Strategic leadership: Thinking destructively

Strategic leadership is that dynamic of leader behavior that focuses on a strategy of change, typically of an envisioned future state. What is less obvious and often missing is how to get from point A to Point B, Point C, and beyond. And what may be missing is thinking destructively.

Let me illustrate: Indra Nooyi’s 2019 retirement was announced in the Milestone section of the August 20, 2018 issue of Time. Who is she? PepsiCo’s CEO for the last 12 years. In 1996, she was all set to run European Operations for PepsiCo, but “then CEO Roger Enrico forbade it. She was needed for something else: to reconceptualize the whole company.” She did that and more. According to the article in Time, “Under her watch, PepsiCo became a more global operation, increased its social-consciousness footprint, and adopted some healthier options into its chip-and-sip portfolio” (Full disclosure: I trained in Dallas’ Frito-Lay – now in PepsiCo – for years and used to mingle with managers – under a confidentiality agreement – and hear their ideas about more healthy options while freely admitting that Cheetos was my favorite snack). Her long and “mostly successful reign” and willingness to own what it cost her and her family has “made her into an icon of women’s leadership.”  There has been some slippage in market share, but that may have been part of her strategy. As CEO, she has said, “you have to be willing to think destructively.”

In the last few days, that phrase has haunted my thinking, in a labyrinthine sort of way in and out, up and down. I have always been wary of tearing down structures or people in my management and leadership. As the saying goes, if it’s not broken, why mess with it?

But … in order to have things happen, for innovation to occur, for silos to fall, I had to think about what I felt was holding people or the organization back, what needed to be destroyed, deconstructed, or demolished. Ecclesiastes in the Bible puts it, “there is a time to tear down and a time to build up.”  And I know this: my very real fear of the “destruction” would often hold me back.

Here is a question to ponder: In your organization, what do you think needs to be destructed? And what are you doing about it?

Let’s say in your public power utility, you’ve hatched a vision or an action plan based on a new archetype of customer service: smart meters. You can come up with all kinds of business drivers: digital and technological advance, more accurate reading and billing, more thorough energy planning, more complete customer service. That’s constructive thinking.

Thinking destructively, what comes to the fore? Do customers want somebody, somewhere, monitoring them? What do we do with the visible pattern of human meter readers in the streets and alleyways of our city? What about the members of our own workforce who would protest about the changes wrought in their utility, let alone the kind of changes present in the new organizational structure to support automated metering infrastructure? What about those folks, full time or contract, who would be laid off or get their hours cut back?

To reach the vision of a new reality, think destructively. What has to change in the organization? Where will resistance to the change be strongest? What silos within the organization protect those layers of resistance? What old paradigm has to be torn apart? What new roles do you have to train your workforce in? Who is a possible loser?

Thinking destructively, you imagine the forces of resistance and you engage others in identifying those forces in a very real way. Why not pull together a cross-functional team, including those who will most likely oppose the change, perhaps even including union members or customers? Teach them how to listen and engage with each other. Bring in an expert on the new trend, someone who is equal “pull” (gathering ideas) and “push” (telling, lecturing). Ask the group to create a process through storyboarding, goal deployment, and stair-step, waterfall change, and then challenge them to sell the idea to others in the organization and in the community. And resist to the nth degree “reverse delegation,” where you take back the opportunity that you’ve given them. Let the group own the process.

Too often we blithely put on blinders to the change that we think should be obvious. After all, “the business is moving that way” and “everyone is doing it.” Without coming to grips with the dynamic of destruction in our midst, we overlook how demanding one more change might be. I will never forget a poster that announced in big, black letters over an outline of a 45 pistol, “go ahead and make one more change.” That poster made the rounds in a process industry when I was the team lead of the consultant group managing the work culture change!

Change would flow more positively if we could actively find ways to support a constructive tear-down of the way things are, face the fear of change in a human way, recognize our own vulnerability, and consider the destructive impact on the workforce of the changes envisioned from the beginning.