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By Troy Holt
Bringing a new chief executive into an agency can be an opportunity to take the organization to new heights. A careful and thoughtful integration can ensure that both the executive and the organization become synchronized and successful. This can lead to increased productivity, employee satisfaction and higher citizen approval ratings.
The Culture Challenge
A critical factor in integrating a new leader is helping him/her learn about and adapt to the culture of the organization. There are four challenging aspects of culture for the new executive. The first is to learn the norms and values— what is important to the organization and how people behave. The second is to learn the decision-making and political environment. Third is to learn how things actually operate to effectively get things done. Finally, once the new leader has some understanding of the culture, he/she must walk the fine line of being different, but not so different as to be rendered ineffective.
Be Open to Positive Changes
Make sure the new CEO understands the successes that have resulted from a positive culture. Encourage the new leader to keep the elements of the culture that are working, but be open-minded to allow the new CEO to make enhancements. Remember that all employees need the opportunity to make the culture their own – the CEO is certainly no exception.
One trap to avoid is the belief that the current culture is perfect. Make sure that “preserve our culture” doesn’t really mean, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” A great culture is one that is open to continuous improvements.
In their book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, offer these steps to help the new leader understand what has worked and what hasn’t:
Your Brain on Change
We can derail even the best integration plan for a new leader if we don’t pay attention to how our brains are affected by change. Change can be stressful. The introduction of a new leader into an organization can trigger reactions in our brains, and an understanding of those reactions can help us recognize and cope with the change.
David Rock developed the SCARF model of social rewards and threats, which provides a framework for understanding how our interactions affect us in very deep ways. SCARF is an acronym for key needs that help people navigate the social world in the workplace:
These five elements are environmental factors that the brain is always monitoring, mostly below conscious awareness, and activate either the “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry in the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks as a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.
While all the elements of SCARF are constantly present in our brains, we should pay particular attention to status, certainty and relatedness and take these steps:
In Group / Out Group Dynamics
We all make a decision about each person we interact with and place them in the “in group” or the “out group.” When a person is in our “in group,” we process what he/she is saying using the same brain networks as our own thoughts. We process communication from an “out group” person in a completely different brain network. This is the neurobiology of trust, teamwork and collaboration. It feels good to be with “in group” members, but we treat everyone as a foe until proven otherwise. Take responsibility for getting to know the new leader. Don’t wait until he/she comes to you. Remember that he/she will unconsciously feel a part of the “out group” at first. Help the new leader move through that stage and you’ll be helping yourself do the same.
A new leader can infuse a renewed sense of purpose into an organization. A good integration strategy can help the new leader be swiftly more effective. Remember that we all experience SCARF brain reactions and the new leader is no exception. We can help smooth the new leader’s transition by taking opportunities to build a relationship and help the leader understand the key aspects of the organization. We can smooth our own transition by remaining open minded to the vigor and excitement a new leader can bring to an organization to take it to a greater level of success. Keep focused on the fact that we (especially the new leader) all want the same thing — increased productivity, employee satisfaction and higher citizen approval ratings.
Author: ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-five years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office. He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, California, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work. He is also a member of the ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education and can be reached via email at [email protected], followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/tgholt.