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Leadership of change

Jul 17th

When clients talk to us about leadership capability, we always ask: “What is leadership for, in this business? What is the ambition they must collectively lead?”. This issue also includes: seeing the whole picture; conversations as a leadership intervention; and the risks of working with leaders.

Editor’s view

Leadership of change

When clients talk to us about leadership capability, we always ask: “What is leadership for, in this business? What is the ambition they must collectively lead?”

In today’s climate, the answer is often this: Leadership must realise the benefits of the change we are driving through the organisation.

The hard truth is that most strategies and change programmes fail to deliver their planned business benefits because of the way they’re led. Only with active and aligned leadership across the organisation can you secure the business benefits you have planned. But leadership of change is right at the heart of the tough stuff. Getting the best from people after a restructure. Driving through new ways of working that overturn entrenched practice. Rapid integration of cultures after a merger or acquisitions. These common scenarios present multiple challenges that can derail all but the most committed, focused and unified leadership teams.

As a result, the planned benefits of the change often drift away as the change plays out its typical dynamics of resistance, uncertainty, anxiety and divergent agendas. Leaders can find themselves no more than coping – managing the change instead of leading it from the front with a clear and sustained vision of success.

What’s the answer? In my experience, you can’t overdo thorough preparation as a united leadership group. Get everyone in the same room and thrash it out in detail, however over the top it may seem at the time. Is everyone absolutely clear what the change aims to achieve? Can everyone explain to any member of the organisation why it’s worth the pain for them? Is everyone using the same language? Even a small difference of words and tone between individual leaders can set a trap for the unwary and be the difference between consistent leadership and mixed messages that undermine your aims. A day spent rehearsing exactly how you’re going to align to achieve the planned benefits of the change will more than repay the investment of leadership time and effort.

In the news

Seeing the whole picture

Ever since Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Booker Prize I can’t get enough of this extraordinary novelist and the worlds she creates. Its a skill leaders today would do well to emulate.

Ever since Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Booker Prize with her brilliant Wolf Hall, I can’t get enough of this extraordinary novelist. I’ve just finished her 2005 Beyond Black about a troubled middle-aged woman making a living as a medium, promoting her paranormal services at suburban psychic fayres with a retouched portrait draped in apricot polyester, reading palms and diversifying into spiritualist hen nights. It couldn’t be further from Wolf Hall’s evocation of the court of Henry VIII. But what both books achieve is the total creation of a complete world. You know how it looks, how it smells and sounds, even the taste of the food. You have constant access to the real thoughts and feelings of the inhabitants along with sharp observation of the outward appearances they struggle to maintain.

Being drawn into the richness of this complete world created with such care by this great novelist made me reflect on how often our vision is blunted by laziness. Often, our perspectives are far too narrow. If we are focused on the task we have to achieve, we will often overlook the importance of listening and talking to people. If our commitment to our agenda, our part of the business, is undoubted, we may pay little attention to how we can best contribute to leading the whole business.

I’ve heard many leaders take pride in being ‘big picture’ people who ‘don’t do detail’. Hilary Mantel reminds us that the detail matters. The big picture is made up of a myriad small truths as well as broad themes, and our understanding is greatly enriched by seeing all of them for what they are.

Tip of the month

Conversations as a leadership intervention

We hear a lot about the art of giving feedback, but less about the skills involved in receiving feedback. The way you respond when you perceive a critical message sends a powerful signal about what leaders care about. That makes it one of the most important factors that shape the culture – usually not something best done off the top of your head.

  • You can send a positive signal in response to even the most negative or clumsily-phrased message. I once saw a Chief Executive turn the mood of 500 people around just by the way he listened to and acknowledged the fierce anger of a junior employee when she attacked him in an open meeting about the downsizing he was leading.
  • Don’t take it personally – however personal it is. Remind yourself that learning can be extracted from almost any experience, and you can put this one to good use.
  • Re-frame if necessary. Look for a meaningful or useful message in what’s being said (however buried) and play it back: “What I’m taking from this is…”
  • Say thank you for taking the trouble to talk. It’s not easy to say difficult things (much easier to talk behind your back), so make it easier for them, not harder, and acknowledge the courage and effort it took, even if you didn’t enjoy it.

Your questions answered

What are the risks of working with leaders?

A client asked me this very good question in a discussion about leadership capability. You’ve talked about the risk for us as leaders of the organisation, he said, but what are the risks for you as leadership practitioners? What keeps you awake at night?

This is the answer I came up with:

  • Being spat out. If leaders don’t like what we have to offer, they are in the driving seat and they can simply reject it by disagreeing with it or devaluing it. That’s why we work so hard to tailor leadership work to the real needs of the business, and make sure we work with real business challenges, not just set-piece leadership material.
  • Not having impact. By impact, we mean getting through to leaders, getting under their skin so that they personally choose to make the effort to do something differently. I’ve heard Harvard residential leadership courses described as, “Great networking, but not really relevant to my role here.” That’s not having impact.
  • Cynics, perhaps surprisingly, don’t bother us. They are sometimes just looking for something to engage them, and their energy can quite suddenly turn around to become a positive driving force. One of my best moments running a leadership course was hearing a cynic say, “I’ve never before seen a good reason to change my default style. Now, I see a reason to make that effort.”

So that’s what keeps us awake at night … and the challenge that makes us want to go to work in the morning.

This article is filed under: Change, , leadership, people

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