You are a senior leader in an organization and have been newly promoted into an executive role.  You have been rewarded for your incredibly hard work, strategic thinking, initiative, limitless energy, and “can-do” attitude.  You are told that you are just the right person to make the changes needed to take the department you are inheriting to the “next level” in the future.

Candidly, you are a bit nervous as you move into the role as you know nothing about the area you now find yourself at the helm of, and did not pick the staff you are inheriting.  But you remind yourself that you are good at turning things around and seeing what needs changing.  You have been successful doing that so far, so there is no reason to panic.  You’ve got this.

Your immediate reaction is to do a quick scan of the organization and look for what’s wrong, so that you can instill change and “fix things”.  This will give you a sense of immediate accomplishment and you will receive validation for shaking up the status quo and making needed changes.

Sound familiar?

As someone who has lived and breathed working in organizations with leaders for the past 25 years both in an organizational development advisor capacity and as an executive coach, I have seen this scenario play out hundreds of times. Part of a senior leader’s role is to help lead an organization to morph, grow, and change and deliver results in an ever-changing environment.  Navigating complexity, shaping the future, and leading change in uncertainty are all necessary competencies a successful executive must have.

But there is one thing that is often grossly overlooked in the rush to make changes in the organization. It is absolutely critical to real rather than superficial results:

Understand the past and present context of the storyline that brought us here

Often when a new leader comes in with guns blazing, he/she makes the unintentional mistake of assuming everything the “leader before me” did was wrong.   That the way things were done in the past is all wrong, the staff is not competent enough, and that the changes he/she will make will set things straight and save the day.  This is the heroic posture that allows rationalization for change and feeds perhaps a deeper need for personal validation.  When everything done “before me” is framed as being inadequate in shambles, all the changes I make are improvements and add value.

Don’t get me wrong.  Growth and change is needed and is a constant.  But be sure to take the time to seek to understand and celebrate the present and the past rather than rushing to snap judgments about the inadequacy of it.  The present and the past are products of moments in time and circumstances, leadership, and the environment in that context.  As things evolve and change, the circumstances and environment changes, as does the need to do things differently.  That doesn’t make the present and past bad, or the people who made the decisions in the past incompetent.  It just indicates a natural evolution and growth complexity present in our ever-changing environments.

So be sure to ask yourself a series of questions to understand the evolutionary nature of the organization before jumping to make immediate changes.

 Seek to understand the past context that brought the organization to the present state. 

What was going on at the time this model or way of doing things was established?  What need was being filled?

What was the leadership climate?

What was the environment like?

Who were the players?

What was the culture and norms?

What results were the former leaders trying to achieve?

Deeply Listen to the “Why”

Why were the current employees selected for the roles they were in?

What drove the current behaviors?

What organizational and cultural norms are at play?

What do the employees see as possible?

What do they see as unwritten rules?

What can you celebrate and honor about the past and present before you move to shaping the future?

Doing a deeper dive and learning the contextual history without jumping to immediate judgment allows you to see what organizational story brought you to the current state and what new ones you need to write going forward.

You don’t need to rewrite the whole story, but you do need to understand it and honor it in order to write the next chapters.