Old Guard vs. New Guard

What to do when worlds collide

It is not controversial to say that as organisations grow, and as the circumstances in which they operate change, that the organisations must also change in order to remain effective. The ways things are done, the foundational beliefs and assumed priorities, all need to change. In other words, the culture needs to evolve.

So, how does an organisation successfully undertake a program of cultural change? I write about the broad factors that are necessary in a previous article.

In this piece, I wanted to zoom into one of the more uncomfortable and therefore less often discussed aspect of cultural change. This is turmoil that is caused when the “old guard” and “new guard” of an organisation clash during a period of cultural change.

An Uncomfortable Truth

In my experience, cultural change is very difficult to effect without some turnover of personnel. This takes two forms:

  1. Bringing in new people who have the experience and belief in the culture that you aim to create.

  2. Exiting people who are either unwilling or unable to go on the journey to the new culture and way of doing things.

Why is this the case? There are two reasons.

The first reason is that as a leader, it is much easier to get a new way of doing things to take effect if you have people inside your team who already have experienced the new way of doing things. This is experience they will have gained elsewhere, so this normally requires external hiring.

The second reason is that you are trying to change culture, and culture has an immune system. Despite your leadership role and positional authority, if there is a critical mass of people representing the old culture, your changes will be rejected as though they were a foreign organ. So, it is important to dilute the effect of the existing culture, and especially to remove the “white blood cells”: those members of the Old Guard who are actively resistant to change.

I wish it wasn’t this way, but in both my experience and my observation, it is the reality of the matter. So for the rest of this post, I will offer some suggestions for how to deal with this difficult transition for the three groups involved: the leaders, members of the New Guard, and members of the Old Guard.

For Leaders: Be Honest & Buckle Up

The worst thing a leader can do in this situation is to downplay the magnitude of change and disruption that is going to happen. This is not the kind of “underpromise and overdeliver” you are looking for.

Be honest and clear with your team. Explain what needs to change, and why it needs to change. Explain that cherished values and traditions will be disrupted, that the place won’t feel the same by the time it is all done. Explain that it is likely that not everybody here today is going to still be around at the other end of the transition.

At the same time, paint a picture of the promised land. The team will not be blind to the many problems that have been piling up. Most individual will understand the need for things to change, and some will be excited to go on the journey. Make it clear that although this change may be arduous, the result will be worth it and will result in much growth and valuable experience for everyone involved.

And finally: buckle up. These sorts of transitions are never easy. Logistically, they’re hard. Emotionally, they’re even harder. There are going to be moments when you doubt yourself, and other moments where it’s clear you’ve screwed something up. Celebrate the small wins, and remember to keep track of the progress that’s been made. Cultural change takes place over months and years, not days and weeks. And it’s never done. But when you take stock and look how far you’ve come… it can be incredibly rewarding.

For the New Guard: Be Empathetic

You’re part of the New Guard. Awesome. You’ve been hired, and either implicitly or explicitly instructed to be an agent of change. You have experience, skills, and attitudes that are different from those possessed by longer-tenured members of the team.

You. Are. Hot. Shit.

As a member of the New Guard, it is painfully easy to be a jerk, or at the very least to come across as one. You look at existing infrastructure, existing ways of doing things, and can see how they can be improved. You are itching to share these better ways. But for those who have been around for longer, your enthusiasm for better ways may sound like “Everything you did is shit. I can do it better. Look at how clever I am.”

So, start with empathy and with appreciation. Realise that without the efforts of those in the Old Guard, there would be no growing organisation to change. They must have been doing something very right. And now that you’ve realised that, vocalise it. Show that you understand that at a different stage of the company, the needs and the constraints were different. Just because things need to change, it doesn’t mean that the old way was bad or wrong.

Develop relationships. Show appreciation. Approach what exists with curiosity rather than contempt. In my experience, what the Old Guard craves the most is understanding, appreciation, and most of all respect. That is their due; give it to them.

For the Old Guard: Look Inside Yourself

Being a member the Old Guard sucks. You used to be the ultimate insider, comfortable and assured of your place, with the ear of leadership. Suddenly you feel on the outside, faced with a bunch of shiny new people hand-picked from elsewhere, and asked to change your practices to new ones that you may not agree with.

You probably feel misunderstood and under-appreciated. You see other members of the Old Guard depart, not always of their own volition. You may start to feel targeted; you and other members of the Old Guard start muttering about a “purge”. Of course, those at the top may indeed be incompetent or malicious. But even in cases where a necessary change is being skilfully undertaken, it probably won’t feel great.

The situation is this: the company needs to grow and change, and you either need to change with it, or move on.

This is a moment for you to introspect, and make a decision. Do you have enough confidence in the leadership’s intentions and skills to go through this transition? Do you have the skills and inclination to do so? Can you put bitter feelings aside? Do you even want to work for the sort of organisation that this one needs to become?

If the answer is yes, this will be a challenging but rewarding experience for you that could lead to much personal growth.

If the answer to any of those questions is no, start planning for an exit… before that plan is made for you. Though it can be hard to leave a place you love and that you have put so much into, this does not have to be a negative experience. It is fine to specialise in a certain phase of an organisation’s journey, and going to new things can be refreshing and stimulating. Plan to go on your own terms, and with no hard feelings. What you contributed can never be taken away from you… think of yourself as a graduate and alumnus of the organisation. Nobody did anything wrong.

The Rocketship

Rockets have multiple stages. The early stages do much of the work of getting the rocket out of Earth’s deep gravity well. But when the fuel is spent, they have done their job. Those early stages are discarded.

Of course, the fact that they are eventually discarded and don’t make it all the way to space does not mean that the early stages are unimportant. On the contrary, they are essential. The later stages can only operate due to the work done by the early stages. (side note: founders should recognise this by putting appropriate equity terms in place)

As with rocketships, so with “rocketships”. If you join a high-growth venture, understand that it will have different stages. Some people may be able to remain with the rocketship across multiple stages, but others will not. That doesn’t make those people unimportant. On the contrary, they are essential.

Don’t Go Yet!

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