HR and the Danger of the New Broom!

10 Nov

We are all probably familiar with “new brooms”. A new CEO or functional executive hired to shake up the organization, or hired because we believe he/she will bring a new vitality and resolve to make things better, while not being inhibited by unwritten “taboos” and allegiance to the status quo – people or entrenched ways of doing things.

I have worked with many new brooms and often HR plays a critical role in supporting the new executive and at the same time revitalizing HR in line with the new organization direction. This can result in dramatic transformation of the organization and increased business success, but if not handled well, the result can be negative and actually reduce business capability and competitiveness.

I am not against new brooms. Sometimes it is necessary to shake things up a bit. The danger, from my experience, is the new executive who cares more about consolidating his/her own power base than what is best for the organization. The type of new broom executive who gets rid of talent he/she does not see as loyal to the cause or to him/her personally. The type of person who gives no credit to anything that came before his/her regime.  This can include dismantling excellent programs and very often destroying a culture that may have been key to past success, but not his/her success. Excellent and highly productive employees may be terminated because they do not (opinion of the “new broom”) fit with the new team.

I have probably seen the most damaging examples of organizational cleansing in a sales environment.  The new sales executive arrives with great excitement and expectations. With earnest expression he/she lets everyone know that things will change (for the better) and no longer will such-and-such be tolerated. Usually with a grim expression and at lavish kick-off meetings, the new sales leader makes his/her pitch. The new era begins and heads start to roll and very often past colleagues of the “new broom” are hired to replace them.

Subtly (or not so subtly), the failings of the previous sales organization (and its executive) are broadcast and the scene set for any poor interim results to be blamed on the previous management.  The new leader focuses on cleansing the organization of its past sins even though the company record may be very credible. The more he/she focuses on past problems rather than forward vision, the more reason for concern.

The new broom is usually insistent on total control in setting up the new organization, and demanding total freedom to work “miracles”. The people he appoints as leaders within his team are usually smart, competent professionals.  They follow the party line, give the impression of being strong and independent, but, most of all, demonstrate that they are totally committed to the new leader. They are sales people; they are excellent role players and know the role they have to play!

The current sales force may have its misfits – mainly people strongly identified with the previous sales organization. Whether they are misfits based on their previous allegiance or their work style is another question. However, they usually include a number of very individualistic star players with strong egos developed over the years and integral to their success. They are not humble and generally not very respectful, but, nevertheless, they are stars and the company has benefited and can continue to benefit from and build on their excellence while, as necessary, diplomatically reining in some of their eccentricity.

You would think that the new sales executive would want to win over these high performers – flatter them, give them some kind of special status and take credit for their continuing success. Often the intent seems opposite and the new sales executive is prepared to sacrifice them as part of demanding absolute control and respect.  With all their imperfections, these feisty stars have a record of excellent sales, customer connections and relationships built up over years and the potential to continue to achieve.  They do not fit – they usually say – but in sales isn’t the most important fit the ability to achieve and sustain a superb sales record?

If the new broom is really so smart, don’t you think he/she should have the skills to manage and motivate all sales people – not just those in his/her own image – be able to integrate strengths from the previous regime into the new regime? If he/she is adamant about rejecting anything that came before, wouldn’t that be putting self-interest ahead of company results? Sadly, that often seems to be the case, and the new broom is ultimately terminated after he/she has dangerously affected the organization and before his/her vision has achieved anything meaningful. It is then time for another new broom to come in to rebuild and continuity and sustainability is again affected significantly by another round of change.

What do you think is the best position HR can take in such volatile environments?  It depends, of course, on how much trust we have in the new broom (after we get to know him/her). Whether we trust the person or not, we have to work closely with him/her to support when possible and to try to steer away from particularly questionable moves when we believe organizational interests are threatened. In some cases, the new broom may not want to work with HR, see HR as negative and obstructive, but we have to persist and maintain our HR credibility and integrity in all our dealings. The HR role comes with great responsibility and we must maintain our commitment to the organization, even though conflict with an executive (e.g. new broom) may be very unpleasant and our employment may be at risk at various points.

In some cases, we must share the guilt if we were directly involved in recruiting the new broom. We do what we can to make it work, for the new executive and for HR, but in many cases, it becomes a sad blip in the history of the organization that we are more likely to survive if we remain true to our HR principles. We will then become part of the recovery with some risk that the cycle may be repeated. What do you think? Should we be able to minimize such risks?

Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.

Ian

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