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Transient leaders kill culture for reasons you don’t realize

Some organizations go through CEOs and department heads like Kleenex. Today, the average tenure of a CEO is 4.6 years. In other cases, C-Suite leaders rotate out of the organization within 1 or 2 years, and a new leader is installed. And it’s always “This one is the right one – they’re bringing incredible experience/ideas/perspective to the organization.” They try to install a few changes that typically don’t stick, and are moved out in short order. Then the pattern repeats.

Why does this happen? Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations that are set. Other times, it actually may be a poor hire. But rotating leaders in and out costs your company much more than simply hiring bonuses. It kills culture in ways you don’t realize.

I spoke with a friend recently, who is working in an environment where they’ve had 5 new CEOs in the last 7 years. While some may view this issue as causing pressure, confusion, and constant priority changes for the organization, this wasn’t the core problem. The churn created inertia, where employees simply waited out the new CEO’s tenure, knowing they would be leaving soon, and any new idea or initiative would be killed by the next incoming CEO.

My friend’s analogy was spot on, stating, “It’s like a single mom that has another new boyfriend. As a child, you know it’s temporary. You don’t need to respect their authority or become close to them. You do what is necessary to appease them in the short term until they are rotated out by the next one.”

This is what kills culture. It’s not that the new hire might not be a great talent, have great ideas, be a great leader, or have a great vision. If there’s a track record in the organization where leaders come and go, the new hire won’t be successful because they are the proverbial “new boyfriend”.

Employees will fight to maintain the status quo and resist change, as any time they have in the past those efforts are short-lived, as the next leader upends them. And just like the new boyfriend, the same type of individual is picked every time, and the pattern continues. Leadership might not see it, but employees sure do. So while you may think you just haven’t found the right leader, often it’s the organization’s reaction to historical churn. And that cycle is incredibly hard to break.

Do yourself a favor and talk to your employees about what type of leader they want. Find out what has worked in the past and what hasn’t from their perspective. Identify employees internally that have the potential to take a leadership role in a few years, and determine what they need to get there faster. Take a different approach to finding a new leader, whether a temporary employee who is there to prep an internal staff member for the job, or even a totally different leader from outside the industry that signals it’s actually different this time. Otherwise, you’ll just churn through yet another boyfriend.

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of three books, including her most recent, What To Ask: How To Learn What Customers Need but Don’t Tell You, released in June 2022.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineEntrepreneur MagazineHarvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

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