It was my third day as CEO of the iconic Hollywood institution, the orphanage where at the age of nine in 1937, Marilyn Monroe was to spend 18 months . When I took the job, the organization was no longer an orphanage, but a residential treatment center for young, severely abused children who were also emotionally disturbed.
I had just graduated from law school, still in shock from that experience—and at landing in a new neighborhood, a new city, a new state, and a new world. Shocked or not, I knew enough to know that what happens at night in a 24-hour residential facility can be the core to understanding the organization. So, my first day on the job, ,I showed up at 9pm to meet the night staff.
The campus was very dark. Located in an unsavory and gang-ridden part of Hollywood (as opposed to the glamorous view the public gets of the city), I was stunned to see that the gate to the campus was wide open with no one monitoring. It felt, to say the very least, less than secure.
I walked from the parking lot toward one of the cottages, in darkness so thick I was uncertain of where I was stepping. It was creepy and even as a grown woman, I felt uneasy. Suddenly, I felt a touch to my hand, and I panicked. Soon, however, I realized that it was a small child who had silently walked up behind me and placed her hand in mine.
“Will you walk me to the clinic?” she asked. “I need to see the nurse and I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Of course,” I said, clasping her hand more tightly. “Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” she said and led the way.
I followed her to the light in the clinic office where the nurse examined her. I stayed and walked her back to her cottage. I introduced myself to the staff there and turned her over to them.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked my little companion.
“Yes, but will you stop by and see me in the morning?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” I said, giving her one of the biggest hugs of my life.
The next evening when I went to the campus at night, I discovered a homeless man, pushing his cart between the cottages where the children resided. Fortunately for the children but sad for him, he was too demented to be a real threat. From that morning forward, I assigned staff to outdoor night patrols and had a gate installed on the property as soon as I could find a company willing to do the work.
Had the former director of the institution not cared about the children’s safety? No, I think what happens is that our eyes and our brains get accustomed to things as they are. Sometimes it takes a newcomer to recognize both the dangers and the opportunities present in the status quo. New leadership requires a strong vision to keep what works and fix what needs fixing. Even when you are taking over an institution as established as this one was, it is your job to recognize these needs and break new ground for the team.
In many ways as leaders, we are all walking across a dark parking lot in a seedy part of town feeling less than secure. These feelings are compounded even more so when you are breaking new ground for your organization, just as I was at the treatment center. It’s normal to feel uneasy in this position, not being able to see where you are stepping as you embark on achieving a new vision for your company.
Your team, however, is following you silently in the dark. While they might not reach for your hand in the dark physically, they are grabbing it philosophically and following you on your path. Embrace their need to have company into the unknown. You will be surprised how much comfort it brings you as well.