"I'm all boxed in! All the drivers of my business are beyond my control!”

Years ago, I had a client who was CEO of a company whose main product was a high-tech plastic that held the guidance systems in the nose cones of ICBMs against the brutal gravitational forces that come with liftoff. The plastic, which was extremely strong, would change shape during liftoff to cushion the delicate instruments; then, when the missile reached its terminal velocity, the plastic would return to its original shape so the guidance system could function properly.

As the Cold War came to an end and the pace of new ICBM construction slowed, the company was faced with the question of what to do with its main product. In a truly magic transformation of mission, it became a major supplier for the running shoe industry. The plastic once used for missile systems was cushioning millions of feet against the pounding of running on city streets, returning after each step to its original shape to provide support for the next step’s takeoff.

One way to look at this transformation is through the lens of the classic question, “What business are we in? – nose cone parts or high-tech plastic cushioning material?” Another way to view it is through the lens of a CEO who asked “What wholly new possibilities exist for this company?”

It is the job of every leader to step outside of the box and identify a new range of possibilities for the organization. Choosing new goals and committing to them before you are sure about how to get there is the necessary first step. The “where” you want to go must come before the “how” you get there. If you start with “how,” the obstacles usually seem insurmountable. Until the CEO of the plastics company found a dramatically different market for its product, all of the “how” questions were irrelevant.

Boxed in, stuck in a cycle of doing the same thing and expecting a different result

Leaders sometimes find themselves in a situation in which they seem to have no good alternatives. They feel boxed in, and the strategies they have adopted to advance their personal or organizational goals are not working. They sometimes adhere to those strategies in the face of only incremental progress. And they do that knowing the old saw that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

In a period of massive change and disruption fueled by technology and an army of eager young entrepreneurs, this syndrome is not uncommon. Why is it so hard for many leaders to deal with change, even when it is taking place before their eyes? If you asked them and received an honest answer, many would say “I really don’t know what else to do.” In contrast, why do others make giant leaps that set their organizations on new paths?

The leaders who do not change usually explain that they cannot accommodate the new environment because they are hemmed in by external factors beyond their control – low-cost competition from emerging markets, insufficient capital to make the necessary investments, changes in customer tastes, unreasonable price competition, the failure of America to educate the great middle class of students to the standards of today’s economy, and on and on.

We see the same outlook in executives who are frustrated about their lack of personal advancement in the organization. A talented employee stops advancing because their boss doesn’t appreciate their accomplishments, or because they are not given opportunities to demonstrate their strengths, or because they didn’t go to the “right” universities, and on and on. They too are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But of course, others in the organization are advancing their careers. At some level, they know that they have to change their behaviors to achieve their personal goals. But they do not. Why is that?

To be sure, sometimes there is little we can do in the time allotted. But that is the case in a much smaller set of challenges than we often think. When there is still room to maneuver, what is it that keeps us from doing so? One motivation that I often see is grounded in the convenient conclusion that when the adverse drivers are beyond your control, you are not responsible or accountable for the result. You are a victim of circumstance and it’s not your fault – after all, you are doing your best under the circumstances. Of course, all any of us can do is our best. But what if what we are doing when we do our best is merely “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”?

When I became President of Pace in the summer of 2007, the university had experienced a long period of declining revenues, cost cutting, salary freezes and reductions in force. As is usually the case, the initial response of the remaining employees was to try to do all of the same work with fewer people by working very hard. Morale was very low. I developed a top-down three-year plan to deal with the immediate problems and set out to sell it in a series of departmental town hall meetings. My discussion was accompanied by a deck of PowerPoint slides, the last of which was, I am sure, the all-time least popular slide in the history of the university. It had one sentence – “Working hard is not good enough – we must have different results.”

My purpose was to communicate the obvious truth that that the higher education version of continuing to make high-quality plastic for a diminishing number of missile nose cones was not a path to success -that hard work is important but it is only valuable if it results in positive and tangible results. I sought to re-orient everyone from the dispiriting rut of working extremely hard and knowing that it was not accomplishing much to thinking about what bold steps we should take to change our trajectory. Over time we changed almost everything: our market positioning, our answer to the crucial question “why should a student come to this university,” our enrollment process, the student experience, parts of the curriculum and the university-wide management culture. In the end, we were successful in lifting the university’s enrollment, its performance and its reputation.

Coaching makes leaders aware of the box they have built that restricts their vision, that the strategies they are using are not working, and that there is usually a range of possibilities that they have not explored. Once new possibilities are identified, together the coach and the leader chart a path to achieve one or more. The leader embraces accountability for the result.

Success is not certain. But with a leader whose emotional energy, talent and experience are bent toward positive, carefully planned steps, the future can be much brighter.

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I welcome your thoughts, comments and reactions.

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