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.
When I tweet on Twitter and comment on Linkedin I tend to share what I’m seeing in the world of change and leadership. Sometimes it’s happening in a client space or a training space and sometimes a coaching space.
I recently commented on linkedin “don’t ignore those who helped you get where you are“. It was a simple thought as far as I was concerned, nothing really earth shattering. In no time at all it had 138 likes and 16 comments. This might not be an incredible number if you are Justin Bieber but for someone whose space is the targeted worlds of change and leadership and whose audience doesn’t tend to shout ‘Yay’ at everything you say, it was quite a surprise.
What was even nicer and more interesting was that people began to use it to thank those that had helped them on their journey, and those people obviously felt humbled by the thanks. It was nice to see and it was also nice to have initiated something positive for a few people, even though Justin Bieber saying it would have had half the planet thanking each other and not just a few.
And yes there were people who jumped on to advertise things like central heating (which I guess warms your heart in other ways) and spurious websites, but that too is just part of the world we live in. I’m sure they were thankful too.
It all came from a conversation with a group of managers whose direct reports were about to go through a development programme with myself and a colleague. I’ve noticed that if the manager is committed to the outcomes of these programmes then the direct reports seem to get more out of them and not just because committed managers don’t demand you come to a meeting on the day of your course. To help the managers engage we asked them to think about people in their past who had helped them get where they were today, and from their to think about what they could do to have a similarly big impact on their direct reports during the programme. It stirred up some great thoughts for some, so I passed the idea on via LinkedIn and Twitter.
The response struck a chord with even more people so it seems to me that when most of us think of people that have helped us we feel good and lift our game, as no doubt they do when we thank them for their help. The hashtag I gave it was #bethankful and hasn’t quite become a meme but I wonder what would happen in your workplace if it did?
Maybe you could pass it on and see what you get back?
‘Things are going to change around here’ is a rallying call for culture change that I’ve heard many times from many leaders. Unfortunately I’ve also seen many situations where nothing happens after the call is made. Culture change is different from a change of hardware in that the hardware delivery drives the change. Culture change is largely about changing mindsets and is reliant on soft activities. The trouble with soft activities is that they need people more than things.
I got busy’ is one of the most frequent ‘reasons’ for culture change ‘delays’ and is generally given after the fact when the change has ground to a halt.
The bottom line is you are busy, were busy before you announced change, and will be busy after the change. So busy is not really a good reason to not follow through after you announce change. If busyness is predictable then why not think of how to beat busy in advance and beat your after the events with some ‘ready before the events’
Don’t just announce the idea of change. Do some work on the proposed changes before you announce. If you are wanting to change culture then you will know what needs changed and you can plan the steps of those changes in advance. Sure, some stages rely on the output of other stages, but your first two or three activities can be planned, designed, facilitators booked etc so that everything is ready to role of the shelf.
Who got busy? If the change is all down to you and you got busy then you’ve got even more problems coming (and maybe that’s part of the necessary . Ensure that your senior team/management team etc are involved in planning and preparing the change and can take ownership of certain topics. If something happens that means one topic needs delayed then another can be slotted in.
Change thrives on multiple inputs and multiples of people being involved. Indeed the more people that engage in the change and take ownership for the implementation the better. One way of ensuring that your likely busyness doesn’t get in the way of change is to make your first planned change activities a series of events that engage large groups of the workforce in what the change can look like and how we can get there. Design these so that ‘champions’ from the workforce are sought and empowered to take easy actions as a result.
Communication is your ally. If everything happens at once and you just have no option but to drop the plan for a few weeks then use communication to keep people engaged. Your early Comms will be announcement focused, so follow on Comms will be deeper and more exploratory. Have some pre-written Comms ready before you make an announcement and as your change rolls on always have some topics as ‘ emergency Comms’ to use in the event of a drop in activity.
So what’s the key to these suggestions? Minimise total reliance on you. Maximise involvement of others, launch the change with pre-planned activities that create momentum, communicate.
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.
Between the 12th and 15th Centuries the Feudal system was the dominant form of social structure in Europe. Feudalism relied on an idea that a lord or baron had power over the people within their domain. Their word was quite literally the law.
You might ask ‘where is he going with this?, we threw off the shackles of the Feudal system centuries ago’.
Indeed we did, Feudalism died out as other philosophies of social structure came into being and over the years since, more of us began to live under systems that espoused, protected and advocated our freedom as individuals.
And yet, all around the western world, we get up on a Monday, go to work and willingly put on the structures and behaviours that a 10th century baron would recognise.
Every day people are unwilling to question their manager, challenge that managers reasoning or decisions, and even in some cases putting up with behaviour from their manager that is domineering at best. People can treat CEO’s with the kind of deference that a Frankish lord would expect of those around him (indeed we even have magazines that laud praises on CEO’s of major corporates). People can turn off their intellect, experience and capability because someone ‘on a higher pay grade’ expresses an opinion.
Yet, when you ask many modern leaders whether this is what they expect or want from people, they would say that they want openness, honesty, challenge, discussion and advice and insight from the people around them. The shackles are often self imposed.
As a leader and as you get promoted up the ladder, you will get used to making a lot of correct decisions. Thats why you get promoted. You will get used to people agreeing with you because you are right or showed some insight that no-one else saw. You can get used to the idea of people asking for your view or your opinion. But when does that sway to ‘hierarchical deference’ or ‘positional power’?. Is there a possibility that at some point, your voice is listened to ‘just because you are the boss’?(and if you are reading this and thinking that this is only right and proper you may want to get in a time machine and go back to the 12th century!).
If you truly want to be the kind of leader who has open conversations, can be challenged, and gets the most out of other peoples knowledge you may have to set a few things in place to make that happen.
Who speaks first: CEO’s, Chairmen, GM’s who speak first on every point in a meeting may find that they are setting up a situation where people have to ‘disagree with the boss’. Hold your peace and encourage others to express their view first.
Sudden silence: When you say something, watch for peoples expressions or reactions. If they close down or look away then it may be possible that they don’t actually agree with you even if they are nodding.
Routine agreement:If you find that people agree with you more often than not then you might want to check whether they are agreeing with what was said or who said it. Try saying something you don’t actually believe in and see what response you get.
Establishing conditions: When you are throwing ideas out, let people know that is what you are doing. When you do decide that want something done a certain way, then make it clear that this actually is a decision that you are taking that is not up for debate, so that people understand the difference.
Rewarding the brave: Do you recognise when someone has has questioned your view at a meeting? Or do people have to sidle up to you and whisper their concerns? Do you reward the ‘deviant view’ the questioner and the one who actually does what you ask people to do? If not, why not?
Being a leader is full of challenges. Being the leader you say you want to be is even harder. To be a 21st leader may require you to help your people throw off the mental shackles of the last 900 years!
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