When New Executives Should Color Outside the Lines

Whether you’re a rebel or a rule follower, when you step into a new executive role there will certainly be some points of organizational culture that you don’t agree with.

When that happens, should you go against the grain? Or should you look to build trust before rocking the boat?

bird-flying-away-from-flockIt’s a stressful position to be in, but you don’t have to go it alone; when we work with executives in new roles, it’s our job to help them understand and weigh the varying demands that an organizational culture, a charter, and an existing team will put on them. Having an objective perspective can lend clarity to the decision-making process, especially during the high-stress period of the first six months.

In that time, we typically encourage execs to “stay inside the lines” to avoid making a big cultural misstep (a leading indicator of impending executive failure) while gaining perspective, earning credibility, and building trust broadly.

But not always; staying inside the lines isn’t unquestionably the right call.

There are times when coloring outside the lines makes sense – when breaking even the most dominant cultural tenet can work for you.

Here’s how.

Break the Rules for the Better

Really, there’s one simple rule for coloring outside the lines: if you’re going to break the rules, make life better for people.

That’s the bottom line.

People are not resistant to change. People are worried about how change will affect them. Will change make life better, worse, or make no difference at all for their quality of life?

Make their first experience of change with you a good one.

Don’t break the rules to “make a statement,” out of personal preference, or because “that’s how things were” in your previous organization or role. Only break them if it will make people’s lives better.

It’s a simple filter for decisions. But it’s (surprisingly) often overlooked, and incredibly important.

Tactical Examples

Here are a few ways that principle should play out.

  • Working in an aggressive culture where only the loudest ideas get heard? Ask a quiet person a question and generously listen to them.
  • Working in a culture that has clunky business processes that reduce efficiency and force constant rework? Get in the trenches and help reduce redundancies; create efficiencies.
  • Working in a culture that punishes failure? Ask for autopsies without blame, accept a genuine explanation, give strong guidance, and solider on.

When you’re coloring outside the lines, make sure you’re making the picture better for others instead of creating a self-portrait.

Balance Bureaucracy With What’s Best

Coloring inside the lines gives you time to build relationships and trust before unnecessarily going against the grain of the culture. Often, it’s the best call.

But if the culture you’re in diminishes critical thinking, creative thinking, strategic action, and innovation, coloring outside the lines is exactly the right way to provide early wins for your team, making them more loyal, harder working, and more highly engaged.

Do that.

And if you’re looking for an expert and objective perspective on how the picture looks, we’re here to help.

We’ve worked with new executives at Fortune 100 firms and industry shifting startups. With a 100% assimilation rate, we help new executives succeed – whether that means building trust or breaking the rules for the better.

Emily Bermes

Emily Bermes

Emily Bermes is a management consultant who specializes in creating customized assimilation strategies for VP's, SVP and C-Suite executives in Fortune 500 environments. She also spends time assessing and course-correcting executives who have, for whatever reason, assimilated poorly. EBermes@BermesAssociates.com 260-417-9204 BermesAssociates.com

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