Executive coaches are frequently asked whether people can change. I mean, truly change. I, for one, haven’t seen evidence that a core personality is all that malleable. That said I’ve seen countless examples of people deliberately choosing new behaviors in order to become more effective. While their essence doesn’t change, their strategies, approaches and interactions do. This is a foundational premise of executive coaching.
The Harder Question
The harder question people ought to pose is whether that on its own is enough. In truth, I have seen execs work assiduously and successfully cultivate new behaviors – say, after receiving a tough 360-degree feedback report – and later garner minimal if any outward acknowledgment. More than once, I’ve seen perceptions so stuck an exec picked up and left for another company to start fresh.
A pair of recent articles shed some light on why it might be hard to deliberately change how one is perceived at work.
The first, from Wharton, offers dueling professors considering whether Starbucks’ logo change might hurt its business. As you may have noticed recently, the Starbucks siren is sporting a new simplified look, with no outlines or text. Nope, it doesn’t even say “coffee” anymore. Why? CEO Howard Schultz explained the logo change signifies it’s move away from offering just coffee in predominantly English-speaking markets.
It’s a fraught move. There are numerous examples of loyal customers rejecting new company logos. Both Tropicana and The Gap failed in recent attempts. In fact, it was the most loyal customers who expressed the most negative reactions. Why? That brings us to the second article.
In Why Innovation Doffs an Old Hat, Joshua Brustein frames a dilemma facing designers of all kinds of new products. That is, to what extent must they incorporate vestigial elements of older versions to keep the new ones acceptable? Examples he cites include the familiar shutter snap sound a digital camera makes and the turning-page animation displayed when swiping fingers across an iPad. When you think about it, both of these effects are superfluous. Brustein cites Urbanscale’s Adam Greenfield as explaining that a new innovation still must “correspond to the emotional expectations” the customer possesses of the existing product.
Isn’t this true about the people we work with, as well? Every exec has a brand in the organization. “Brian’s great with the numbers, but doesn’t inspire his team.” Or, “Audrey’s so strategic; it’s too bad she struggles on implementation.” Now, what if Brian indeed tackles the challenge of engaging his team or if Audrey rolls up her sleeves to try a deep dive. Will stakeholders abandon their emotional expectations of the execs and begin to see and describe them differently? Will they even notice the changes?
If you are an exec seeking traction, you will need to formulate how to make sure the changes you’ve undertaken strike root.
How? I’ll tackle this in my next post. Stay tuned.