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The new leader’s purge

Dec 17, 2017 Leadership, Management

As a leadership advisor, I am often left pondering a common phenomenon: when a new leader arrives in office, what inevitably follows is a purge of the followers of the old one.

I have seen it many times over the years: a new leader is appointed; and all those associated with the old regime must now tremble with fear knowing their time, too, is probably over. And usually, it is.

A sweep-out ensues. Sometimes it is done in one swift move; sometimes the loyalists of the old dispensation are picked off one by one. Either way, the top leadership team looks completely different in a relatively short space of time.

Why is this? In political office it is perhaps understandable. Politicians occupy a world of scheming, betrayals and mistrust. They are unlikely to believe in any person they find in situ when they ascend to new office. They will be suspicious about loyalties and they will take the first opportunity to remove any influential persons on any pretext. It is the nature of their game.

But why does this same phenomenon occur in the corporate sector? Why do so many new CEOs end up removing every remnant of their predecessor’s team and installing a completely new one? Why do so many bring in their key people from their former organizations?

In some situations this is understandable. If the organization is demonstrably incompetent and the new leader has been brought in to chart a new path, new people will inevitably be needed. If massive malpractice has occurred and the old CEO has been removed for misconduct, it would be difficult for a fresh leader to gauge how far the rot might have gone.

But those are not the only situations in which ‘new leader purges’ are observed. It seems to happen in very successful organizations, too. I see very accomplished executives also expecting to be moved on by a new leader, simply because that is what we all know will happen.

This demonstrates an immaturity: in our leaders and in our institutions. New leadership should be a time for hope and renewal, not bloodletting and bitterness. There are relatively few situations in which purges are really needed. So why are we so accepting of them as a universal phenomenon?

If an organization is established and successful, a clean sweep of the old guard can actually be destructive. Yes, some folks may represent a rigidly redundant way of doing things, and should gently be moved on. But the old guard are not always blockers and laggards; they can also be the institutional memory of the organization and the guardians of timeless values. They have often put in long and honourable service, and do not deserve sudden ignominy.

A great leader examines every player on the team on his or her merits. A great renewal is very often achieved by combining the new with the old, analogue with digital, revolutionary with traditional.

Satya Nadella is leading exactly such a renewal at Microsoft. In his new book Hit Refresh he describes how he came in to the top job when Microsoft was at an impasse, and needed to chart a new path. It would have been very tempting for him to dismiss his predecessor’s old team and bring in an entirely new one, with skill-sets fit for the mobile-first, cloud-first, artificial-intelligence driven future that he was championing.

He did not do this. In his own words, the best transformations come from within. He realized that he needed to convince the old Microsoft to change, not create a new one from scratch. He therefore began blending old hands with new, and set himself the more difficult task of changing culture, not just imposing a new one aligned with a new strategy.

I wish more leaders were this thoughtful. Too many come in breathing fire and wielding axes, ready to burn and slash. Too many imagine people are only loyal to those who appoint them. Too many impose new strategies rather than instil and inspire them.

This is not an argument to hold on weakly to people who should be moved on. A good leader is empathetic when necessary, but also ruthless when needed. If a key person is genuinely suspect or obdurate, a tough conversation is probably needed. But great leadership is not built on stereotypical thinking; it comes from a clear view of merits and demerits, and from an open mind when it comes to performance assessment.

(Sunday Nation, 17 December 2017)

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