was rigid, righteous, and unwilling to compromise — a perfect mirror of the organization I was trying to transform.

Once I realized my stragglers-will-be-shot approach wasn’t working, I got curious and changed up my game. Instead of pointing my finger at all those traditionalists who were resisting transformation, I began pointing it at myself, refocusing attention on my resistance, my fears and exactly what I was unwilling to risk.

Four Ways Self-Change Wins

There were some big advantages to this:

  1. I learned faster. I was able to integrate feedback and act on it with less internal resistance once I started to notice my real resistance.
  2. I gained a deeper understanding of what was really keeping my colleagues from changing. I became more empathetic once I could see my own fear in the face of challenge, my own unquestioned beliefs and prejudices.
  3. I developed a better “sixth sense” for leadership by tuning into my own aversions, fears and doubts more quickly and using them as a cue that others might be feeling the same. Then, I could change course in response instead of plowing blindly ahead.
  4. I was able to model the relationship to change that I wanted others to have. I could show up more authentically, letting people see how despite getting triggered by the challenges of change, I could reconsider and bounce back to create an effective alliance with challenge and move forward.

My most effective step leading organizational change was to look inside and use myself as my first laboratory for transformation.

This is how Ghandi’s admonition to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” is actually good business sense.

Want to know more? Here’s a great article from the Harvard Business Review with some more thoughts on the subject of how personal change comes before organizational change.

Photo: Gerry Thomasen, Flickr