Are your managers committed to your cause or merely complying?

Many leaders assume their managers automatically will commit to their initiative, direction or strategy. They believe they should not have to ask for their managers’ commitment.

They come from a school of thought that says that managers are obliged to align when their boss asks for it. It’s a belief to the effect of, “We shouldn’t have to beg you to get on board. This is your job. That’s what you are paid to do. This isn’t a democracy. As soon as you understand the rationale and valid business reasons for this initiative, direction or strategy, you should be fully behind it, driving it.” This attitude and assumptions are unfounded, incorrect and dangerous. It often stems from the misunderstanding that compliance is the same as, or similar to commitment. It isn’t.

Let’s be clear, low levels of commitment do not mean that people won’t do their jobs. When people are afraid of being fired because of low performance they tend to do what it takes to keep their jobs. Plus, from a less cynical viewpoint, most people are proficient enough at their jobs to perform them without needing to apply their full passion, dedication, intelligence, and commitment. We can assume the pyramids were not built by what anyone would call an enthusiastic workforce. Therefore, in most cases, lukewarm organizational commitment to a strategy or initiative will not inherently guarantee its failure.

But true commitment goes far beyond compliance. When managers are committed, they behave differently in fundamental ways:

  • They invest their hearts and souls in the cause
  • They perform their roles with passion and energy
  • They take on bold promises and commitments
  • They follow through with extraordinary levels of tenacity and perseverance; they don’t give up
  • They look out for opportunities to improve, fix and perfect things
  • They genuinely care for others who are on the journey with them
  • They ignite their people to operate at the same level.

A committed organization is one whose managers and employees work harder to accomplish their tasks. It’s a place where people anticipate problems and resolve them early before they fester. Excuses are not tolerated – only answers and actions to how problems are going to be fixed. People love coming to work. They’re more productive, creative, attentive and aware.

Contrast that with an environment of compliance, where people don’t take the new initiatives to heart. They don’t ache for it or want it in their gut. If the initiative fails, they don’t lose sleep over it. In fact, they brush it off as someone else’s fault. Because they don’t view the game as their own, they avoid expressing their views including when they feel things are not working the way they should. And, if things fail they have no problem taking out the “I told you so” card. They detach themselves emotionally from its success or failure, and by making few or no guarantees to deliver specific outcomes, they are less likely to see a personal role in making the initiatives happen.

If you wanted to join a team, which of the two would you want to be a part of?

Are you bringing leadership to your change?

In last week’s blog “Do you know how to overcome the key barriers to change?” I outlined two key barriers that will challenge your ability to stay the course when transforming your organization to the next level, and how to overcome them.  The first one was: “Not tolerating a temporary dip in performance and/or results” and the second, “Making the focus on continuing the existing a higher priority than the focus on generating the new future.” In this blog, I will share another four barriers.

Remember, whilst all the barriers are closely related, they are distinct from each other.

Barrier 3: Buying into people’s complaints that they are too busy:

When you articulate a bold and compelling next-level future for your organization and start executing it, there will be a phase in which people will be expected to juggle both their existing objectives (i.e., their day job), while also spending time driving the new initiatives and tasks that will propel the organization toward its new future.

If you are lucky, you can hire a few additional people to support the new initiatives. However, in most cases, you can’t go out and hire a complete new crew to work on the new stuff while the current team continues to work on the existing things. The same people have to do both, and for a period of time, people will feel stretched and overwhelmed. It’s inevitable.

You can’t ignore people’s complaints. In fact, you need to think out of the box, be innovative and look for ways to do things differently, as well as motivate and incent people in this transition. This will send the right message to your team.

You also can’t buy into people’s complaints. You can’t compromise on the key principles and expectations of the change. People will see that you don’t have the resolve and courage. The consequence will be detrimental to your success.

Here is a typical example: I was working with a technology company that really needed and wanted to take their game to a new level. They set out toward a bold future that would take their sales performance, market share, culture and brand to a new level. We started with the senior leadership team and then engaged the middle managers. Everything was going very well, and everyone was excited about the new direction.

