Anyone who is familiar with John Kotters’ definition of leadership will know leaders make changes – whereas managers maintain stability. The struggle to do both is the daily balancing act of any senior executive.
But, the bigger challenge is the defining of change in the first place.
Many leaders are employed primarily to make change happen. Words like ‘improve’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘growth’ and ‘competitiveness’ litter the job descriptions of C-suite roles. Many are tested for their vision and those known to have this skill are often paid more on the REM circuit.
They’re expected to march in, ‘rally the troops’, point them towards the ‘brave new world’ and take them there. Moses, Caeser and Alexander the Great all rolled in to one.
Yet we all know that change fails when the employees:
Don’t embrace the vision
Don’t share the direction
Don’t ‘buy-in’ to our new plans.
We talk about change resistance, how to engage with the vision, generate buy-in and teach leaders to go out there and do it. And when we say, “go out there and do it,” what we really mean is, “do it to them,” with “them” meaning ‘the staff’.
Persuade, convince, cajole and ultimately ‘help people off the bus’ if they don’t want to be on it. Everyone knows what’s coming, so if you want security you’d better look like this is the bus for you. After all, we’ve also learned that if you hang around long enough, the bus will change.
C-suites come and go – and the next one will want a blue bus anyway (as opposed to the green one we are jumping on now).
We employ for a vision, reward for a vision and then push that vision out there…and that’s the skill of leadership.
But is it really?
Imagine a leader who had no vision for the business. Would you employ them? No.
So, what about a leader who had no personal vision for the business, but believed the people in it did. Would you employ them? “Maybe,” I’m sure you would say. But something is still missing.
What about the leader who believed the organisation could be smarter, faster, more creative and agile – and that the people within in knew how to unlock such potential if he worked with them?
A leader whose tools were not visioning, but engagement?
A leader who stayed open to approaches that were not his – and whose only vision was one which everyone shared in?
A leader who listened not in judgement, but in interest?
The hardest change of all is where we let go of the certainty of our own vision and instead, engage with others to create a vision that is more sophisticated…because it is owned by many.
It might be because I’ve had a long summer break and am suitably relaxed (God bless New Zealand with it’s wonderful weather and short weeks) but I’m noticing burnout in change teams.
Change projects often have tight deadlines, high demands and big expectations and those charged with delivery often work harder and longer hours than the business team that they are serving. It’s been that way for a long time, so on one hand I shouldn’t be surprised but on the other I ask myself ‘why haven’t we learned by now?’
Burnout is not good business sense, so why do many organisations and in particular their C-suite leaders not only accept it but set up the conditions that create it? Burnout is a failure of leadership because it doesn’t happen by accident. In fact many cases of burnout are totally predictable from the start of a project.
Here’s how it goes.
Business Manager X decides that what is needed is a new Y. ROI cases are prepared and people are then convinced that new technology/systems/applications are the way forward. From then on the die is caste. Once the C-suite has decided a project will be delivered in 6 months nobody can say it can’t be. Unfortunately it’s also a trend for senior managers to set over demanding expectations of timeline deliberately.
The project team comes along and the people that have the expertise start to look into things in the kind of detail you can’t at the business case stage and it becomes apparent that it can’t be delivered to the timeline. They look under the stones and find all the things that nobody wants to tell the bosses, find the past patch ups, previous project frailties or the weaknesses in the business case and know they can’t deliver.
It takes a very strong project leader to go back and argue for more time. And even if they do it’s always a negotiation (everything in life is a negotiation as you know) and if they get a bit more time they don’t get all they need and the don’t get more resource to fill the gap between the time they need and the time they get.
Short of time and short of resource. Only one outcome.
But burnout doesn’t happen everywhere to everyone. The shortage plays out for some roles more than others. Often there is only one expert available for something when the timeline needs 1.5. Sometimes it’s the project manager themselves. And this is the worst case of burnout from a business point of view. You work the people who the project pivot around to a state of incapacity. If the one person who knows how the software works keels over before the end of the project, what’s the outcome? If the person who is responsible for keeping the project hanging together is barely hanging together themselves, what is the outcome?
Change projects run Risk registers. But I’ve not seen many that actually list key individuals and then monitor their real hours (not just in the office: what time are they sending emails?), stress levels, physical health and mental wellbeing throughout a project. It’s not something we talk about is it. ‘You doing ok John?’ is as far as it goes for most.
It often amazes me how things that happen at work can feel very much the same as home life, especially when they are going wrong. I sat with a colleague the other day and over a coffee she told me about some problems she had gone through with someone whom she worked with. I had a ‘this is just like..’ feeling.
My colleague told me that over a period of time she and this staffer had disagreed about the way things needed to be done for their client. As an Ad agency keeping client happy with the output is important, but sticking to within the client budget even more so.
She felt that her colleague was going off in a direction that the client business couldn’t afford and wasn’t really in the original remit. She didn’t think the ideas were bad per se just not what had been agreed. As she was the contact for the client it was up to her to deliver and she was getting pressure as a result.
Each conversation they had became tougher and she noticed that they were changing in a drastic way. Their conversations became more formal and her colleagues tone was more clipped. It began to sound as if everything her colleague said had been rehearsed and even as if someone else had told her what she should be saying.
Eventually she suggested that they sit down and make it clear to each other how they needed to work and what they would each do on the contract. Her colleague stormed out. She phoned her and tried to reconcile but got nowhere. Two days later her colleague left to start a new role and week later approached the client to come with her.
Does some of that sound familiar? Ever been through a relationship breakup? Now does it sound familiar?
When people break up with work they tend to act the same way that they do in a break-up at home.
