Recently, a friend told me a story about her father, and the difficulties he faced when her mother died. After years of being the main provider for the family, he found himself completely unprepared for the demands of life on his own. He didn’t know how to cook meals, or do laundry. He didn’t even know where his wife kept the dog food. The choice he faced was simple: he could adapt and maintain his independence, or he could go into an assisted living home. He chose to change and, this past Thanksgiving, her father invited the whole family over for a full turkey dinner he made himself.
Her story reminded me of a call I received several months ago from an executive at a well-established Atlantic Canadian company that was undergoing something of a crisis. The leadership had determined a significant shift in strategic direction was necessary to remain competitive and viable. Following extensive consultations and market analyses, it had developed and implemented a five-year strategy built on new priorities and benchmarks. It was solid, achievable and, he said, would usher in a new era of growth for the company.
Yet instead of sharing a success story with me, he was asking for advice. It had been several months since the reorganization and implementation, and results to date had not met expectations. The failure, as he saw it, rested mainly on the shoulders of one particular individual on the leadership team.
This individual had been with the organization in a leadership role for more than a decade. He had made a significant contribution to the growth and success of the company up until the implementation of the new strategy. This person was highly competent in their area of expertise, but had struggled to meet expectations in the wake of the change in direction. There had been some attempts to discuss his performance, but sensing no progress on his part, the consensus among executives was that it was time to part ways. The question put to me was would I assist the company in its search to replace him?
Having completed hundreds of successful executive search efforts over the years, I began asking a series of questions to understand the profile of the ideal candidate. Specifically, I wanted to understand the severity of the situation and the characteristics or essential skills that an individual would need to succeed in the role. As we talked about requirements and this particular individual, it seemed to me he in fact had many of the essential technical skills to excel in that position, even with the organization’s new focus. I also sensed some degree of reluctance to replace him, given his history with the company. In that light, I asked the executive if he thought it was possible this person could change his behaviour? Could we teach an old dog new tricks?
We started not by looking at the individual, but at the direction the organization had set, and whether the role he was in supported the new strategy. Once we established what the organization expected or needed from that role, we were able to map out the essential qualities and skills that a person would need to fill it. Next, we conducted a capability assessment, taking the individual’s past performance reviews into account, along with feedback from his peers and bosses. It was becoming clearer that he possessed many of the fundamental skills to thrive in this position, but there were definite gaps, and all evidence suggested they could be overcome through training. But would this individual be motivated to undertake that training?
Typically, motivation has two components: an internal desire to achieve something, and external pressures to make it happen. In some cases, the individual has the desire: they know their strengths and weaknesses and they take the initiative. In other cases, the person makes the change because the organization asks him to, or because he wants to keep his job and pay the bills. The failure of previous conversations suggested that any motivation for this individual to change would be external, not internal. It was a calculated risk, but we determined that the pressures of being out of work and making ends meet might provide the right motivation him to grow into the role.
At the same time, it was vital that the organization support him in making this change. It had to be honest about its concerns – the things he needed to change. It also had to give him enough time and a certain amount of control or choice over how he developed his skills. Control is an important consideration because it encourages the individual to buy into change. The more control a person has over how they develop skills, and how they meet the expectations of the role, the more likely they are to take ownership over their development. With that support firmly in place and communicated, we took a calculated risk that this individual would demonstrate the necessary commitment and motivation to fill his skills gaps, and the role.
Nearly a year has passed since then and I’m happy to say that this individual rose to the challenge. Over time, the need to change was balanced by a desire to change, and when he completed his training, he made it clear what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it, to support the company’s new direction. In turn, the company supported him at every stage of training, and gave him constant feedback on his progress to help him shift his behaviour. It also collected feedback from multiple stakeholders after the fact, to gauge the extent and success of his transformation. The result is a win for everyone. The individual is experiencing more satisfaction and investment in his work, and the company has retained a talented individual with integral corporate knowledge.
Does this story suggest you can teach old dogs new tricks? It depends on the situation, the individual’s motivation and your willingness to see it through. If all the essentials are well aligned, you can retrain and retain executive talent. Which means you avert a crisis and have an invaluable asset that assists you in the growth of your organization.
Jeff Forbes is a Vice President at Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading human capital solutions firm. He has extensive experience in successfully recruiting talent for organizations of all sizes throughout our region.