In July this year we moved from the New Zealand hub of Auckland to Marlborough in the South Island. Granted, we didn’t live in the city itself and had a few acres to ourselves, but this was a move to a different lifestyle entirely. Three weeks ago we finally moved in to our own place and this blog reflects on the last few months in the context of change.
Different doesn’t need to be bad
When we moved out of our old house we left behind a large spread with a great swimming pool, orchards, loads of rooms, space to spread out to have fun together or find a bit of personal peace. We hadn’t found a new place of our own so we were lucky enough to rent a few rooms in a homestay. Two small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen and a living room/dining area became home for four months. All our gear was in storage so we had very little around us that we were used to. Many people said to us ‘I couldn’t cope with that’ and I could see why. Such a dramatic shift in life is often a recipe for disaster.
But we turned a negative into a positive. It became an adventure and an opportunity to see what life could be like in our new setting. We relied less on our toys and more on us. And in that I saw the essence of many successful organisational turnarounds. Dwelling on what’s wrong is a common issue in major change initiatives. People often only see the negative, the loss, the downside. The spirit of adventure is lost and the opportunity to pull together with colleagues and see ‘what can be’ is missed.
Some things aren’t optional
In changing our life we really changed our life. We’ve taken on 9 hectares including a producing vineyard and whilst that sounds romantic and conjures up images of quaffing our own wine on warm summer evenings there is a lot of hard grunt involved in growing grapes that you don’t see when you are looking for the latest deal in the supermarket.
Within three days of moving in we learnt that frost happens between 1am and 5am in the morning. That may sound obvious but on chilly nights, while you are tucked up in your bed under a nice warm duvet, we are in the vineyard turning on our Amarillo Frost Fan (a propellor on a 10m pole driven by a diesel engine). Once that is done, we walk around taking temperature readings and if certain zones get too low we light frost pots (a tub with a 1m chimney on it containing 20 litres of diesel that we light with a blowtorch). History said that we wouldn’t need to light these often. History said we wouldn’t get two nights of frost in a row. Well, night one we lit all 12 frost pots. The next night we lit them all again.
After three weeks in our new home, we have slept in the UTE (utility vehicle) out in the vines while monitoring all this 5 times. You can talk about what you want to change. You can talk about what will change. But until it is changed you’ve got to do what needs to be done. No point grumbling, you’ve just got to do it. How many changes have you seen where that’s the case? Whole systems that need updating. Processes just not in place. People having to do the basics because there is no fancy software/hardware available, etc. In change you’ve got to know what you are signing the organisation up for and they’ve got to know too. It can become the stuff of company legend (remember those years when..) if you lead change well. If you don’t, the discontent can become debilitating and the organisation won’t perform.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
Frost fans, frost pots and tractors have now become part of our lives. How to couple and decouple various implements to the tractor has been ‘interesting’ learning. So has learning to drive up rows of vines pulling a mower bed, then turn and do the next one, without hitting vines/posts/fences with the 2 metre chunk of metal you have behind you. Colleagues in Auckland think it is exciting/daunting owning a tractor. People in Marlborough think it is normal.
I’ve seen many changes where people decide for themselves that they are ‘too long in the tooth’ to learn new things. They decide that technology is ‘just too hard’, that new equipment is too difficult to get their head around. They then expect the organisation to keep their job just the way it has always been so that they don’t need to bother about such things. It’s a tractor, it’s normal in Marlborough, so it will become normal for us too. It is just another thing to learn. I’ve been learning all my life so I can keep learning now. It’s all about mindset and that is the same with organisational change. Anyone can learn if they put their mind to it. Sure we can’t all become rocket scientists, but tapping a few keys on a keyboard isn’t rocket science. It’s just a new way of applying existing experience. Next time you have someone who says that they are too old to change, just say ‘let me tell you a story about tractors and frost pots’.
Understand your business.
Do we want to spend all day driving tractors? No we don’t. We’ve already found a great guy who is much better at it than us. Do we know what it involves? Yes we do now. Could we pull our weight if we needed to? Yes we could. Can we have a sensible discussion with the guy who does it? More than we could if we had stayed inside our house and just delegated.
Want to restructure the organisation? Can you do that from your ivory tower? Can you engage in dialogue with the people whose roles you are changing if you truly don’t understand what their life is like? Ever tried negotiations on a topic you have no feel for?
These days really good CEOs know that they need to get out amongst their teams and see what their life is like. Really really good ones spend a day in others’ shoes. They don’t have organised tours around the workplace being shown around by middle management, they get out there, wear the gear, do the work, ask the questions, understand the stresses and the challenges. It doesn’t take much, just a day or so every quarter. Not a PR exercise. Not an engagement tool. Do the job. Meet the people on their terms, in their place. Then think about what the change really is.
Is it all worth it?
Some changes are really hard and I’ve seen people going through massive organisational change and experiencing huge stress. Those that get through it well know what was in it for them: experience, learning, new skills, shared stories, camaraderie are often cited when I ask people what they got out of organisational change on a personal level.
Every day I look at my new world and find something to take joy in. At 3am the sky is beautiful and the helicopters (up-market frost fans) hovering over our neighbours at Brancott Estate (up-market frost fans) are like a scene from a movie.
