Is Your Client Ready to Lead Change?

Alan was the CIO of an Information Technology organization that had employees across the globe. His instincts were absolutely correct – his organization was not set up to deliver what it needed to for his team’s internal clients and the company’s external customers. He started an initiative to re-organize his department. He did many things right – he brought in outside expertise, he got strong project managers, and he set up an effective cross-functional project team. However, a project that should have lasted six months, went on for a year. His executive team not only was not supportive of the project but spoke vehemently against it. The IT employees were even less productive than when the project began because their anxiety was an all time high. At the end of the year, corporate took over this department, installed a new CIO and Alan was demoted significantly.

Jack was a City Manager and Susan was his Assistant City Manager. Together they lead the teams responsible for running a medium sized city such as: police, fire, community development, parks and recreation, etc. Susan initiated a process to improve the internal efficiency of the organization and suggested it to Jack. Jack reluctantly agreed. They brought in an external resource to conduct an assessment to find out why there were so many problems. The consultant discovered that many of the issues stemmed from the Jack’s leadership style. When Jack was presented with this difficult information, he asked the consultant to change the report and take out references to his leadership style. Jack and Susan did not address the real issues that were facing the organization. Susan tried her best with implementing a few changes. However, about a year after Jack asked the consultant to change the report, Jack was fired. He was fired for two reasons: his leadership style and the internal inefficiency. His termination was reported in the newspaper.

What happened? What went wrong?

A Change Quiz

I interrupt this article for a short quiz.

Question: What do you think is the simple most important element of a successful change effort?

  1. A solid project plan
  2. Quality project managers
  3. Consistent key messages that are delivered regularly to the organization
  4. All of the above – there is no one single element but a combination of several elements that make up a successful change effort
  5. None of the above

I’ll give you a few seconds to answer.

Imagine Jeopardy music playing in the background while you contemplate your answer.

Okay – time’s up!

The answer is…wait for it…5!!

The Secret of Successful Change Efforts

There is only one thing that will make the difference between the success and failure of a change effort and that is the quality of the change leader at the top. The type of sponsorship a project has is far more important than the plan and the quality of the project team. And it is far, far more important than the dreaded consistent message points that are not backed by reality. In fact, message points that are delivered to an organization that inconsistent with the actions of the leadership actually do irreparable damage to the project’s credibility.

Imagine elements of a change process in a boxing ring. In one corner there is project goals, structure, team and message points. In the other corner there is a bona fide change leader. I would put my money unequivocally on the change leader – every time. A solid change leader can overcome bad process – every time.

What are the qualities of an effective change leader?

There are only two qualities that are essential for a change leader. Vision and Absolute Commitment.

Vision entails seeing something that others don’t, a future that is better than what is today.

Absolute Commitment involves doing what it takes and personal sacrifice to get there.

You have to have both.

The extent of your vision and the quality of your commitment determines what type of change leader you are. There are four types of change leaders:

  1. “Maintain the Status Quo” leader: This is a change leader who is more interested in maintaining the way things are today and doesn’t have a vision for the future. For an executive who wants to grow his or her career, this is not an acceptable place to stay.For example, Victoria was a leader in operations for a number of years. She enjoyed the action and quick decision making required. When she was promoted to an Executive role she absolutely hated strategy sessions. She had no patience for the conceptual discussions required to envision a better future. She felt she was better equipped to make an already up and running organization hum. Thus, she led no change efforts to improve her organization. Eventually, she made the tough decision that she was better suited for a lower leadership role and asked for a demotion that fit her natural strengths better.
  2. “Change Bull in the China Shop”: This is a leader who leads change for the sake of change and making a personal mark rather than for the long-term health and success of the organization. Change processes are typical mishandled which leads to chaos in the organization. Short-term results may be realized but long-term success is more often than not compromised.When I was in graduate school, a favorite case study was about a CEO who was known as the “Hatchet”. He was sought after by companies who had immediate financial concerns and needed a leader to do immediate downsizing and layoffs. This CEO while achieving short-term objectives always left his companies in far worse shape.
  3. “Change Aspirer”: This is the most common change leadership style. You may have a vision for change that is well grounded and could have a long-term positive impact on the organization’s success and health but you lack the commitment to see the change through. The change efforts proposed by these leaders are viewed as “flavor of the month”.I was the consultant on one of the most meaningful projects ever embarked on by the Operations Vice Presidents at Walt Disney World. For the first time, these leaders worked collectively with each other, their support organizations and key partners to redefine the guest/cast experience and the leader/cast experience. In one of our early meetings, the team complained that this would be the “flavor of the month.” As their consultant, I encouraged them that if this project was going to be a “flavor of the month”, it would be because of their choice. They had the power, authority and resources to act. It was up to them to do what it took to commit to the decisions they were making. That meeting turned out to be a pivotal moment in the project. Not all the leaders, but a critical mass recognized that they wanted to be more than Change Aspirers. They wanted to be change leaders.
  4. Bona Fide Change Leader: You can see the better future and you will do what it takes to get there. The definition is really that simple.Beth is an example of a bona fide change leader. She has an ability to match her internal processing with external actions. Beth thinks…then acts. She involves all the right experts along the way and really listens to what they have to say and incorporates their input into her project. Even though she is a strong leader, she hires consultants who understand change at a deeper level than she does so that her change efforts have the best chance for success.When new initiatives are proposed, she considers them in light of the change she is leading. And when she speaks about the changes she leads…it is magic. She speaks from her heart, she is willing to show her emotions so that her employees are inspired not with logic but with vision. Under her leadership, dramatic and sustainable performance improvements have been made to her organization.

