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Poking the Bear

The Bear Snores On remains one of my favorite books to read to my kids. They’ve outgrown it, but still humor my array of voices for each of the forest animals that take shelter in a hibernating bear’s cave and ultimately wake him up. Spoiler alert: when the bear awakes, he isn’t angry, but sad. He feels like he’s missing his friends’ party and wants nothing more than to join the fun.

I have thought about this story a lot as I count how many times I’ve heard “don’t poke the bear” as business or mentorship advice.

  • Don’t poke the boss bear

  • Don’t poke the status quo bear

  • Don’t poke the ‘I own my people and my team’ bear

  • Don’t poke the ‘good story only’ bear

  • Don’t poke the Board bear

Each of these ‘bears’ represents a culture, process, or legacy that I’ve faced when trying to pivot, progress, or professionally develop others in line with an organization’s strategic growth. More times than I care to count, I have found myself standing next to one of these bears, struggling to figure out how to get it to move in a certain direction despite its hibernation.

And the advice I always get is “don’t poke.” It’s often ironically accompanied with a confession of reason, logic, or empathy that validates why poking the bear is needed to achieve goals, but no one wants to deal with the awakened, grumpy bear that results.

#Transformation, change, #innovation, and strategic growth professionals I believe share a tendency to be bear pokers. What makes some rise to leadership value is how they do so with a combination of bravery, data-backed insights, and authenticity in which they are putting the broader good of an organization or team ahead of the blowback they will likely get individually. That blowback can be harsh, critical, and downright mean in some organizations. It requires a thick skin that often I candidly find hard to sometimes put forth.

My advice to leaders - especially women - is poke away. If you are responsible for truly differentiated growth, it will not happen from admiring the status quo, favoring ‘happy’ storylines over data-driven reality, nor prioritizing being ‘liked’ over making solid business decisions. Learn the style that works best for you, but don’t back down for fear of blow back.

I recently wrote about how a leader needs to not just work against a villain, but extract a villain’s team value. Similarly, the job of leaders is to instigate change and cultivate an environment in which any ‘bear’ can be awakened. And when it is, we have a leadership responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t roar in backlash, but - like in The Bear Snores On - sees the party unfolding and is excited to join.

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