Want to enjoy the sunrise? Then stay up all night. I can walk my piece of the world and see it growing and know that I’m helping it to do that. And yes, in 18 months time all this hard work will be in a bottle of Fromm Brancott Valley that hopefully some of you will enjoy.
I’ve been involved in change all of my life and I’ve learnt that unless you roll your sleeves up and do what needs to be done, enjoy each success as it happens, reflect on each challenge and how it was met, engage in the positive, the adventure and the opportunity to learn, then the change becomes a chore, a bind, a joyless task to be done for salary alone and that doesn’t nourish anyone’s soul even if it does put wine on the table.
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?
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.
A lot of my culture change projects involve me watching leaders in action, either preparing for change, working through the change with other leaders, or auctioning change with their teams. In doing so I have noted that, for many leaders, there is a default approach that underpins their leadership style.
When asked, ‘how are we going to tackle this with your team?’ The answer is predominantly built on the ‘Tell premise’.
When watching their approach with teams the approach is also built on the ‘Tell premise’
Most managers think that they are there to Tell people what they need to know, how it’s going to be, what the answer is, how to solve the problem etc etc.
This is no surprise, when you consider that most managers are promoted on the basis of their proven expertise, their track record in delivery and their experience. You know what to do, you know what has happened before and your track record has shown you that your instincts are good. On top of that, you are the manager and isn’t that what you are there for?
The problem with building a leadership style based on this approach is a) when you don’t know the answer and b) when people need to engage and align for themselves in order to get a result. True Culture change is full of the former and built on the latter.
On a day to day basis, managers will meet situations where, if they were honest, they would not know the answer with certainty. They may have an idea. They may have one answer. They could have a preferred approach. But unless the situation is governed by legal statute or hard and fast policy then many situations occur where there is more than one answer. Indeed legal colleagues will often tell me that in the case of the former there is still more than one answer.
So there is actually no need for managers to operate with the ‘Tell premise’. In fact if they didn’t do so, they would find culture change so much easier. I think that they would find so many things easier.
As a manager and then as an executive coach I found that life got a whole lot easier if I just asked a question.
Think about it. I didn’t need to be an expert in physics to ask a question of a physicist. I didn’t need a PhD in Economics to ask a question of an economist. As a mechanical engineer as IT and control engineering was burgeoning, I was able to manage multi-discipline teams just by asking a question. In asking a question you can then just listen to the answer and tell if its given with confidence or whether its a guess. You can listen to see if the answer shows that there is information missing and you can supply it. You can listen to see if the answer is a risky strategy and then perhaps you offer an alternative.
If you tell there is only one outcome. You’ve told.
The ‘Tell premise’ requires expertise in the topic that you are talking about. The ‘questioning approach’ just requires an ability to ask questions. If you think about it, what should be the most natural? As children we spend all our life asking questions, before we have enough knowledge to tell anyone anything.
Asking questions is part of our wiring. Telling requires knowledge.
And when it comes to culture change, are people going to come along to this new place because you tell them or because they convince themselves? And there lies the beauty of a ‘questioning approach’. By asking people ‘how could you benefit?’, ‘what’s in this for you?’, ‘How would this make your job easier?’, ‘what would your customer see?, they begin to convince themselves.
So if the questioning approach has such a lot going for it why do you think more leaders don’t opt for it?
‘Every organisation around the world is dependent on the talent that chooses to join it’
I said that to someone recently and they blinked and paused before we could continue. The reason was that their mindset was one of recruiting talent that met their needs and ‘letting it go’ when it didn’t. This mindset is prevalent around the world despite all the good words that come out in company values statements (I wish I had a $ for every ‘People are our biggest asset’)
A lot of time is spent on recruiting people to do specific roles and trying to match people to jobs that need done. People are selected and promoted base on many different criteria as each company tried out its own methodology to match person to post. We try and pin down the right person to the right role as a set of prioritised facts.
Yet companies change frequently, roles shift and move with the changes in the business environment. Structures change with new leaders and the demands on managers vary by every change in objectives. Ask any change agent and they will tell you that many of the people ‘restructured’ out of a business were once seen as performers or were recruited as ‘top talent’ or even head-hunted for a role.
They still have the skills and experiences that they came with (and should have added more). They still know what they did when you rated them. They can still do what you asked them to do when they arrived. So what has changed?
It’s a truism that we hire on skills and fire on attitude, but what is widely known but rarely talked about is that attitudes can be moulded by the company and the leader someone works for. Bright eyed talent with passion and enthusiasm can leave as jaundiced and jaded run of the mill employees. Sometimes it can be changes in their life outside of work but often it is the organisational environment that does it.
While talent is seen as an something that is bought and used and then thrown away, or as an asset just like those on your balance sheets (and remember you depreciate those) then there will always be ‘churn’ and ‘turnover’ within your business.
Look at it this way. You don’t need an engagement survey to know the level of commitment in your important relationships do you? You don’t need told that you need to invest in them either?
Perhaps considering your ‘talent’ as people that chose you and your business as much as you chose them would lead to a mindset of a mutually beneficial relationship. It may change who you recruit in the first place and why you recruit them (want to live with someone you fall out with all the time?) And a shift to that paradigm might change everything in your organisation quicker than any restructuring.
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