To justify the eventual leaving, staff will begin to make work appear ‘bad’. Everything that happens can get blown up out of all proportion, everything their manager does or colleagues do will be wrong. If they are being told by friends that they ‘need to leave’ then it can start to sound like they are being coached or someone else is talking. Situations appear to be more formal, and often result in very obvious annoyance or upset. When they finally leave people will say ‘she hated it here no wonder she went’.
When you witness a colleague behaving badly towards work on an increasing basis, what you may be seeing is the result of the decision already made. They know that they want to leave, but they haven’t finalised the decision, so the behaviour is fuel to justify the ending.
If you are a manager of someone who is acting this way its a time for the C’s. Firstly its a time to be cautious. Handle it wrongly and you become the problem. And if you become the problem then you can also be the reason cited for their leaving and you don’t want that. So don’t burst out with ‘whats wrong with you!’
So Its the time for personal calm and its the time for checking (anything else going on in their life? Someone will know, anything specific happened? Someone will know that too).
You cant afford to leave it going on if it is affecting your workplace and your other staff and some people can drag the scenario out for a long time. So when you’ve watched a while to be sure something is really wrong, checked what you need to check, then its the time for a chat. In your most supportive way, with no accusations and no allegations, you check in with them to see whats going on and whether something is wrong and whether there is something that you can help with as their manager.
If they make it clear that they don’t like it at work and hate the job/people/work/company (take your pick) then a good manager will help that person to ‘get off the bus’. But don’t suggest that they leave (you go back to being the problem again), suggest that you can ‘find someone who may be able to help them get clear on what they do want to do and see where that takes them, but in the meantime if they have a problem could they just air it with you?’.
So cautious, calm, check and a chat.
Wouldn’t every break up be easy if thats the way it went?
For many years I worked in the Chemical Industry. Safety of personnel was the highest priority in the sites that I worked on, and any form of injury was treated seriously. Everything we did was also scrutinised very heavily by the media and if any facility had an incident of any kind, action would be demanded publicly.
Thats probably why the response of the media and the authorities to the recent death of an Americas Cup yachtsman have been very interesting to me.
‘The show must go on’ was the phrase in one sports news programme. ‘Its the right thing to do’ was another. ‘Its sport and sport is dangerous’ was cited. Not to mention the comments from some team owners that this event should not be used by other teams to gain an advantage by changing the rules.
I could only imagine the outcry If one of the facilities I was involved with had killed someone. ‘Close them down’. ‘Who is responsible’. ‘Outrage’. Those words quickly come to mind.
So why the double standards?
Its very interesting to see how quickly we can justify things to ourselves as individuals, and in this case as an interested community. As leaders of change its something we need to watch for as double standards can define culture. And at the time you didn’t mean it or didn’t even notice it.
Such things as:
‘In these severe times everyone will travel economy, apart from the executive team’
“We need to restructure that team’ when everyone knows the issue is poor performance
Leaders who role out training for everyone else but themselves
Company wide training that the CEO says is important but doesn’t have time for
Mandating annual performance reviews and not doing them yourself
Implementing new KPI’s then ignoring them
Charters for meetings that the SLT ignore
When leading culture change everything you do is scrutinised as people watch to see if you act in line with the new culture/vision/values/ initiative. Their belief is predicated by your actions. And as culture change takes many months to embed, its no use being squeaky clean for a week. Its your actions on week 60 that can have as big an impact as those in the first 4.
When changing the organisational culture perhaps all leaders should not only ask themselves whether the organisation needs to make that change, but whether they can hold to that change themselves and what are the risks of well meaning, accidental Double Standards?
I don’t watch that TV show ‘ undercover boss’, largely because I think TV likes to produce its own reality, and I can’t cope with the heavily emotional reactions at the end. But I wonder if every manager should?
I work in a role where its regularly my job to help people face up to reality about themselves, the way they operate, or the way their team operates (and often its an interconnection of all three!). Not everyone likes that, but those that face reality and take action often to on to bigger and better things.
For those that don’t, I can well understand why. It’s tough to hear what you don’t want to hear. It’s tough to have someone tell you things that you maybe know, but don’t want to look too hard at. It’s even harder to face the idea that these may be the very things that are stopping you from achieving what you want (and its not those difficult employees after all!)
I remember my corporate career with fondness, as it taught me lots and gave me lots of opportunities to experiment with change on the way. But I do remember when I began to operate in closer proximity to incredibly senior people and began to notice how many of them had lost touch with the reality of the operation that that they were ultimately responsible for. I was lucky in my final years to work for an incredibly grounded and experienced boss who regularly coached me to work around people who had power but a detached view of our reality. But I still found it scary how wrong they could often be, and how many would broach no argument about that view.
It seems that the further up the tree some executives get, the more they are convinced that they must be right because of that very seniority. But time and again we see organisations failing because the assumptions made on data, numbers, projections turn out to be as removed from the reality of the business as the offices that these assumptions can be made from.
As a change agent I see people stumbling when it comes to telling the boss that their view is flawed. I see bosses talking when they should be asking, and people nod to confirm to the boss that what they say is true. I see plans being built based on a senior assumption, while corridor talk says ‘it can’t work because..’ I see bosses saying what they want from a report instead of asking what they need to hear. I see managers with subordinates rather than advisors. I see workplaces being tidied up to hide problems so that the visiting dignitary doesn’t see them. As a change agent people tell me things because I’m there to change things, and when I raise them the boss has never heard them before.
I often wonder if our hierarchical naming of roles (chief executive with focus on chief, senior this, President, Vice President) brings with it a built in hierarchy, subordination, or fear to speak out? But there is more to it than that.
But if there is some reality in this, it’s no surprise that some executives need to go undercover to find out the real reality of their world. So thats why I wonder if every executive should put on a wig and a pair of fake glasses, grab a broom and go for a walk around their workplace now and again, and just listen and watch the face of reality.
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