How to work with CEOs who resist change

by Corinne Canter

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote last week

One of the awesome questions prompted by the blog was …
what do you do when it is the CEO who is the bad apple?”

This is tough and while I don’t have any “silver bullet” answers, I can share some practical wisdom drawn from the ‘school of life’ working with CEOs who might have been described as the ‘bad apple’ because they did not see the value of culture. In some instances the CEO got there and lifted the culture to another level; in other cases, we didn’t get past the slide deck!

Traditional wisdom in response to this type of challenge is ‘build a compelling case, show ROI’. It makes sense right? Present the facts showing the need for change; what the benefits are, and quantify the value to the business. Certainly, the way to go if their reluctance is rational and logical. A solid, well-constructed argument is actually just good practice and always a good strategy. These are the conditions when this rational approach doesn’t work:

  • The CEO’s objection reflects a deeper more hard-wired belief that culture is a ‘featherweight’ amongst all other business levers.
  • While they haven’t named it as such, the CEO is actually after incontrovertible proof that it can work in your business. Alas, a great ‘fit for purpose’ culture doesn’t arrive in a flat pack with an allen key it’s a customized process of change. While there is ample evidence (reams of it in fact) often in this case what the CEO actually wants is a guarantee before investing. Not possible.

Disappointing when this happens? Of course but don’t give up, where there is your will there is a way.

1. Understand your leader and their why — is it skill or will that is running interference with their support?

  • If it is skill, it is likely they are motivated but need support to build their skill base in how to lead in this specific context. Easier to work with.
  • If it is will, harder to work with, but not impossible. Lack of will or appetite for culture change, effectively means the CEO does not want to see or cannot see any value in it. The mere mention of culture may trigger irritation, red flushes of annoyance, and eye rolling. The most important thing, in this case, is to just engage.(see below). Before doing that, you first need to understand the world from their perspective. The test of whether you really understand where they are coming from is that you can describe your understanding of their perspective to their satisfaction, not yours.

2. Look to connect rather than “tell” or “sell”.

Drop your agenda, detach from your ‘ideal’ of what you think needs to happen. Start a conversation for no other reason than simply to connect, find the common ground that makes sense to you both and enables you to authentically and truly align.

  • One of the ways I have found to do this practically is to consciously ‘level’ up as you converse. If the discussion is at tactics level, for example, go up one level to goals. If the goals aren’t aligned, go up one level to outcomes, and from there to principles or values and so on. There will be something to agree with if you are open to it. Watch closely, listen carefully, suspend judgement. Meet them where they are. Not where you want them to be.
  • Start with you. Ask yourself how “How am I getting in my own way and theirs?”. Don’t get caught in the backwash of your own drama. Treat it seriously but hold it lightly. A bit of humour goes a long way in helping everyone get perspective.

3. Focus on the ‘long game’ and realise that the change process you are attached to, may not be how it actually happens. Cultural change is an emergent process.

Cultural change is a marathon, not a sprint! It requires the collective will of all the people in the organization to do properly, it takes a compelling vision, clear process, solid commitment, and patience. People process change at different speeds and in different ways, and not, unfortunately, on our timetable! (Learnt that the hard way). If the CEO is not enthusiastic then they just may not be ready! So switch your focus to ways in which you could facilitate ‘readiness’. The best way to do this is to broaden their world view.

  • Invite external credible speakers (thought leaders and other industry CEO’s) to meet and speak.
  • Create internal case studies. The CEO may not be ready but one their direct reports is! Fabulous Carpe Diem! Focus on creating an internal reference and proof point. Focus on making this work.
  • Can you create a ‘grass roots’ movement within the organisation in a different way?

4. Remember that resistance can be a form of adaptation.

While on the surface it looks like you might not be getting anywhere, and it feels more like death by a thousand paper cuts at times, your leader may surprise you, when you least expect it. Sometimes CEOs need a verbal wrestle in order to think out loud and process information to arrive at insight. It sounds critical but they are processing. Be patient, focus on staying with their thinking, rather than winning the argument. Resist tripping into a point-counterpoint conversation. (this is where ‘levelling’ up is handy to help avoid this pitfall).

In my experience there is really no escaping the “groan zone” in any change, It isn’t the change that kills you, it’s the transition! It is messy, ambiguous and frustrating, no matter how well planned or how fantastic the theory. Rather than seeing it as a problem, expect it, prepare for it and understand that working through the groan zone IS the transformation. This is where we learn new ways of working and increase our tolerance for ambiguity and difference. Sometimes our groan zone, as ‘agents of change’, starts early and with a CEO who is not on the same page.

Finally, the reality is that these strategies do not always work, and you may eventually need to decide if this is the right place for you. Just before you get there though, redirect your efforts in working with the CEO by focusing on the one thing you can control, your mindset and your choices

About the Author: Corinne Canter is a Senior Consultant with Human Synergistics Australia. She has over 25 years of working with leaders to create high performing, toxic free teams and workplace cultures.

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Originally published at on February 15, 2017.