There are lots of jobs where you have to figure out what’s going on at a company. VCs have to do that to determine if an investment makes sense. Executives and management consultants brought in from the outside also have to figure out what’s going on if they ever hope to be effective.

Since those last two jobs are what I’ve done for a living the past couple of decades, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But the hardest thing to do hands down is to figure out the people.

Those who say corporations are not people are idiots. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s my honest opinion. And any senior level executive or consultant who hopes to bring about meaningful change at a company in trouble without delving into its culture and key people is bound to fail.

It’s always about the people and what makes them tick. It’s about their motives, their behavior, their issues, their strengths and, more importantly, their weaknesses.

Here’s a powerful example. Say you’re brought in to turn around a company. If you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t take long for you to figure out what the company’s problems are and what needs to happen to turn things around. But if you don’t answer, “How did they get here in the first place,” nothing you do will be effective.

You see, the company’s already run by very smart and accomplished people. And yet, they’re somehow behind its current sorry state. Just figuring out how it happened won’t enable you to effect change. You have to make them see what happened and help them figure out for themselves what needs to change and why.

Let me tell you something. When you walk into a shrink’s office, he knows what he’s dealing with by the end of the first session, more or less. But you still might require years of therapy. That’s not for him. That’s for you. That’s because logic doesn’t change behavior. Serious behavioral change can only occur at an emotional level.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. But then, that old saying is not about horses.

Flickr image Wilfred Smit

  • danomanion

    The power of psychology is amazing. At the end of the day, we are made up of our interpreted thoughts and perceptions. What a struggle it is to shift them in the right direction after we have been taken down the wrong path in a companies culture. Especially when there is a group dynamic that is tied to the past way of doing things.

    Thanks Steve!

    • Steve Tobak

      Funny how surprising it is to learn that leadership is all about human psychology but then, what else could it possibly be about?

  • Juli Bark

    So true, and the higher one goes in an organization the less it is about the technical skills and the more it is about the psychology of people. Quite odd that employees and students in general are not provided enough context, background or skill development in all aspects of human interaction…it’s not all second nature to a lot of people in the context of a corporate culture and business environments.

    • Steve Tobak

      Hmm … not sure it can be taught for sort of the same reasons. I know when I was younger it would have gone right over my head. Experience opens our eyes to this stuff.

      • Juli Bark

        Learning and teaching can take many forms. Doesn’t need to be formalized via an “MBA” course per se, but I know I would have benefited greatly from structured learning on the subject; great mentors can also provide insight and valuable perspectives. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same access to great leaders – there are only so many “Steve Tobaks” in world! 🙂

        I’ve interacted with a number of senior execs who were in their roles without the requisite “people skills” presumed to be a part of their tool bag as they were promoted.

        Great topic Steve!

        • Steve Tobak

          You’re right; I would have benefitted from more mentoring along those lines, as well. I think you’ll also enjoy today’s post: it brings controlling personalities — common among senior execs, as you probably know — into he picture.