What I’ve learned about leadership and change

During my career, I have led teams through many change processes. Sometimes it has been smaller things, like adopting a new e-mail marketing system. Sometimes it has been complete upheaval, like an organizational restructuring or financial turnaround.

Be it smaller or greater, change is always difficult to some extent. And a leader’s choices and actions can make it easier or more difficult for people. Here are some key lessons that I have learnt as a leader:

1. Respect the power of emotions

Change evokes a lot of emotions. Some people feel exhilarated, while others may be confused, anxious or angry. If emotions are ignored, successful change is very, very difficult to achieve.

In their excellent book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath compare people’s rational thinking to a rider and emotions to an elephant. Although the rider seems like they are in control, if the elephant decides to go on a rampage, there is very little the rider can do.

Emotions are messy and difficult to control. But they are also a powerful driver, and can be a powerful ally. Really good leaders harness the power of emotions to encourage commitment and to make the change smoother and easier.

2. You can never have too much dialogue

When change is in the air, people will talk. Because for humans, talking is a way of dealing with emotions and a way of making sense of things. 

Talking with people will initially mean that you will be the recipient of worried and even aggressive questions, accusations and doubts. It can be very draining. Sometimes you will not have all the answers.

But I promise you, if you tough it out and have lots of conversations with your team members, show them that you care, help them make sense of the situation and help them deal with their emotions, they will be more ready to move ahead and get to work.

3. Focus on the level of daily work

A common mistake for top management in situations of change is to focus on the strategic level in their communication. What people most want to know is, how will the change affect their daily work. They will feel less confused and more secure, when they get a chance to discuss the practical implications relevant to their role.

I have heard many managers say that it is important to communicate exactly the same information to everyone in the organization. This is both true and untrue. It is important to make an effort to build a shared understanding of the strategic reasoning and organization-level goals. 

But it is equally important to have role and team and business area specific discussions. It is a manager’s duty to explain the change to their team and help them understand their role in implementing the change successfully. Otherwise, how are people supposed to do their part?

4. People will accept change more readily if they can participate in planning it

I am not a big fan of the phrase “implementing strategy”. Why? Because it implies an old-fashioned top-down model of leadership in which strategy is first planned by top management and then implemented.

While management may have a fuller picture of how markets are shaping up and how the organization should be developed, the employees are the ones that will make the change happen. And if they are reluctant, confused, or disagree with the strategic choices, there is little chance for success.

What’s more, employees have a great deal of practical wisdom about operations, customers, efficiency and so on. It makes sense to harness this wisdom early on. The plan will most likely be better and, more importantly, employees will already be committed to it.

5. If the management is confused or in disagreement, everyone will be

In order to lead change successfully, management must be aligned. Any disagreements or confusion at top level will multiply across the organization. So, even though top management should focus on the strategic level, they still need to agree on the practicalities.

This, in fact, is another good reason for engaging employees early on. They will most likely have the best understanding of practical aspects that may prove difficult or cause friction between different parts of the organization.

In addition, top management must have processes in place to deal with friction swiftly and decisively, so that small disagreements do not grow into open conflict.

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As I said, change is always difficult to some extent. I find that it helps to make a conscious decision to focus my energies on helping my team get through it as best they can. This helps to prioritize my time, too. After all, when the going gets tough, that’s when people need their leader the most.

1 thought on “What I’ve learned about leadership and change

  1. Way I see it is that there are two kinds of leadership. One you can learn and teach, but the other somehow escapes systematic analysis. The former may be described as leading by management. It can be even highly successful especially in small-scale, definable situations. The other employs ill-defined personal characteristics, often referred to as charisma. One thing I’ve noticed time and again is that if a person does not have innate charisma, it cannot be taught or instilled to him/her by any method I am aware of. Sadly, extremely few Finns possess the kind of charisma a true leader needs.

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