Five things to recommend to your clients to help them become a bona fide change leader:

  • Increase your think time before embarking on a change effort. Look at more stuff and think about it harder. Find out how your organization really does need to change and contemplate the better future. If you can’t see it, feel it, imagine your and your team living there, go back to the drawing board. Don’t just change in reaction to a short-term situation. Change because it is essential.
  • Determine if you genuinely care about the change you are proposing and why. Ask yourself is and how the change you are proposing fits in with your personal values and why. Erica is one of the best change leaders that I have ever had the privilege of supporting. She is a senior leader at Walt Disney World and she believes in the magic that the Guests experience every day. She also believes that if the leaders and cast don’t do what they need to do, magic doesn’t happen. She embarked on a change process that fundamentally improved the Guest/Cast interaction. Why? Because she knew that it was not just good for business but because she felt that what they did as an organization changed people’s lives and thus what she was proposing was not an option. It was an imperative.
  • Find other people who care about what you care about. A good change leader doesn’t go it alone but finds a coalition of like-minded people who share the same vision and the same commitment. Erica in the example above solicited the help of three members of her Executive team who shared her vision to help her think through the change effort. Becky, Jack and Matt became internal champions who shaped the thinking of the project in fundamental ways and influenced the other executives to get on board.
  • Develop authentic, repeatable message points that engage the hearts, not just the minds of employees. Too often all a leader will do is share the business case for a change and repeat those messages over and over again and wonder why employees are not on board. I was the consultant on a change project that merged two lines of business into one and eliminated the senior leadership of one of the lines of business. The employees (who by nature were very emotional) were crushed that their beloved profession was perceived to be denigrated like this. I had to work very hard to help the leaders understand that telling these employees over and over again about productivity goals wasn’t going to get them on board.
  • Stick with the change even when it gets hard. I on purpose emphasize the word when because the issue isn’t if it is going to get hard but when. Change IS hard. It is the hardest of all the leadership responsibilities of an executive. Every culture in every time period has a fear of the unknown and taking people to the unknown dredges up issues that most aren’t even aware of. And that is why vision and commitment are essential. You have to paint a picture of a better future and you have to have the tenacity to stay with it.

The Bottomline

Being a change leader is one of the most important roles an Executive can play. But real change is possible for an organization under one condition – the quality of the change leadership. If you don’t both vision and commitment, do not to embark on a change effort at all. Don’t start it. Don’t waste your company’s assets and don’t put your own credibility on the line. Not only will you not be successful, you will inadvertently make whatever issues your organization is facing worse. You will be stirring the pot on the normal human fear of the unknown and if you don’t come through with a better future, you will leave your employees that much more cynical and less resilient.

On the other hand, if you have vision and commitment, you have the ability to change the world. When Erica started a project to change the guest/cast experience, she reminded her entire organization why they were there – why they worked for Walt Disney World and not somewhere else. She inspired them to greatness and that all tasks and all roles make a difference.

It is up to you – do you want to make your organization a better place? If you do, you have to start with you.

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