UVA Today caught up with Jim Detert and Sean Martin, leadership and workplace culture experts from University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, to explore the challenges for Harris and company in the wake of Snyder’s departure.
Detert also holds an appointment in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
Q. When taking on an organization with some obvious warts, what should be first on a leader’s to-do list?
Martin: If we think that actual culture change needs to happen, that needs to start with putting real systems in place that are going to drive those cultural changes – rewards for the behaviors we want, sanctions for the things that we don’t; processes, procedures and other things that reflect the cultural values that we desire to have.
These systems would be a direct reflection of what the top leadership team believes is important. They could move a lot of merchandise, try to sell a lot of tickets, have a cool new logo, find a new stadium, but that’s all just revenue-driven. That’s nothing about culture.
Detert: I agree, and I’d add that you also have to assume that there’s going to be more turnover within the Commanders. If you have stayed after all of this nonsense, you may either suffer from learned helplessness and no longer have what it takes to truly be a highly proactive, world-class person, or you may be part of the problem.
In short, improved accountability mechanisms will likely also mean that some people still there are not going to have what it takes to behave the right way in terms of effort and/or the required behaviors. That they’ll find they still have some of the wrong people left in the organization.
Q. What would represent an early sign of productive change within the Commanders organization?
Detert: What’s going to be absolutely critical is not that they say the right things, but that they do the right things over and over and over. Some of them have to be symbolic moves, like some big shots get let go because they say and do the wrong things. And then it just has to be everyday behavior. What microaggressions do or don’t get called out? What type of people do or don’t get promotion opportunities?
Because, again, after 24 years of Snyder there are some people who are desperately waiting for this healthy new era to arrive. But there are also lots of people who say they don’t believe it anymore. “It’s just going to be a different version of bad, and this is all just talk.” So there are going to be tons of people watching every move that the ownership group makes for the first sign of, “Yeah, see, I told you it was all BS.” Call it what you will – skepticism, cynicism, whatever – it’s going to be rampant in that organization right now, which means people will notice every inconsistency between this supposed new era of goodness and then what they see. And they’ll be hyper-alert to that.
Q. With the Commanders being such a public entity, they have to try to restore hope both internally to the team employees and externally to the fans. What’s the best way to do that?
Martin: With my MBA students, we have a case discussion about this kind of thing: It’s always better to start internally. First of all, you’re more likely to get the buy-in from everybody and have an actual organization that’s all pulling together. Then, you can show a united front to the external stakeholders.
A good metaphor for this is you have an apartment you’re trying to sell and you have a bunch of black mold growing on your wall. Somebody might come in and appraise your apartment, look at the black mold and go, “This apartment is worth $150,000.” Well, you could grab a roller and paint over all of this stuff and go, “Actually, it’s worth $250,000.”