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.
There are many aspects to change, and more importantly successful change. There are no perfect or right ways to go about change, but there are many wrong ways and many pitfalls and hurdles. Any change model will inevitably try to bring simplicity to the complexity that is change. It is this complexity that makes change an exciting and dynamic topic to study. It is this complexity that makes the practice of change management a stressful time for many managers and employees alike.
The key requirement of change managers is flexibility and adaptability. Listening is paramount, empathy is key. Self-awareness is the start point for any manager whilst awareness of the organisation and the people within it is vital. The change manager must have executive leadership competencies mixed with the human understanding of the best H.R director. The change manager will often be a bridge between many layers of the organisation, between managers and the unions, and frequently the company and it’s reputation.
Having said that there is no clear model, change is not anarchy, or that change has no steps that a manager can follow. There are many things that need done in any change programme. The key for the manager is the way that they are done and the spirit in which they are implemented (dynamically vs. slavishly; openly or secretive for example).
I believe that there are two legs to a change programme; the “Human” leg and the “Process” leg. The two legs must remain in balance, or the programme will quickly fall down. Both need direction to function. Both need to be going in the same direction at the same pace. Both need to be applied with the same commitment.
A good change agent must recognise and manage both legs of the programme in a balanced way to get the benefit of the organisation’s efforts. Many change managers and change gurus put their faith in well organised plans and many books exist that give guidance on this approach. Planning is essential in a change programme, however I see planning as a tool to bring together a number of processes from risk analysis to re-engineering to customer needs analysis, process mapping, benchmarking and transition management rather then the key to change itself. Culture change is a prime example. You can plan all you want, but if you don’t understand the human leg you won’t get to the hearts minds that make up the culture.
The key starting element of any change programme is to identify the need for change. The need for change is the rationale or “WHY” that creates urgency and belief within the organisation. It must be factual and believable and make clear the cost of not changing as much as the benefits of change. The leadership of the organisation needs to be fully versed in the “WHY” to be able to face the challenges that will come from within the organisation. Once the “WHY” is clear, it is necessary to have clarity of “DIRECTION”. Without clarity of direction, employees will choose different paths to solve the “WHY”. Each path may be perfectly acceptable, but the power of the organisation can only be harnessed if everyone walks in the same direction. It is necessary to differentiate direction from “THE ANSWER” at this point. Where we are going is different from how we will get there. Once the “WHY” and the “DIRECTION” are known, a “VISION” can be articulated. This vision must be shared across the organisation or it will be worthless. The “VISION” should be simple, memorable, easily understood and have meaning to the employees as people. From there the real work begins as you create a “climate for change”. By communicating these key elements and explaining the challenge to your people you will create a desire to move amongst the employees, who will understand what is expected of them and can see that they need to perform their roles differently to achieve the vision. This desire for change is necessary to turn change from something to fear and something that is happening to you to something that you are part of and can influence. Communication is one of the most vital processes to create this desire for change.
Communication is everything
Good communication is the cornerstone of any change programme. With communication comes understanding. Communication shows respect for your people, and if done well gives them a part to play in the process. Communication is the greatest reducer of fear of change in your toolbox. Lack of communication just fuels worry.Good change communication is honest, consistent, and regular, which seems really obvious but rarely achieved. There are a number of key actions and values necessary for good communication to work.
The 3 R's
REGULAR. A regular flow of information will help people feel involved and ease fears that come with a feeling of “not knowing what is happening”. Without continual change you will always be persuading people to “buy in” to a decision. Our preffered approach takes your people on a journey with you, so that they understand the decisions you make, thereby reducing resistance.
REPETITIVE. Key messages must be used routinely and frequently. Employees will not believe you if you keep changing your mind. They will believe you if you keep stressing the key messages. Find the key messages and stick to them! We know that this is hard for the intelligent leader (after all coming up with new ideas is what you are there for!)
FEEDBACK. Processes that allow people to ask questions, give ideas, pass comment etc ensure that employees feel involved. Being involved reduces fear and galvanises the organisation in pursuit of the desired outcomes of change.
OPEN. Keep people informed about what is happening. Don’t just wait until you have the answers. Let people know what is happening to get to the answers. The fact that they know something is being done will alleviate fears.
HONEST. Tell the truth. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know. If you have not made a decision, tell them what you will do to get to that decision. Hiding the truth builds distrust, and shows that you do not respect the employees.