Brett van Zuiden

Create change within your locus of control

When you want to change policy, show, don’t tell. Start by creating the change within your local environment, demonstrating the benefits, and encouraging others to try it. Once you’ve proven out the playbook and earned enthusiastic support, then advocate for a formal policy change.

Early on in my tenure at Clever, I was frustrated by our annual planning calendar: most of our efforts culminate with Back to School in September, but we set our goals on a January-to-January basis, so there’s an awkward period in Q4 where we’re nominally working on our yearly goals but in reality most people turn their focus towards what we should do for next Back to School. This seemed wrong to me, so I put my proposal together, presented to the executive team, and was met with “interesting, we’ll think about it.” This was super frustrating! In retrospect, I totally understand the reaction - switching the planning cycle for our whole company would require a huge effort, and there were a lot of unknowns to figure out. But at the time, I felt like I had a great idea and people weren’t listening.

After grumbling and continuing to push the issue off-and-on for a year and a half, I realized how silly I was being - I lead planning for my immediate team, why don’t we switch our own planning to be on a September-to-September basis? Rather than trying to pitch the exec team on a company-wide policy change, I could just make it happen in my small team and see how it worked. And so we did! There were some bumps in the road and things to figure out along the way, but overall it’s been great, and now other teams are looking at shifting their cycle as well.

Often, when we have an idea for a new or changed policy, our first thought is to advocate to the people in positions of power. This certainly seems to be the fastest and most efficient way - if we can persuade “the management” with the logic of the new policy, they can enact it and everything will be great. But as any leader can tell you, systemic change is hard - even for CEOs and elected officials! So proposals are typically met with “not right now” or “I’ll think about it,” and we retreat frustrated that the leadership isn’t acting on our idea.

When we advocate to people in positions of power, we’re asking them to enact the policy within the domain that they have influence over, their “locus of control.” Occasionally this can work, but we can always start by enacting the policy within our own locus of control - whether that’s our immediate team, our department, or maybe even just our own lives.

If you want your company to spend more time doing user research, start doing user research! Show people how valuable it is by doing it yourself and sharing out the results, and it will catch on. If you want to see greater representation of women and BIPOC amongst CEOs, preferentially apply to jobs at companies with those CEOs. Even if you are not a manager, your locus of control is broader and more impactful than you might think - consider your ability to create new behaviors on your immediate team at work, your choice of what projects to work on and what companies to work at, and even how you spend your discretionary time and income.

It’s tempting to want to go straight to the top, as it takes a lot of time and effort to start with your own locus of control and build momentum from there. But it’s the surest approach to progress, you don’t need anyone’s approval. You can start today.

Inspired by: On Cultures That Build