But, when they started to execute on their new initiatives reality kicked in and leaders and managers found themselves confronted with the extra work required to drive both their existing core business and their new initiatives.

The managers believed in the change so they kept pushing forward. However, the senior leaders became the issue. They started to drop the ball – they came late to initiative meetings, they didn’t keep deadlines and they complained the most. Unfortunately, instead of holding his leaders to account and demanding their role model behavior, the CEO, despite his declarations to the contrary, bought into his leaders’ complaints and tolerated their lack of leadership commitment and behavior. Eventually, the managers became discouraged and that was the end of that change!

Barrier 4: Expecting results and progress rather than relentlessly driving them:

The operative word here is “expecting”. During change initiatives, I often hear leaders say things like “We should be further along,” “the initiatives are not achieving big enough results,” and “we don’t see a change in behavior yet.”

If you mapped out the trend of a change initiative, more often than not it would look like a horizontal hockey stick. That is the nature of the beast. At first, you invest a lot of effort and energy without seeing a lot of return and at some point, things begin to take off.

Expecting progress, change and results is the wrong approach. You have to drive it! Just like you wouldn’t dig out a flower seed every week after you planted it to see if its making progress, you can’t second-guess yourself, your direction or your team.

In fact, if you want to succeed in your change initiative you have to manage your expectations and have the mindset that your job is not to “see if it works” but rather to “ensure and prove that it works”.

Barrier 5: Getting discouraged after the first wave of enthusiasm and excitement wears off:

A change initiative is like a marriage. After a while, the honeymoon will be over, and you will have to keep regenerating and refueling people’s energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to the cause. You have to keep enrolling your people in why the change is important, what the new future will look like and what possibilities and improvements it holds for the company and for them.

You also have to understand that at different phases of the initiative people will get energized by, and engaged from different things.

Phase one is all about creation. In this phase, the excitement comes from people envisioning, imagining, hoping and believing in the new future state with all its benefits to the company and them. People also get excited in this phase by seeing their leaders as genuinely committed to the change and open to everyone’s engagement and contribution toward it.

Phase two is about execution. This is the toughest and most critical phase of any change initiative. In fact, this is the phase in which most companies fail. This is the stage when people work the hardest without easily seeing the progress and return of their efforts. It is critical in this phase for leaders to keep focusing on, promoting, highlighting and recognizing any/all progress, wins and improvements, even small ones. That helps people to continue to be optimistic, hopeful about the change.

Phase three is about momentum. This is when the change has taken hold and noticeable improvements and wins are abundant. It’s easier to motivate people in this phase as they can more naturally see the changes and improvements and feel accomplished by being a part of the journey.

Understanding how a change initiative will unfold equips you to overcome this barrier.

Barrier 6: Blaming others and circumstances for what isn’t working, rather than taking 100% ownership and responsibility:

It seems that leaders who don’t stay the course always tend to justify their failure with excuses and blame. I often hear them explain their failure with excuses like: “There was too much going on”, “The change initiative interfered with our core business or results”, and “People stopped being on board”. The quitters worry more about their own personal brand and image and how they will be perceived. They tend to want to cover their behind.

In contrast, leaders who stay the course tend to always look inward for the source of what is working and not working – especially what isn’t working. They don’t care about blame or fault. They only care about how to make sure the promise of the new future will stay alive and be realized.

When things go well they become nervous and shake people up in order to avoid complacency or arrogance. When things don’t go well they rally their teams and engage in questions such as – “what are we doing or not doing that is causing this?” and “what could we do differently?”

To summarize: you wouldn’t think of running a Marathon without the proper preparation and training. You wouldn’t just show up on the day of the race expecting to run. Well, it is exactly the same with any significant change initiative!

The more you educate and prepare yourself the more you can anticipate, expect and be ready for overcoming the inevitable barriers. If you don’t prepare these obstacles will catch you by surprise and overwhelm you.

As the boxer, Mike Tyson put it: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth!”

Do you know how to overcome the key barriers to change?

