Lead Yourself through Change

(Originally appeared in Leadership in Action, CCL/Jossey-Bass, San Francisco,Volume 25, Number 4, September 2005)

Does leading your organization through change have to feel like trudging through a swamp of molasses? After all, everybody says they want more collaboration, faster decisions, and a focus more on customers than on internal politics. Yet it can be so exasperating to see managers and employees desperately cling to the way they’ve always done things, even as they nod in agreement about how things need to change.

What most of us fail to recognize is that trying to change our organizations without changing ourselves first simply doesn’t work.  To enable change beyond superficial window-dressing, we must look at what we, ourselves, are doing to maintain the status quo. The enemy of change is often looking back in the mirror. We just need the courage to look.

As Above, So Below

Executives fall into three common traps as they attempt to lead their organizations through change. The first – expecting others to change without personally changing.

Rick, the CEO of a consumer products company, complained that his highly paid vice presidents bounced decisions to him that they should have made on their own. This prevented him from fulfilling the strategic aspect of his role, which included identifying potential acquisitions that would fuel growth. Instead, Rick spent much of his time resolving internal squabbles. Ironically, his direct reports voiced similar complaints – their own staffs bickered constantly and rarely made decisions without their blessing, which slowed down the pace of new product introductions and stymied innovation.

What Rick didn’t realize was that his own behavior set the stage for the dramas that followed. For instance, in meetings he spent most of his time opposing others’ points-of view or criticizing team members for their bad decisions. Often, he’d display impatience with a topic, declare a quick solution and delegate execution.

When Rick wanted something done quickly he often delegated the task to two of his direct reports, who tripped over each other to accomplish his objective. This was like throwing kerosene on a fire: Departments withheld information from each other just to curry favor and get Rick’s attention.

But Rick’s leadership caught up with him. The Board of Directors started applying more pressure for him to present a new acquisition target. The Chairman confronted Rick about how he was spending his time, which Rick resented. It was not easy for an aggressive, successful executive to hear this feedback.

But it was only when Rick realized, deep down, that he couldn’t continue the path he was on and expect the company to be successful that he made some changes – not to others, but to himself. First, he stopped attending planning meetings. Rather, he asked his executive group to recommend solid options for him to respond to. This forced them to pull together as a team, without using him as an excuse for their lack of decisiveness.

He also stopped pitting his Type A executives against each other. Rather, he clarified his and their roles and authority levels. And then he stuck to his commitments.

By changing his own behavior, Rick reconditioned his direct reports to behave differently. As a result, they collaborated with each other more, which led to less second-guessing of decisions. Ironically, this resulted in faster and more innovative new product introductions, prompting Rick to reconsider whether an acquisition was even necessary. After all, if internally generated new products could fuel growth and capture market share, then why go outside?

Yet without changing his own leadership style first, none of this would have happened, and Rick would have only had himself to blame for his organization maintaining its unhealthy status quo.

Watch Your Language

The second trap that many executives fall into is being sloppy in describing what they want, rather than precisely conveying what is needed and why.

Rhonda was hired by a successful industrial company to establish a new marketing strategy. After two months the plan was still not approved, and Rhonda grew frustrated with what she considered the slow pace of change. She often said, “We need a revolution in marketing,” or “this marketing system is broken and it’s got to be fixed.”

When Rhonda framed the change she sought in such dramatic language, people around her felt unfairly criticized. Who gave this newcomer who hadn’t earned “her stripes” the right to judge them so harshly when they had been successful for so long? Thus, by failing to shape her language in ways that supported her agenda, Rhonda slowed rather than accelerated implementation.

On a particularly difficult day, Rhonda shared her frustration with a colleague. Rather than accept Rhonda’s complaints as legitimate, her colleague gave her specific feedback about how she was “shooting herself in the foot” with her attempts at influencing the company.

He also challenged whether her own agenda was consistent with the company’s. When Rhonda reflected on her motives for taking the job, she realized that she had a personal goal to make a big splash soon after joining the company. This drove her to push harder than the situation required. After thinking it through, Rhonda began to change the language she used to influence those around her. While she still emphasized the need for change, she began to speak in less threatening ways. For instance, Rhonda spoke of evolution and tuning rather than revolution and fixing. To her surprise, the pace of change actually accelerated once Rhonda cut others, and herself, some slack.

How executives talk about their work reflects their core intentions as well as how savvy they are about leading change. Language has a direct effect on others’ behaviors and attitudes. By being mindful of the language they use, leaders engaged in implementing change can become more effective. Without this level of thoughtfulness, executives risk undermining the very things they desire.

Resist Resistance

A particularly inflammatory, and common, word tossed about regarding change is resistance. This is the third trap that executives fall into: Mistaking resistance for opposition.

Change is often threatening, particularly when imposed. Even something as innocuous as a new email system requires people to drop from the level of competence they had gained by using the earlier system. Now they must go through an uncomfortable transition while needing to learn something new. This leads to self-doubt and fear of looking bad, which are natural when we are confronted with something unfamiliar. Unfortunately, leaders often mistake this natural process as opposition, which it is not.

When leaders mistake behavior as opposition and label people “resistant,” we tend to isolate them as stubborn, or as dead wood, or even worse. And when we label people that way, we exclude, go around, or even steamroller them to implement our ideas. Of course, people who feel steamrollered do not enjoy the lack of respect, so they then begin to oppose us. Thus, leaders create the very opposition that wasn’t there in the first place – a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy!

Amy, the manager of customer service for a health care products distribution company, had to implement handheld computer technology for inventory to reduce process time and errors. Amy’s firm was losing customers, and decided to implement the same system.

Yet Amy’s employees continued using their paper-and-pencil methods to order inventory, claiming the computer-based system was flawed and even slower.

At first Amy tried to sell her people on the benefits of the new technology. But she became increasingly frustrated by their intransigence, and she pushed them even harder. This led to turnover of some good people, and even lower productivity.

Finally, Amy realized that her people weren’t resisting the new system, but were trying to hold on to what the old system provided; namely, the feelings of self worth and mastery that came with performing a job well.

Amy changed her approach. She focused on ways to help her people preserve their feelings of confidence and self-esteem while they shifted to the new methodology. Specifically, she had them continue to use the paper and pencil methods in parallel to the hand-held computer system for a while, so they could feel good about their work while they learned the new process. She also stopped relying on the outside vendor to train her people, and only permitted her own people to act as trainers (after all, she thought, internal people who learned the system would be less threatening as trainers). Finally, she made it clear that phasing in to the handheld computer system was non-negotiable.

These three shifts in Amy’s approach did the trick, and the new technology was soon embraced (staff even joked about the BC age – before computers).

But only by changing her own concept of resistance was Amy able to lead effectively. Rather than seeing resistance as people opposing her, she began to see resistance as a natural process of people holding on to something they valued while trying something new. This shift in her own mind-set helped Amy see new options as a leader, and she could then apply the same concept to other changes she wanted to make.

Changing organizations should not be taken lightly. People are too savvy to be manipulated with “programs du jour” or with pep rallies exhorting them to change. Rather, all of us as leaders need to consider changing ourselves in order to get different results. Otherwise, we shouldn’t expect others to follow any differently than they do right now.