Many of us remember the Pygmalion story of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower-seller who was turned into a social experiment by Professor Henry Higgins, who bet a colleague he could turn this crass, accented person into a ‘real lady’.
Professor Higgins did his job, but Eliza didn’t let go of her spunk, and in the process, she changed Professor Higgins as much as he changed her.
There’s a message in here for us as we move through our leadership journeys. We will be asked to conform, to fit into cultural norms, and even to fit into suits of clothes and ways of being not entirely comfortable for us. What is the dividing line between adaptability, and losing exactly what makes you unique and valuable to your organization? It’s a question we hear asked again and again in both overt and subtle ways as we do our work. Let’s explore this enigma with five questions to ask yourself.
What does the organization most need from you? This is a good question for any employee to ask, but it takes on great significance in leadership roles. There is a reason you’ve been tapped for such a role – most often because there is an inkling that something you’ve got will serve the organization well. In the best scenarios, it’s additive – you have something that goes beyond effectively maintaining the status quo. It may be an entrepreneurial bent, or an ability to bring people together in a collaborative fashion, or great strategic intuition. It’s important to try to decipher this intrinsic or latent value that is seen in you.
On the other side of the picture, organizations are good at enforcing norms – even when they are counter-productive. One client correctly observed that his organization hired him because he was a no-holds-barred, speak-your-mind type and they needed to break through an overly harmonious culture. But boy, did he get nailed when he tried to exercise that style! All the forces aligned to try to make him into a consensus player and to not voice opposing viewpoints. At times like this, it’s important to remember what the organization needs – and why – and to gently help them to remember or discover what they really need from you.
What do you want from the organization, and is it capable of giving it to you? Eliza was offended by Professor Higgins’ bet that he could change her, but she also realized he could give her a future she couldn’t have as a Cockney flower girl. She used his efforts to advance her own interests. You have a choice to follow an employer’s program if you believe it aids your growth, or to leave if you believe interests aren’t aligned. A client, Marcia, decided to remain with a company that was trying to mold her into a much more risk-taking person than she was comfortable with becoming. But she recognized that her experience with the company offered her a way to learn for herself how to assess risk and make informed decisions. While she didn’t remain with the company for the long haul, she gained very valuable experience in a business skill she might not otherwise have been challenged to learn so completely.
How adaptable am I? Kevin became more and more convinced, as he saw how his new employer operated, that their approach was poor, and his approach was light years better. But they weren’t buying his story, and he wasn’t buying theirs. If you’re not willing to find your way inside a set of long-standing norms, you are unlikely to benefit from Henry Higgins. Better to save yourself the misery. To make good use of the Pygmalion story, you have to find the Golden Egg and sit on it until it hatches.
What does the transformation require of me? When employers ask you to stretch and grow, it can be a good thing, even if difficult. But employees should never be asked to stretch ethical boundaries. No transformation into a member of polite society is worth jeopardizing your reputation. Similarly, if asked to be disrespectful to or to disadvantage other people, you risk becoming known as someone who prioritizes your interests above others’, and it is over time a huge detriment to your reputation. It pays to step back and take a clear-eyed view of any nagging signals you sense.
Am I ready? Many factors play into this question of readiness to fully engage in an almost-certainly difficult period in your life. At its best, change is uncomfortable. When you are both bucking and becoming part of a change in a company’s norms, you’re in for a bronco ride. Both you and the organization will need to change, and you will not always be certain who’s in the lead at any given point in time. It’s wearying. You need to make sure your capacity for this drama is in good condition. Take stock of your personal as well as your work life to make sure you have the time, energy, and enthusiasm that will be needed to weather the inevitable ups and downs.
As you face a difficult transformational time, remember the lesson of Eliza and Henry – both had to change to make the transformation a success. Take a good look at whether you want to, can afford to, and are eager to not just experience the benefits of the change – but also to live through it.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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