Burning Platforms: Leverage…Don’t Extinguish!

Leverage them, don't hide them!Burning platforms.  We’re all familiar with them.  Plummeting growth. Product failures.  Labor difficulties.  Gross leadership abuses.  The list of potentially catastrophic business issues could go on and on.

One of the most difficult aspects of change leadership is creating a burning platform, a compelling and widely accepted need for your organization (and the individuals making it up) to embrace the pain and discomfort of a change.  Without a burning platform, individual contributors will likely dismiss the need for change.  Whether through active resistance or simply by failing to take action, these individuals typically sink the change efforts.  To put it bluntly, the cost-benefit of undergoing a shift isn’t there.

Hopefully, this isn’t a revelation to anyone.  After all, over 70% of all change efforts end up in the “failure bin.”  And frequently, these failures are chalked up to that ever persistent “employee resistance.”  But are the employees truly to blame?

In most cases, employee resistance merely masks a deeper and more ominous failure – the inability (or unwillingness) of leaders to leverage burning platforms.  It’s smoke and mirrors, folks, to blame employees for change failures.  If you’re a leader, stop doing it!

Let’s look some of the beliefs and statements that allow leaders to ignore or mask the extent of crises in organizations…

  • But my company is a good company.”  Fantastic!  Congrats!  Now, get over yourself!!!  Too often, leaders don’t recognize that all organizations face crises.  Oh sure, there are time of relative tranquility, but sooner or later, all organizations must change.  Leaders who are afraid to face those challenges should get out of the leadership business.  Tough times and tough decisions are inevitable.  If they were not, there would be little need for strong leadership.
  • My job as a leader is to inspire, not be a Debby Downer.”  True!  But don’t let inspiration shield your employees from the realities of a situation.  If growth numbers are trending down at an alarming (and unsustainable) rate, you’re doing nobody any favors by understating the risks.  Inspired realism should be the goal!
  • Our whole industry is struggling.”  News flash!!  In this economy, nearly every industry is limping along.  Leaders should never rest on their laurels and simply accept that worn-out cliché.  If you’re operating goal is to merely keep pace with your industry, you’ve already sent a critical message of mediocrity to your followers.  Mediocrity, itself, should be the burning platform to engage the organization in change!
  • Painting the true picture shows my own failure as a leader.”  This is true…if nothing changes in your approach as a result of revealing the complete picture, warts and all!  The fact is, most employees already know when their company is struggling.  As a leader, one of the worst things you can do is to assume employees don’t already see the burning platform.  Even if the flames aren’t licking at their cubicles, the billowing smoke is already burning their eyes!  Don’t assume that you’re in a leadership position because you’re somehow smarter than everyone else…this may be true, but only in rare instances, and by rare I mean to imply that it’s probably not the case for you! (No offense intended….just painting the true picture for most of the population, leaders included).

Leaders, if your organization has a burning platform, your primary responsibility and accountability is NOT to protect your employees from it.  Weak leadership falls prey to the temptation to distract the organization from real problems, masking failures (instead of embracing them as learning opportunities), and resorting to positive spin in an attempt to convince others that everything’s going well.

A strong leader recognizes and leverages burning platforms to engage the organization at all levels in change.  Through transparent and acknowledgement of the true extent of problems, the leader demonstrates respect for employees and becomes even more effective in then inspiring followers toward a future vision of the organization.

So, stop being afraid of burning problems in your organization.  Seek them out. Embrace them.  And leverage them.  In the end, that will define your strength not as a change leader, but simply as a leader.

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