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Our topic this week is Navigating Change and I'll cover 7 critical actions that are vital to keeping momentum and taking the stress out of change.
Why you need to make change happen
A very trusted friend of our family is the COO of a national law firm. In the first paragraph of his profile, he outlines his expertise in professional services firm leadership. He details how, as COO, he has led two companies from $3M turnover to over $100M in turnover. Those are some seriously impressive numbers.
Few executives ever rise to the top without leaving behind them a clear record of transformation. CEOs are looking for leaders who can demonstrate how they’ve innovated, led significant change and succeeded without leaving a trail of destruction.
A track record of success is the rocket fuel of any upward career trajectory. It builds unrivalled credibility and magnetically attracts exciting new opportunities. It shows you can unite people to a cause and smash politicking and bureaucracy. It does much more than making a jump to the executive team achievable—it makes it inevitable.
But in reality, if you’re doing it just for your career you’re in it for the wrong reasons. In the words of Jack London,
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry-rot.”
To put in simply all great Chiefs are dissatisfied with the status quo. They apply a critical lens to everything, even what is currently working tolerably well because they're always seeking excellence. They know that present success guarantees nothing. There’s no such thing as a future-proof strategy. Standing still is the same thing as lying down and waiting to be buried.
Most managers know that they have to lead transformation to make that next big leap in their careers, but making the change happen in the real world is a complex task riddled with pitfalls.
Whole books have been written on Leading and navigating change and the work of John Kotter and others is a solid base that all leaders should know.
I’ve been in the trenches and coached teams from losing to making millions. I’ve done it in multiple industries and continents. I’ve seen first hand where it goes wrong…and how the incredible strain on those leading the change. The teams and chiefs I’ve worked with that got it right are some of the most inspiring people I’ve met. It has been truly a privilege to play a support role to their enormous efforts.
I handpicked the 7 steps I'll cover today because in the trenches of significant change this is where most leaders really struggle or make a critical mistake that costs them victory or delays it for long stressful periods. The 7 Points are:
- Situational leadership
- Unite the leadership team
- Be courageous and bold
- Deeply engage stakeholders
- Raise the bar on internal resistance
- Set a right-sized tactical plan
- Make it fun and a rich human experience
The first step in your navigating change journey is to determine where your business or team is in its transformation journey. There is a very important reason for this. Different situations, different team require a different strategy and leadership approach. A logistics centre that has got out of control and completely toxic requires a different response to a sales team hitting its targets. It’s horses for courses.
If you empower and divulge authority to someone who is new or has low capability in a role you are likely setting them up for failure. In these very challenging and toxic environments, the leadership is hands-on, technical and tactical heavy and quite directive. As you progress through to a more winning culture with high capability people you'll be able to slowly shift to a more empowered leadership style that focuses more on strategy and vision and coaching.
Unite the Leadership Team
Disunity at the top spells disaster for a change project. Leaders heading off on targets that are just 10 degrees apart can end up miles apart at the end and it breeds mistrust, stress and angst amongst the group. The leadership team must be united.
And unity starts with an aspirational vision for the future that makes a positive difference for the people involved and the world at large. The success of your project relies heavily on your ability to develop this a compelling vision from the outset. Do not cut corners at this stage. The more effort here, the stronger are the foundations for long-term success.
Your vision and purpose should meet the following criteria:
- Supports the company vision, purpose and strategy
- Is an aspirational stretch for your team that pushes them to think differently and requires personal and team growth to achieve the vision
- Is crystal clear about the end-state and how the department will operate in the future (not just a one-liner or a picture that can’t be explained)
Remember, people will be quicker to get on board with your transformation when they feel like they are signing up to a cause they believe in and will benefit from. Though they might normally resist change, when animated by a common cause they can see helps them achieve their own goals, they‘ll eagerly clear the path and strike new ground with you because the outcome is far more important than the way things are done and even some of their own priorities.
Getting this right from the beginning forms a tight-knit team and supportive stakeholders that’ll stick together as the inevitable challenges arise. It allows people to cast their minds into the future and define how things are going to be, how they all fit together and the benefits both social and commercial that will come as a result. It will guide you all when the going gets tough.
Be courageous and bold
“Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you'll never be criticized” John North Willys
At the heart of all significant change is a bold and courageous chief. There will be resistance. That I can guarantee you. Nothing worth having comes easy and if there isn't resistance you're probably not forging far enough into new territory.
So many big changes stall or fail because the chief loses faith, energy, spirit and courage. Just picture a time when a leader of wasn't bold and courageous. Your mental strength and bravery through the transformation will be a decisive factor in keeping momentum and inspiring people with your commitment to the cause. You'll make mistakes, you'll have hiccups. Expect it so when it happens you can remain calm and composed. Then pause, reset the direction and harness your greatest self to keep going.
Deeply engage stakeholders
In the transformations that I have worked within or coached the single biggest blocker of progress that can often cost millions is disengaged stakeholders. They simply haven't been engaged actively enough and when they passively or aggressively resist the leader of change is too slow to get on the front foot. They let the resistance fester away and work on more comfortable things like the technical and tactical aspects of the project.
