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.
Most organisations know that the best way to change culture is through engagement and involvement of as many people as possible. Empowerment of managers to take responsibility at all levels rather than central control through hierarchy is the normal approach these days. Involvement of the workforce in what the culture needs to be and how to define it, is gradually seeing a welcome (in my view) shift from management speak and meaningless vision and mission statements to ‘how we do things around here’ words in ordinary, simple and therefore meaningful language. Empowerment is the modern way to drive culture change.
But where does this leave the senior leadership of the business? I’ve written before about the risks of a cultural drive centering around the personality of the CEO who is perceived by everyone to own the change, so I’m not talking about the CEOs real and necessary role as flag carrier for the change. I’m talking about the rest of the senior team: your CFO, Marketing Director, Sales Director, your Operations heads.
There is often a worrying trend of senior teams stepping right back, waving their arms at the managers and saying ‘you are all empowered so get on with it!’ and then getting back to their ‘real job’. This is even more evident when the CEO rallies every aspect of the change around themselves. Its as if there is no place for them in the new empowered, everyone engaged, culture changes around the world, and this, to me, is a risk. Your senior people are there for a reason (or they should be). They are all capable of leading change in their own right. They should be more leaders than managers at that level and be well aware that leaders change things for managers to manage. It’s just that an empowering approach to change means they are less the directors of changes that they may have been used to in the past. For many this can be disengaging or disempowering.
So how do you avoid disengaging the most automatically empowered level of the business?
It’s a case of revisiting and redefining their purpose and as a result their role in an empowered culture change.
Look at it this way. For someone to be empowered, then someone needs to empower them. That someone is their leader. When you see that sentence it shows that empowerment is not a passive act, it is an involved and active act of giving power. If it is passive it becomes abandonment not empowerment, and abandonment leads to chaos at best, but stagnation is the norm, because people need leadership.
So looking at empowerment in change, the mere fact that it is change we are talking about implies that the empowered person is being empowered to do things that they have not been empowered to do before. And this in turn implies that they may have latent capability (or you would never empower them) but not current capability. An newly empowered person is therefore embarking on a period of experiential learning and their empowerer is immediately their trainer, their coach, their mentor, their guide and their support through that learning opportunity.
And who better to coach their managers in the challenges of leading change? The difficulties of managing others in an empowered way? In exploring the change in managers style necessary in the new culture? Who can share the most experience in removing roadblocks? Who has experienced change going wrong? Managing resistance? Hiccups? Who can best help others remain patient and teach them that change takes time?
The answer to these questions should be your senior leaders. And their purpose in an empowered approach to change is to show the organisation what empowerment really is and their role is to be the change coach for their managers and direct reports.
No longer a driver, but certainly not a passenger.
How do you change the culture when the existing culture is one of optionality? This question has been exercising my mind recently and I thought I would share the thinking with you.
First of all, what is a culture of optionality? You might recognise the symptoms; initiatives are brought in by the organisation, people do the training, and then choose to not use the new system, follow the new approach, adhere to the new rules. Another symptom is that the organisation decides to buy all its services from one supplier, but people chose to ignore that because they prefer another supplier. Go on the training programme to ‘up-skill’ but don’t do the pre or post work? New software? Common platform? no thanks I will use my own!
To be a culture of optionality it cant just happen once though. It needs to happen every time the organisation roles something out. In addition, when you ask people they will say ‘Yes that is what happens around here’. To become cultural, it needs to be something that everyone knows about and the majority do, even if its a negative culture.
So how do you change a culture of optionality? If the problem is that everything is optional, then trying to roll out a new initiative to change the culture, becomes optional in itself!
I have asked for thoughts from people and even gone out to the twitter-verse. One thing that interested me is that a common response was ‘Trust and empowerment is the answer’. Think about it, how much more trust and empowerment can you have if people already feel empowered to do what they want anyway?But it did give me a reminder of prevalent thinking in the westernised world, which is also a clue why cultures of optionality exist everywhere and are growing in number.
Maybe we need to understand why cultures of optionality exist to understand what needs to be done to change the culture.
For everything to be optional means there are no consequences to not doing something or reward for doing something.
So the symptoms I mentioned are at the effect end of the cause and effect equation. If management does not apply a consequence to not doing anything e.g. still getting a good appraisal rating despite not following the system/process/training or there being no objective in the appraisal system that relates to using the system/process/training or still getting a good bonus despite etc etc then management is basically saying ‘that new thing is optional’. On the other side of the coin, if there is no reward the same thing happens e.g. keeping your bonus based on sales volume when you have declared that you want to focus on margins means that people will sell volume at low margin and the same applies to bringing in company values and using new system/processes etc. If you don’t connect reward to the new initiative then management is saying ‘this new thing is optional’.
To start the change from a culture of optionality to another culture requires the step of establishing expectations, setting boundaries and aligning job descriptions, appraisal systems and reward systems to match the culture you are looking for. And if needs be your performance management systems need to manage those who still refuse to be part of the culture.
Culture means ‘the way we do things around here’ and for something to be Cultural it means ‘the way we all do things around here’.
Don’t confuse a culture of trust and empowerment (which means we trust and empower you to operate within the boundaries and follow the systems, just as much as it means we trust and empower you to use your brain to make good decisions) with a culture of optionality.
We'd like to keep in touch with you by sharing any relevant insights and information. Sign up to our database and we'll ensure we keep you up to date. We'll never spam you and you can unsubscribe at any time.