In nearly all highly successful culture change efforts (89%), the CEO focused the workforce on a future vision, one so vivid that most could see themselves as part of it. That vision was buoyed by a commitment of organizational resources as well as the CEO’s own personal resources…namely time, attention, and action. Innately, most CEOs understand this, yet in practice it can be hard to apply. The temptation to find fault, ridicule past decisions—and more commonly—blame predecessors is often too great.
To illustrate, consider two contrasting introductions of new CEOs to iconic tech companies.
In April 2009, Yahoo! hired famed Silicon Valley CEO Carol Bartz to take the company to a better future. She immediately began her tenure by pointing out past mistakes and perceived weaknesses. In her first all-company meeting shortly after taking the helm, she “threatened any employees who leaked information to the press with a one-way ticket to a faraway place, by way of her heels, however stiletto’d,” according to Observer.com
In her first conference call with investors, Bartz said, “We have good engineers but have to hire more and get them focused on the right stuff,” signaling to the engineering staff they had been focused on the wrong stuff all along in her opinion. She went on to say, “we sort of had a one product management person for every three engineers. So, we had a lot of people running around telling engineers what to do but nobody is f***ing doing anything.”
Unsurprisingly, the workforce didn’t appreciate hearing they weren’t doing anything before her arrival and never warmed up to Bartz. She was fired two and a half years later. The blame game continued on her way out, with Bartz saying, “These people f***ed me over. The board was so spooked by being cast as the worst board in the country. Now they’re trying to show that they’re not the doofuses that they are.”
Contrast that with Satya Nadella’s inauguration as CEO of Microsoft. In Nadella’s initial letter to the employee base at Microsoft, he wrote, “there was no better company to join if I wanted to make a difference. This is the very same inspiration that continues to drive me today.” He went on to say, “Our industry does not respect tradition—it only respects innovation. This is a critical time for the industry and for Microsoft. Make no mistake, we are headed for greater places . . . as we start a new phase of our journey together.”
He concluded by writing, “Many companies aspire to change the world. But very few have all the elements required: talent, resources, and perseverance. Microsoft has proven that it has all three in abundance. And as the new CEO, I can’t ask for a better foundation. Let’s build on this foundation together.”
The differences in the two approaches are striking. While Bartz was lauded initially for her “no pulled punches” approach, she focused squarely on the past in describing why the culture needed to change. She pointed out all the things Yahoo! had done wrong and what needed to be fixed. Nadella’s workforce communication was markedly different. He purposefully didn’t dwell on the past and instead painted a vision for a future the employee base could resonate with.
When renovating a culture, taking on a new team, or even leading a new project, if a future vision is weak or ignored, you can expect the results to follow the same path.