People hate change. They dislike it so much that otherwise nice people will resort to some uncharacteristic behaviors — gossiping, lying and personal defamation against the person leading the change. This is a real threat to senior executives, especially those involved in organizational turnarounds.
Important progress can be slowed or derailed. Executive careers can be tarnished if not ruined.
This negative phenomenon is not new. In fact, evidence can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible. What is new is that we live in a digital age where malicious rumors and gossip can be spread, sometimes anonymously, over the Internet like wind-fed wildfire. It can blow up so fast that an unsuspecting, perhaps naive, executive can be tried and convicted before they are aware that the malignant campaign to discredit them even exists. Their attention, after all, is focused on more pressing issues.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, including the opponents of change, those who typically use a leader’s weaknesses to stop that which they distrust and makes them uncomfortable. Now here is where I think executives can and must do a better job in protecting themselves against repetitional attacks — they must become more self aware and to begin using the digital tools and modern communications strategies to their advantage. Unfortunately, far too many CEOs, especially those who engage in challenging business turnarounds, are so focused on their plan that they fail to insulate themselves from the inevitable pushback. In fact, it is surprising how many CEOs reject any involvement in social media activities until they have lost their job and are looking for a new one.
Years ago, during the course of a major CEO search, an extraordinarily qualified candidate disclosed a background issue that was potentially problematic. He was such a superb candidate that I refused to eliminate this individual from the field. I disclosed it to the board of directors and, with an open mind and the recognition of this person’s outsized talent, they asked me to vet the issue more thoroughly. In the end, he got the job. Ultimately we made the decision to disclose the background issue, no longer material to leadership performance, because we knew that those who would most certainly oppose the changes that had to be made — some entrenched employee groups — would use it against the executive when it inevitably surfaced. They would have attacked the leader using the information as a blunt weapon to slow or halt changes and they would most certainly have accused the board of an unconscionable cover-up. We neutralized that issue and this executive went on to lead a highly successful turnaround.
The advantage in this situation is that we knew about the issue and took action. Far too often executives are the last to learn that they are the targets of a smear campaign. They frequently find themselves in a reactive mode and that alone can aggravate the bad optics even more.