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How To Avoid an Organizational Midlife Crisis

JC Penney went through a midlife transition that resulted in a hip, new brand identity last spring.

You’ve heard of individuals experiencing midlife crises; organizations experience growing pains as well. Just like individuals, organizations are complex organisms that can either flourish or falter when faced with a midlife transition. If handled well, it’s a time to reassess goals, articulate a meaningful purpose and launch a journey to reach the organization’s highest potential. The phase can spark important questions like: Who are we? What do we stand for? And why are we here?

Now, when we talk about midlife, we mean organizations that are between 35-75 years old. These organizations have a complexity of character and a wealth of folklore that is fascinating. They also tend to be a bit more resistant to change than younger entities. Things have stabilized. There’s a way of doing things. And there’s a culture that drives the success or failure of all initiatives. This organizational soul-searching can be triggered by a number of different circumstances:

  • A dynamic founder retires or scales back day-to-day participation in company operations.
  • Growth has generated the need to reposition against new/different competition (for customers and/or employees)
  • Leaders want to expand products/services beyond traditional offerings, but don’t want to alienate loyal customers.
  • Inconsistency in corporate culture between divisions or locations causes tension in leadership meetings and confusion among the ranks.
  • A merger or acquisition has stirred up questions about SOPs and cultural norms.
  • Things just feel a little stale. The old timers say it isn’t like it used to be, and the newer generation feels stuck.

No matter the trigger, a combination of strong leadership, change management and meaningful communications helps both employees and customers during this stage of organizational development. Just as individuals in a midlife transition are looking for meaning, so are people inside of organizations.

If you can provide meaning for people, you will help them reach their highest potential. And isn’t that what we hope for all employees? So let’s take a look at some things that you, as a leader, should be considering during this phase of your organization’s life.

Tips For Leaders Managing the Midlife Transition

  1. Look Backwards and Take Stock

The values and behaviors that were adopted when the organization was younger may or may not fully serve you anymore, but they are built into the fabric of who you are. It’s pretty tough to completely reinvent your company, but to transition is less daunting. Start by looking backward and taking stock of what got you this far:

  • Examine the values and behaviors that made you who you are.
  • Who are your people? Where do they come from? What distinguishes them from 
the people who don’t stick around? What calls them to you?
  • What has brought you the most joy?
  • What has brought you the most stress or regret?
  • Was there a defining moment? If so, what was it and why did it make such an impact?

2. Look Inside and Make Choices

With the self-awareness gained from looking backward, you can ask yourself compelling questions about who you are now. Your organization has had life experiences, triumphs and failures. Organizations generally don’t mark their evolution from childhood to adulthood with rites of passage or a coming-of-age ritual, but the reflection that ceremony sparks for individuals should also be practiced in organizations. Being aware that you are passing into a new phase of organizational life can spark the decision-making process that clarifies who you are now for both employees and customers:

  • Examine your purpose. What is the role you are uniquely built to fill in the world? Why is that your role? Why is that important to you?
  • Is there a “universal human truth” that drives your passion (concepts such as human dignity, justice, freedom, interconnectedness, truth, equality, etc)? Why is that so important to you?
  • What competencies have you built over time that will help you fill your role? How could you apply your competencies in a new way to fulfill your purpose?
  • What experiences have you had that will give you wisdom for the future? Which ones will you need to let go of so that you can move forward?
  • Which people are lifting you up? Which are holding you back? Are there changes you need to make in your inner circle?

3. Look Forward and Declare Yourself

You’ve made choices about what to honor and give up vs. what to celebrate and keep. As you look to the future, create a crystal clear vision of how the world will be different because of your work. What will actually change  a process, a mindset, a behavior  because your team performed at its peak.

As a leader, it is your job to set the vision and it is also your job to share it. Many leaders keep that vision to themselves and don’t cash in on the energy it can generate within their teams. Some think it’s too bold and might scare their teams. Others think it’s obvious to everyone and don’t even think about formally communicating it. Whenever we’ve seen leaders passionately share their visions with their teams, eyes light up, creativity comes out, and people are energized and ready to contribute:

  • Define how your work will result in a meaningful change.
  • Declare a bold vision. Don’t worry about exactly how you’ll get there that’s where the team should pitch in.
  • Share your vision with the team — through as many communication channels as possible. You want everyone on this train.
  • Work with your team to build a roadmap that leverages your organization’s unique combination of values, skills, capabilities and capacity to achieve your goals.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Use the power of language and design to get and keep people engaged in your crusade!

Why You Should Care

In his book The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey outlines some remarkable findings from a survey of over 23,000 employees and a wide range of businesses:

  • Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why.
  • Only 1 in 5 was enthusiastic about their team’s and organization’s goals.
  • Only 1 in 5 said they had clear purpose linking their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals.

Imagine how much worse these numbers would be during a time of transition! If you can manage your organization’s midlife transition well, you’ll certainly reap the benefits. Increased employee understanding leads to increased happiness and loyalty, resulting in decreased transition costs and increased customer lifetime value.


Nancy Belmont is the Chief Inspiration Officer and owner of Belmont, Inc., a brand- and culture-building agency focused on helping organizations create deeper and more meaningful connections among their many stakeholders. She believes that organizations that embrace an… [Read more about Nancy Belmont]


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