In my last blog, I discussed the question: “Do you have what it takes to stay the course?” Well, it takes extraordinary levels of courage, determination, and faith to take on a bold change initiative, stay the course and see it through. In this blog (part two of three) I want to delve a bit deeper into what it actually takes and what you should expect it you take on such a bold endeavor.

If you commit to creating and fulfilling a bold next-level future for your team or organization, the universe will test and challenge your courage and resolve. You can count on it!

At first, you will have to invest ten units of effort to drive one unit of progress. It will feel like struggle and hardship; like pushing a rock up a steep mountain. The universe will send obstacles and barriers your way, and only after you have proven that you can stay the course no matter what, things will ease up and you will start experiencing more positive progress, improvement, and momentum toward your vision.

W.H. Murray, the Scottish Himalayan Expedition leader of 1950 put it quite vividly:

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

If you don’t understand, expect and prepare for this dynamic your chances to succeed are slim. Unfortunately, I have seen too many change initiatives start out with so much promise and enthusiasm only to fail through a slow and painful death exactly for this reason – lack of understanding, anticipation, and preparation for the obstacles and how to overcome them.

So, what are the key obstacles that will challenge your ability to stay the course when transforming your organization to the next level, and how do you overcome them?

I have identified six barriers that I have repeatedly seen over many years of transforming organizations (no particular order). I am going to share two of these in this blog and four more next week.  These barriers are distinct from each other but they are closely related:

Barrier 1: Not tolerating a temporary dip in performance and/or results:

Consider this rare and true example: I was coaching a sales team of a technology company, in which team members felt extremely overworked and stressed. People worked long hours, including weekends and holidays to meet their numbers and needless to say “work-life-balance” was a big issue.

The General Manager of that organization, who was a bold, demanding but fair leader, came out with an edict to transform his team’s predicament: “no one was allowed to work past 8pm on weekdays or at any time on the weekend.” He made it clear that everyone was still expected to deliver their numbers, and that offenders of his new rule would be punished. At first, people were shocked and many were skeptical. However, after firing the first person that violated his new policy people started to take notice.

In the first month, the team missed its numbers by 20%. Everyone expected the General Manager to cancel his “unrealistic” policy, but he didn’t. In the second month, the results were still around 10% blow and only in month three the team met its number. But, what happened after that was quite extraordinary. Not only did the team start to exceed their numbers on a frequent basis, but the overall energy, commitment, and dialogue of the team shifted to be much more productive and powerful, and more oriented around how to do more with less.

Unfortunately, this example is indeed rare. Most leaders can’t tolerate even the slightest temporary dip in performance. They panic at the first sign of a dip, and they often react in negative ways that set the team back and send a message that they don’t have the courage and faith to stay the course.

When you take on creating and fulfilling a new future there is a high likelihood that things will get worst before they get better. It’s not a slogan. You have to expect it.

If you can’t tolerate this dynamic you will keep returning backward instead of pushing forward to overcome this barrier. The good news, however, is that if you do stay the course and reach the other side of this barrier, things will get even better than they were before you started.

Barrier 2: Making the focus on continuing the existing activities a higher priority than the focus on generating the new future:

At the outset of change initiatives pretty much all leaders declare that creating a new future for the company and taking the game to the next level is “mission critical.” However, unfortunately in most cases, it doesn’t take much or long before leaders get spooked by the uncertainty of the transition from the old to the new, and they start paying lip service to their own declaration. They start behaving in a way that makes it obvious to people around them that the new future is a “nice to have.”

The remedy is simple, stay the course! Stay true to your declaration and commitment, do what you said, and keep promoting, driving and demanding actions and behaviors that are consistent with the new future. Don’t get distracted by the temporary confusion, uncertainty, doubts and the roller coaster of emotions that people experience in the change journey.

Don’t miss next week’s blog where I share four more barriers to transformation.   

Do you have what it takes to stay the course?


I have coached so many teams and organizations in creating bold and aspirational strategies. Every team emerges from this exercise highly optimistic, energized and eager to achieve a better future for itself. Typically, people are most enthusiastic about the boldest, most far-reaching aspirations they commit to, which they often don’t know how to achieve at the outset. However, they believe and hope these bold aspirations would change their game and take them to a new level.

