Effective Change Leadership Requires Action
Reed Deshler | May 17, 2016
Today, top level executives have more pressure than ever to deliver differentiated products and winning strategies to the marketplace. Much of the overall design vision and ability to give clients what they need before they themselves know it, rests squarely on the shoulders of executives. This responsibility, among other things, means that a leader can make a difference between a successful customer strategy and a failed one.
So, what does an effective leader who envisions and builds an organization capable of delivering differentiated products and winning strategies look like? What practices can executives adopt to steer a successful path? The following describes three attributes that are common among the effective leaders with whom we have worked and sets them apart as exemplary leaders of change transformation.
Dive in and get your hands dirty. One of the first things, very apparent to all involved, is the level to which the senior leader is willing to dive into the work. This means beginning-to-end involvement that signifies to employees that change transformation work is important and worth the time to get right.
All too often, we see leaders play an active role only in the beginning of the strategy or launch of the change . However, they tend to fade to the background as the work becomes more granular and trickles down through the organization. Although an executive’s time is limited, being engaged throughout the work signifies the project’s importance and demonstrates change leadership.
This point was made forcefully at a recent client. From the beginning, the CEO was very engaged in a company-wide organization redesign. The CEO played an active role in the room as sponsor and promoter of the work. As the work cascaded to the next levels down, the CEO stayed engaged in critical decision points and would periodically show up unannounced to team meetings.
Specifically, during the top-level design work sessions, the CEO had voiced a strong opinion that he didn’t want to just move people around when implementing the design but instead wanted to use this change transformation to rotate and develop talent in the company. When it came time to select individuals for positions, everyone expected the CEO to participate in the top level selection process, which he did. What people didn’t anticipate was that the CEO unexpectedly showed up for the next level of selection. And then he showed up for the level after that, too.
Through his seriousness and dedication in implementation, the CEO communicated not only a strategically-aligned design but also his commitment to assessing and reassigning talent in strategic roles by attending all of the talent selection meetings personally. He stamped out any legacy thinking around how people transitioned in the old organization and where they worked. In other words, he got his hands dirty, made time in his schedule, and helped the company implement the best design to realize the benefits the company needed to grow.
A sixth sense for dissension and indecision. Implementing a new design can be difficult for employees and leaders alike, and dissension and reticence regularly occur. However, an effective change leader must have the ability to sniff out even the subtlest sign of dissension among leaders about the design.
For example, leaders that are having a hard time making decisions can seem harmless and natural in a new design. However, a good alignment leader has the ability to sense the rationale behind the indecision. For some, there will never be enough data and they just want to drag their feet. For others, things will never be clear enough or risk-free enough. An effective change leader specifically calls out the true nature of these mini-dissensions masked as incurable doubts or a lack of data and drives the work forward. For this kind of leader, hiding behind delays is not an option. They force the issues to the surface and shift the focus in order to find the right solutions and by so doing move the work forward.
Focus on overall behavior change. Some executives are more concerned with timelines and headcount than about behavior change. Yes, timelines and headcount are important aspects to running a business and achieving the outcomes of a change transformation. But, how a change leader demands accountability and measures success signals to the company, leaders, and employees what you find to be the most important.
Instead of measuring success solely on timelines and headcount, consider a few alternatives:
- Look for success stories. We have seen many successful leaders go out into the field and collect success stories from employees on the front lines. Then, as leaders move throughout the organization, they share these stories, which not only gives people an idea of how to succeed in times of change but also that success is more than just hitting a deadline or making a budget number.
- Ask for progress reports through qualitative, behavior-driven questions. Imagine you are attending a team meeting. Instead of asking the typical questions about time, head count, getting into the red, etc., ask questions like, “What evidence do you have that the people in Latin America understand the intent behind our new strategy?” Or, “Do you have any good examples of employees acting or behaving with our customers using our new strategy?”
Modeling for employees your emphasis on behavior change will drive home your message and cause a ripple effect throughout the organization. Behavior change does not need to completely replace timelines and head count numbers, but it will help to shift the focus from outcomes that might mean little to organizational members to ones that matter in the day-to-day life of people.
The role of a leader in today’s market isn’t easy. Differentiated products, deep customer understanding, and winning strategies drive market growth and success but are difficult to obtain. We have found that successful companies most often have decisive change leaders who drive success through their commitment and action. These leaders get their hands dirty, drive behavior change, and sniff out dissension to drive design implementation and overall business success.