I recall a very clear example where a strained relationship between a manufacturing plant and a supply chain office was costing the business US$15M per year. This was highly stressful and an emotionally charged topic with lots of ‘them' and ‘us' chat around the office. Once the plant leadership properly focused on the cost of this stakeholder relationship and went out of their way to engage their stakeholder they were able to turn it around within a few weeks. It wasn't hard in the end. It just took focused energy and commitment to make the relationship work.
Look at your stakeholders and move mountains to make sure they're fully on board. Understand their KPIs, key projects, challenges and how your project impacts their work. Only then will you understand what you need to do in order to get them fully on board.
Raise the bar on internal resistance
When change is big enough you will have people within your team or further down in the business circling the wagons and resisting your changes. For one reason or another, they're threatened by the changes. Perhaps they think they'll lose their importance or even their job. They can be fierce, powerful and toxic.
Every day that you allow their poor behaviour or low quality work to prevail is a day that your change is delayed. It is another day that people in your business feel stressed, upset and potentially disempowered.
These are the moments when you must harness your inner chief and convert these resistors to your team. In the same process as dealing with stakeholders, you must get know them as humans. Sit down, break bread. Listen and really understand what is going on for them. What are their fears and assumptions and what information have you not shared effectively with them yet.
When creating a team of change champions these powerful resistors can be particularly valuable. Instead of bringing in people already on board reserve a few spots for these tougher characters. Remember, in the end, if you can't turn them then one of the kindest things you can do for them and everyone else is to help them move on with dignity and respect.
Set a right-sized tactical plan
Your team now knows where they should be in two to three years and also why (your purpose). And your peers are on board with the vision. The next logical question is how? And this means pulling the right levers to make the biggest and most effective impact in your area.
Remember, most of the time you’re not setting the whole company strategy. The CEO, executive team and board will most often lead that process which focuses heavily on how your organisation differentiates itself from competitors, which parts of the value chain you will optimise over others to maximise profit and how the organisation will leverage branding, pricing, market entry and exit etc.
What you’re leading is a critical department or team transformation that will ensure the success of the company and department vision. And there are generally four big levers to pull that will transform your department’s performance:
- Talent – The right people with the right skills in the right jobs doing the right work
- Culture – Close interpersonal bonds, teamwork and trust, rituals and traditions, behavioural standards and values, quality of feedback, a mindset for innovation, commitment to stakeholders and customers that drives flow and performance in the team
- Tools and Systems – The technology, processes, data and other tools that your people have which lets them do their job to their full potential.
- Service / Operational Improvements – The list and design of services your department provides or operations it delivers and the economics (including pricing or cost), efficiency and quality control of those services or operations.
Stand back and assess your current department and ask yourself, “which of these is currently the most powerful lever I can pull to achieve the department and organisational vision?”
Now that you have a clear understanding of the levers you want to pull they need to be turned into initiatives that will drive change. This should be fairly logical with a clear line of sight between a project and a performance lift.
The most common pitfall here for leaders is not getting the sub-projects right, it’s doing too many. This is why so many attempts to lead transformation fail right at the beginning. Overload. They create so much busy-ness and activity that its impossible to do it all and none of them succeeds.
Chiefs courageously cut through conflicting interests to set clear priorities. Those destined to spend their entire careers struggling ineffectually in management positions let everything happen at once. It’s a recipe for certain failure.
Laser focus is necessary to make change powerful and lasting. Tackle one issue at a time. When you’re trying to spin too many plates, there are consequences. Everything comes crashing down. Quality suffers, innovation dries up, there’s poor stakeholder management, stress, missed deadlines, and budget blowouts. Projects get cancelled each time you switch strategic direction, and those in your department are left weary and wary of more change.
Have patience and sequence different levers after each other so you create flow and momentum in the transformation. Always keep the end in mind when reviewing your priorities…everything must work towards achieving your vision or it doesn't happen.
Have fun and make it a rich human experience
Significant transformations are hard. Why? They require so much new thinking, so much new design and implementation and understanding. It isn’t flow. And that requires energy. It also produces stress and burnout.
It is very easy in these stressful times to make it all work and no play. To say that you'll celebrate at the end. But this is poor leadership and creates tunnel vision thinking because your entire team is stuck in the weeds of the change.
Your job as a true chief is to make change a human experience. I call is Tx or Transformation Experience. When you create a fun and enjoyable environment with a great culture, celebrations and regular full recovery the change keeps getting refuelled. Without the humanising of the process, your project will lose steam and have all sorts of fighting along the way.
So, make sure you let people re-energise and regain perspective. Handpick people for a few days away. Get the team away at least twice a year together to bond, have fun, celebrate and enjoy.
Have strong rituals and traditions. There is nothing that says we’ve got this like an executive team enjoying themselves during the transformation and not losing the plot during a setback.
Be a great chief in the change process
Chief, change doesn’t fail because you don’t have enough change managers; it fails because those leading the change are vague and uninspiring—they don’t live and breathe and drive the change, so it falls flat.
If you want change to happen and build your track record then you need to be more committed, more involved and more focused than anyone else on the team.
The transformation is on YOU.
And remember the Chief Maker core philosophy – “Ownership Precedes Victory”.
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