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Going native – when you become part of the problem

March 19, 2009

Watching Ed Liddy get gored by Congress yesterday was ugly. What was even uglier was watching him be the bullfighter, trying to defend the indefensible to a group of angry bulls who were getting more incensed every time he waved his red cape of explanations. One thing struck me immediately because I’ve seen it before – he’s gone native.

When someone is assigned to a client, and is onsite for an extended period of time and assuming they do not have some form of social interaction disorder, it’s only natural they will become part of that group. They go to the client’s Holiday Party, buy March Madness brackets, and go to the local summer bar-b-que. Monday morning talk is about what they did over the weekend, comparing stories with the people they work with each day. They are part of the team and culture of the people whom they can help best by remaining an insider-outsider. Eventually, instead of stopping self-destructive acts by the client (which is why they are onboard to begin with), they either participate or become the public explainer. Those of us on the outside sit there, jaws dropped while we listen to crazy talk that the explainer, back in their natural environment, would never say with a straight face. It’s like learning a language under the total emersion process – soon you begin to think in the new language – you’ve been absorbed.

Ed Liddy would have been better served if he stopped the bonuses and told his affected employees to just try and go before a jury and take their chances. Yesterday, I felt sad for him. He was a good man vilified and most likely, the only atta-boys he earned at AIG were for empathy and not leadership. Right now, in my educated opinion, the company really needs an outsider’s perspective with the independent thought of not allowing behaviors which although formerly permitted, are now inappropriate and damaging.

Given how easy it is to go native, how do those of us who spend extended time at clients guard against it? Doctors see us as ‘patients’ not people, which allows for clinical detachment. This is appropriate where the Doctor provides much of the action and the patient responds. Lawyers can argue both sides of a case and so see things in terms of history, law and precedent brought forward to make on argument or another. Great for intellectual disputes, but not action oriented. Perhaps we can take a lesson from Applied Ethnography, where, in a business or organizational setting, you learn the local customs, values, triggers, power structures, etc and then compare this learning to your own cultural norms. It’s great for Market Research and Change Management, but can only contribute research findings to leadership since it is insight and not action oriented.

From my own experience and what I see of other embedded leaders, one way is to be onsite 80% of the time and offsite 20%. Offsite here is not traveling on client business, but working out of your own company’s office, surrounded by your people and cultural norms. Combine this with a fixed engagement duration which included specific periodic metric based checkpoints.

And most of all change your internal voice from telling you that something is stupid or wrong to the action form. For each major decision, before you announce it, be alone in your office, close your eyes and imagine you are standing in front of investors, employees, regulators, Congress, perhaps even a jury, explaining why you did, or permitted, some action to take place. Mouth the words, feel the queasiness in your stomach. As soon as you can no longer go through this exercise, you’ve gone native.

Having just reread this before hitting the ‘Post’ key, and it suddenly dawns on me that the thoughts in this posting apply to all of us – even those of us who have been in the same company for years and risen through the ranks – we should all guard against going native.

Rich Eichen is a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years experience reshaping companies and key initiatives as well as operating units of Global organizations. He can be reached at

One Comment
  1. zachbreakpate permalink

    This is a well reasoned argument. Kudos! Business pundits have taken business culture for granted for too long. A sociologist’s perspective should be a welcome change.

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