LEADING IN UNCERTAINTY: HOW TO APPROACH SACRED COWS
If you’re like the leaders I’ve spoken with in the past week, then chances are you’re getting some pressure from above to kill a “sacred cow” or two. When people talk about “killing a sacred cow” in business, they mean addressing something or someone that has previously been untouchable, above criticism and beyond question.
Examples of sacred cows might include a manager who is allowed to treat people badly because he delivers financial results, a pet project of the CEO that does not fit with the strategy, or an unprofitable product that still survives because it was once a shining star, amongst a whole host of others.
By necessity or desire, there’s a renewed interest by boards, senior management and other stakeholders to look closely at all available options to survive COVID, and to come out the other side in good shape. Things that were previously off the table are now firmly on it. If you haven’t yet experienced this kind of pressure from those you’re accountable to, then it’s likely you will soon.
How do you approach the subject of sacred cows with your people? How do you lean into this subject given the sensitivities, discomfort and potential consequences? The three principles below can get you started.
Set the context
To begin a conversation about sacred cows, you need an inciting incident, a safe space, and a very large dose of empathy.
The inciting incident is the specific context that makes this conversation critical right now. Of course, it will very likely be related to the impact of COVID on your business. Perhaps your revenue has diminished, or your business model is under threat, or your services are no longer in high demand. Let your team know clearly and transparently; why is this conversation critical? Why now? What are the consequences of doing nothing?
Providing a safe space for the conversation is essential. You’re trying to discuss previously undiscussable subjects, so you will need to convince your team that it’s safe to do so. The best strategy is to go first and go big. Pick a sacred cow that demonstrates how serious you are; ideally it will be something that no one expects you to offer up for discussion. Done well, this one simple action will encourage everyone to lean in.
Empathy provides the grease to the wheels of this conversation. It’s very likely that at least some of your team will be adversely impacted by the consequences of any decisions you take. Perhaps you will decide to stop a project that team members have invested in very deeply, or maybe you’ll decide to shut down a department that is no longer viable.
Even discussing such subjects will make people fearful and anxious. Rather than pretend everything is fine, acknowledge the concerns your team will naturally have. Remind them that it’s better to try and affect the future, no matter how difficult, rather than wait for it to run over them.
Articulate the problem you’re trying to solve
Paradoxically, the best way to encourage a wide-ranging conversation on sacred cows, is to be very specific about what excellence looks like. Like football, your conversation will work much better if the goal posts and boundary lines are very clear to everyone, right from the outset. What problem are you trying to solve, really? The problem is not to “kill some sacred cows”; that’s a potential pathway to an outcome.
It’s likely that COVID has had a detrimental impact on your financial performance, so the problem may be to reduce operating costs by $X, or replace $Y in lost revenue. If this is the case, make that objective crystal clear. Perhaps your board or senior management want to use this crisis to accelerate towards a new business model; one that is more digital. In this case, the problem is twofold; to come up with ideas that could actually accelerate the future, and also to convince your stakeholders that you’ve taken this challenge very seriously.
Whatever the problem or problems you are trying to solve for, be specific and explicit. Convening a brainstorming session on sacred cows, with no target and no parameters, is an abdication of leadership and will end poorly.
Reaffirm your identity
Any conversation about sacred cows should be anchored in the DNA of your organization; your sense of purpose, your aspirations for the future, and what you value most as a team. The aim is threefold; to provide a sense of stability before you tackle a subject that will create more instability; to encourage a collective motive, rather than individual agendas; and to remind everyone of who you are at your very best.
Once you’re into the conversation, refer back to your DNA regularly; how does addressing this sacred cow advance your sense of purpose? How does it reinforce your values? How does it promote your aspirations for the future? The more you anchor to your DNA, the more comfortable your people will feel to tackle sensitive subjects with such significant consequences.
I hope these three principles will help you to engage in a constructive conversation about sacred cows, and to make some critical decisions that move your organization forward.
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