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!”

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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