Can a Zebra Change its Stripes?

Published: August 26, 2011

We're all wired with indelible traits and talents. What happens when new requirements of a team mandate a change in core character? Are humans truly capable of transforming?

Nature or nurture? The world throws a succession of learning opportunities our way to shape and refine our genetic map. Some characteristics get anchored more deeply while others are altered to fit the circumstances of the environment. Graduate level psychology classes teach a balance between constitution and learning. But what happens in the real world?

I was invited to provide executive coaching to a C-Suite leader in an organization on the verge of transacting a merger/acquisition. The issue prompting the invitation dealt with his value to the new entity. Reviews were mixed. On one hand, he had single-handedly saved the company at the onset of the downturn of the economy while business peers were going under faced with identical circumstances. On the other hand, his personality was marked by such a level of intensity that it made it difficult to play nicely in the sandbox. The new entity coveted his technical talent but was unwilling to endure the burden of his misbehavior on the culture of the new organization. The gauntlet was clear. To be a leader, he would need a personality overhaul.

As the coaching engagement unfolded, it became clear that the symptoms of the problem were evident in every aspect of our leader’s life: work, family, friends and community. While appreciated for his brilliance, he had worn out his welcome in most relationships. The issue was pervasive. Small or temporary changes were not going to persuade anyone of his intent let alone his prospective new C-Suite teammates. Pessimistically, the bar was set as high as had ever before occurred in his career. Optimistically, substantial change in one venue could result in a ripple-effect benefit in the others.

At first, his transformation garnered subtle feedback. No one trusted the change to be sustained. Gradually, he became the topic of water-cooler conversations. Teammates wondered what had prompted the now convincing evolution of conduct. Had he experienced some kind of wake-up call? A near-death experience? Had the ghost of Christmas Future visited him during a night of fitful sleep? Simply, he was different. He was in tune with the team’s norms and goals. He was taking an interest in others. He was listening more and talking less. He was anticipating teammate needs and following through with collaborative tasks. He was receptive to feedback and differing perspectives. He was attentive to the flow of events surrounding him and adapting with poise.

As the merger/acquisition was announced, employees of both previous entities awaited the word on their future. Everyone was either going to receive a thank-you note with a severance package enclosed or a place on the payroll roster of the new entity. Based on the integrity of the change, our leader was invited to move forward with the team. Not surprisingly, similar refreshed opportunities began to spring up in family, social and civic circles.

Often, the ability to transform a team is dependent on the ability to transform a member. Once the criteria of the culture have been established, passing the accountability tests earns the group’s trust and a foundation is laid from which to deliver the best work of the team. Perhaps the ability of the zebra to change stripes is less rooted in the zebra’s capacity for change than it is in the team’s insistence on clear norms and values.

Once everyone knows the rules, deciding whether to play the game is simple.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.