This article is Chapter Two of TACSI’s Innovating Us series. Innovating Us is a look inside TACSI’s ongoing journey towards decentralisation. Each of the 11 chapters covers a different aspect of our experience, and some important things we wish we’d known before we started.
Chapter Two is a personal account by TACSI CEO Carolyn Curtis. Written over a series of interviews, it explores the unique challenges of being a leader during a process which redefines leadership.
You’re going to need resilience as a leader.
Embarking on the journey to decentralise and innovate TACSI’s operating model required determination on a level I had never experienced previously. As the CEO driving the change, I was not remotely prepared for the challenges it would bring to me as a leader, or the change it would require of me personally.
This is not to say I went in blind – far from it. I had read volumes of information and spoken to experts all over the world. The leadership theory and the technical aspects were also familiar territory for me. Nor was I forcing a change that nobody wanted. I’d consulted with our board and – most importantly – with our people, and everyone was motivated to begin. Support was enthusiastic and near-unanimous.
This all changed within the first year. People began to feel unmoored and frustrated in the new system, unsure of who was responsible for what. I got it wrong, more than once. Doubt crept in. There were aggressive conversations and genuine, adult-scale tantrums about decision making. I was told repeatedly that the change was driving the company broke.
I felt incredibly isolated. My leadership background in government – the staunchest of hierarchies – had not prepared me for this. I questioned myself constantly. Was I a bad leader? I was doing everything I could to keep everyone safe and productive in their roles, and they were showing all the signs of overwhelm, chronic stress and, from some quarters, no small amount of anger.
And then, after the first year, TACSI made a significant financial loss. We had also lost a number of people during the change, because of the change. At probably the lowest point for me, the person I had hired specifically to help with the transition resigned after six weeks.
As a not-for-profit, we were dancing with the prospect of folding. This was the ‘do or die’ moment for me – did I dig in and keep going, or discard the whole notion and return to what was familiar? As CEO, was I doing my team a disservice by removing the simplicity and reliability of a standard hierarchical workplace?
Something had to change in our approach, and a big part of it was me. I wasn’t a bad leader – I was just being the wrong sort of leader. I was still trying to lead from the hierarchical mindset I had always known, where I held all the risk and responsibility (along with the power). I couldn’t imagine that the financial problems we were having were anything but the result of my bad decisions. I couldn’t look past the difficult behaviours in my team to see the growth opportunities, because all I could see was that they were struggling and it was all my fault. It was a painful process of unlearning and it looked and felt nothing like any professional growth I had ever seen.
I found a way forward when I turned the question around: what was the alternative? It was the old system, and it wasn’t working. I realised it would be a greater disservice to our people if I didn’t find a way to help them grow, to access their expertise and diversity in its entirety. That is what lies at the heart of our value, not just for TACSI but also for our clients and partners. Without the change, as difficult as it was, we were never going to be sustainable and authentic in the way all of us wanted to be.
So I decided to keep on, with the understanding that I was going to have to deal with some difficult personal and professional change. I learned (and am still learning) how to be more vulnerable and how to share responsibility and power with my colleagues. I stopped looking for the answers to our challenges in external partners and experts, and started to nurture ways for us to find the answers collectively. And, gradually, with trust and communication, we are finding our way and it’s getting better and better.
For anyone considering decentralising their organisation, I would recommend asking, with absolute honesty, do you have the right conditions in place to start this journey? This includes questions like:
- Do you have some champions within your business (and not just in the leadership team) who you think can help you steer the change?
- Do you have the support of your board?
- Do you have a collective ambition to become absolutely authentic about the way you work?
- Are you as a leader willing to give up your parking spot and office?
- Do you have a supportive family and friends who can help you personally?
If the answer isn’t a clear ‘yes’ to all of these questions, think very seriously about whether you should take the first step. This is because the change is incredibly uncomfortable for everyone – it is absolutely going to get worse before it gets better.
Once you start down the road towards decentralising your organisation, you’re joining the next generation of businesses, who believe, as I do, that the days of the line manager and ‘hero’ CEO are coming to an end. The nature of leadership is changing, because it needs to change. But it’s going to be new and unfamiliar and frightening, and not everyone is going to respond well, possibly including you. Having the right conditions in place is vital to help smooth the journey, maintain your wellbeing and keep you focussed on the benefits of the change.
Most importantly, be resilient. My role continues to evolve as TACSI does, and we continue to grow in so many ways. I feel more connected and supported by my colleagues than I ever have. My role as CEO continues to move away from the holder of all things risk, responsibility and power and more towards coach, connecter and steward. It’s a role I can see creating greater and greater value into the future, and it’s fulfilling for me personally in ways a traditional CEO’s position never could have been.
So if you make it to that critical do-or-die point, stick with it. Consider the alternative, and consider the value of unlocking the potential in your people. Even though we’re still in the process of changing (and likely always will be), I can confidently say the journey will be worth it.
Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.