Old Life, New Life

Your past is not your future. Let it go.

In Leadership, Turnaround by Stephen Zakur0 Comments

I’ve led a half-dozen organizations during the past decade and each one had unique challenges to overcome: operations in disarray; technology that wasn’t functioning right; messy data; right person, wrong job; wrong person. In each of these situations a shift was needed and that shift often required change across the business platform. And in most cases it required a significant shift in the mindset of leaders. Some are capable of the shift, some are not. But unless a leader can personally move forward free of the anchors of the past, they can’t help the organization move to the future. Leadership teams need to move forward.

Lingering Leadership Teams

As I’ve worked with various leadership teams, I’ve learned quite a bit about the sources of resistance to change.  Often the most challenging change is not technical, process or personnel. The greatest impediment to change is the voice in our own heads.

I know that’s not a new thought. Organization Change Management literature delves deeply into the subject of changing attitudes and culture to unlock and shift groups of people. But even in the middle of the most artfully constructed change processes, the phantoms of our past haunt us; they compel us to dwell on what got us to where we are and not what is going to get us where we’re going.

You see this behavior most notably in the words of leaders.

  • “I know we’ve missed our past x quarters of sales targets but, we’ve historically underinvested in the sales platform because we were wedded to yesterday’s process and technology. It makes it difficult to move forward”
  • “I’m really excited about the new infrastructure program and I think our systems we be more reliable. In the past, we’ve dropped the ball on availability but the expense pressures we’ve been under left us no choice.”
  • “I’m really excited about the new personnel program that allows managers to make the best choices about people and job roles. I know I don’t have the right people in the right jobs but the hiring freeze forced me to keep people in jobs even if they were poor performers.”

What’s interesting about the quotes above is both when they were made and their frequency. Each of the statements reflects a leader’s thoughts after we’ve chosen a new path. Each expresses excitement about the future but also contains an apology, perhaps even an excuse, for past performance. And they’re not just said once, they’re repeated almost every time we talk about our future.

It’s not the excuse that I mind, it’s the fact that the past still occupies such a large part of our mindshare. And if it occupies our mindshare, it’s going to occupy the mindshare of our people. They can’t move forward if we can’t move forward.

How to move on

The past is great context. It helps us understand why things are what they are and has likely informed where we’re going. But leaders have to leave it behind. I don’t have any magic bullet for making that happen. For many of us, it’s just discipline. When you find yourself meandering into the past, you consciously steer yourself back on track. You watch your language. You more carefully plan communications. You make sure your actions match your language and that both are focused on the path forward.

For others, those wounds of the past are far deeper. Removing those lingering notions may require coaching from a good mentor, the counsel of a trusted friend, perhaps even professional coaching or counseling. For some, it may mean moving to a new job.

Yes you can

I recently spoke to a friend who left a role where she was unhappy. Some of it was disagreement with the future path of the organization but I believe that much of her dissatisfaction was due to the trauma of having worked in an organization during difficult times. She could have stayed and toughed it out, she’s a talented leader, but her switch put her in a new position with a new context. She’s now happier and in a position to perform without the baggage of the past.

The constant retelling of our past errors keeps us awash on the shoals of mediocrity. We have to shed those mental anchors that prevent us from accelerating to the future. We must expunge lingering references to our past and talk only of what will make us better.

We are not our past. Let’s move on.

About the Author

Stephen Zakur


Steve Zakur is a technology and operations executive who transforms organizations into digital leaders using agile methods for both software development and business execution.

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