If You are a CEO, Reading this Will Make You Feel Proud, Angry or Guilty; If You Aren’t a CEO, Reading this Will Only Frustrate You (600 words)

By Marc Hardy, Ph.D.

For over 30 years I have been a professional speaker and trainer and I have learned a very important lesson: true, positive, permanent change can only start at the top with the CEO. Middle managers and front line employees are not going to be able to affect change or sustain it if the person that everyone answers to is not on board. If you are part of this very important and large slice of your organization that executes the directives but are not the CEO, president, executive director or chairperson, then I’m sorry. Your ideas will probably fall on deaf ears, no matter how enlightened they are.

Hitting Organizational Walls of Resistance

I learned this lesson through years of being hired by CEO’s and C-suite executives to train their subordinates on how to become better and more effective in their organization. The executives who hired me rarely attended, because in their opinion they didn’t have the time, thought they knew pretty much everything, didn’t want to mix with their subordinates, etc.. Training was for the underlings because they are the ones who really need it. The goal of said training was usually to increase the employees’ abilities in the areas of leadership, creativity, innovation, team-building, employee motivation and communication. In every case, most of the group returned to work with renewed vigor, filled with new and creative ideas, ready to set the world on fire. Until they ran into the proverbial organizational “walls of resistance”: a supervisor who is set in his or her ways, the boss who doesn’t want anyone else to get credit for a great idea, or a leader who believes they should use the knowledge they were taught, but only to the point to where it affects those in charge. These excited individuals soon found out that the leaders, especially the CEO, did not really embrace new ideas and change.

Don’t Waste Resources When You Don’t Care

Gradually, all the enthusiasm drains from these eager soldiers as they realize they have been played. They find out that no one really cares what they think and the training and education is just given lip service. After spending all this time, money and resources on employee development, the creative force that was once ignited dies, and those who were duped come to believe that the workplace will remain just the “same old, same old.”

The Deepening of Employee Dissatisfaction

Some employees who are “strongly encouraged” by superiors to attend trainings and presentations for professional development already know the drill. You know who they are by their lack of enthusiasm and constant eyeball rolls that I as a presenter know all too well. The tragedy is not that the status quo of mediocrity and cynicism returns. Even worse, it drops to a lower level than before. The disappointment that is experienced embitters employees and adds to whatever negative attitudes they already had about the organization and its leadership.

There is Another, More Productive Way to Lead

My hat is off to those leaders who understand the importance of leading positive change and who walk their talk. There are some very enlightened leaders emerging who embrace the creation of a positive culture and have had tremendous success. This is a result of their commitment to being people focused and they understand the new workplace dynamics that are becoming prominent in companies like LinkedIn, Quicken Loans, Barry-Wehmiller, and Facebook, to name a few. But they are in the tiny minority. If we truly want to create successful, sustainable organizations, from the top down we need to discard the old industrial model of negative cultures that no longer work in today’s world and adopt the new models of leadership based on compassion, people and positive psychology.

Marc Hardy, Ph.D. is the Director of Nonprofit Certificate Education in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a speaker and author of the “Leadership Through Sharing Fire” concept (www.SharingFire.com). He may be contacted at DrMarc@SharingFire.com.

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