Time and time again I am impressed and inspired by people’s genuine enthusiasm, commitment and resolve to realize aspirational goals that at the outset are viewed as extremely desirable but often, highly unlikely or even a bit impossible.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fulfilling and realizing the unlikely or impossible there are two types of teams… or perhaps I should say, two types of leaders: those who stay the course and those who don’t.

Some leaders love the thrill of a new idea, fad or beginning, especially when it helps them to engage and motivate their teams around a new purpose.  As long as their effort continues to progress with even mild success, and managers and employees continue to feel good about the process and engage in its activities, these leaders stay engaged and they continue to invest their own commitment, energy, time and resources in the process.

However, the minute things get tough or messy, instead of doubling down and using challenges as opportunities for change, these leaders quickly become skeptical, lose their commitment, energy and resolve, and eventually they simply get distracted by other activities, lose interest, disengage and move on to the next new thing…

It is easier to stay engaged and focused at the beginning of big change initiatives when everyone is at the initial excitement stage, there is increased goodwill all around, and people tend to be on their best behavior in areas such as trust, teamwork, and collaboration.

However, if you take on any Big Hairy Audacious Goal, it is inevitable that at some point in the journey you will have to confront your barriers to change. Marathon runners describe this as hitting the wall. It’s the moment, about half way through the run, when overwhelming fatigue kicks in and you feel like you may not have what it takes to finish the race. It’s a devastating and discouraging feeling. If you buy into this it can really hurt your performance. However, if you anticipate this phenomenon you can be ready for it and get through the tough patches with minimal distractions in focus, commitment, and effectiveness.

It is exactly the same thing when pursuing big aspirations and dreams!

The wall often manifests as:

  • People feeling overwhelmed with keeping up with their existing jobs while pursuing future work, initiatives taking too much time and energy to launch or demonstrate results, and
  • People beginning to disengage because of growing frustrations, skepticism and doubt.

Those who trust the process, push forward and stay the course, no matter what, achieve extraordinary results. I have witnessed this so many times.

In fact, I was in a recent meeting with a global sales leadership team where we were reviewing progress in their seven transformation initiatives.  Whilst their entire strategy was extremely bold, two of their initiatives were so out of the box that when they took them on two years ago they didn’t know how to achieve them or if they were achievable at all. Needless to say, they figured both out and were well on the way to generate some meaningful breakthroughs. But, what impressed and inspired me most was the comfort and confident these leaders had with tackling bold and impossible goals. For them “Anything is possible” was not merely a motivational slogan, but rather a way of thinking that they brought to all challenges and opportunities. Their reward was that when their company was going through cost reduction they were one of the only teams worldwide that continued to receive headcount and investment.

Unfortunately, most leaders are not good at staying the course.

Many leaders simply don’t know how to stay focused when they don’t know what to do next. They tend to stall, stop and eventually give up. Others can’t tolerate things getting worst – before they get better – so they react badly to chaos, messy situations and unpredicted challenges, which are inevitable in any big game.

Many leaders simply don’t know how to stay focused when they don’t know what to do next. They tend to stall, stop and eventually give up. Others can’t tolerate things getting worst – before they get better – so they react badly to chaos, messy situations and unpredicted challenges, which are inevitable in any big game.

Most leaders and teams fall short or fail to achieve their intended transformation outcomes not because they go all out all the way and fail, but rather because they don’t stay the course and they give up at the most critical time in the process.

And, to add insult to injury, most leaders don’t take ownership and acknowledge the simple truth: “We just didn’t stay the course!”. They usually tend to justify their failure with excuses like: “There is too much going on”, “The change initiative is interfering with our core business or results”, and “People are no longer on board”.

The cost of not staying the course is not merely in failing to achieve higher levels of performance and results, but more importantly, the overt and covert cynicism that comes with defeat to achieve great aspirations and dreams.

My recommendation to leaders who want to achieve big hairy audacious goals and dreams: Stay the course no matter what or don’t start at all!