As the filter coffee and leftover chocolate cookies are being gathered from across the vast boardroom table, the CEO leans back in his leather chair, stretches, lets out a sigh and purrs to his colleagues, “Excellent presentation, this will make a real difference. . . cutting edge you know and it’s bound to work – it did for GE after all.” And so the scene is set. Following a “nodding dogs” response from the rest of the board, another £500,000 (US$900,000) is headed down the drain along with another brand new initiative.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it – the launch of yet another change initiative triggered by a compelling presentation from external consultants or even the latest textbook. But after decades of initiatives being unleashed on organizations, senior managers should now be able to understand more fully the things that need to be in place to enable successful change.

The Leader Is Critical to Success

Businesses rarely succeed with sustainable transformation initiatives unless they are led from the top. More and more organizations are coming to terms with the fact that there is a direct link between the success of change programs and leadership capabilities. But what does it actually take to be a great leader of change? Experience indicates some attributes that are essential:

  • Vision, courage and conviction.
  • The ability to take risks both at a personal and a business level.
  • The ability to demonstrate commitment to change, not simply demanding it of others.

Organizations such as Motorola and GE that have implemented exceptionally successful change programs include the development of several key attributes in their leadership training.

Commitment of the Top Team Is a Priority

Whether it’s the board of an organization or department heads, committed managers are a key to successful change programs. Managers who only pay lip service to change are one of the swiftest ways to undermine transformation. Building a supportive team is an essential part of the early stages of any effort to restructure, re-design, retool or improve. John Kotter, in his best-selling book Leading Change, refers to such a group as a “Guiding Coalition.”

Kotter chose his terminology carefully. The word “guiding” is chosen to define the group as one that will not actually be implementing change, but rather removing barriers and creating an environment where responsibility is spread throughout the business. Any change program that will be sustainable must involve the full organization.

The word “coalition” (from the Latin coalitus, meaning to grow together) is an alliance, a group that has completely aligned objectives. Putting in place a credible group that acts as one and drives the change relentlessly is critical. Unfortunately, many senior teams struggle to act as a coalition, often pulling in different directions. The biggest threat to any change initiative is when this is done underhandedly, with leaders saying one thing in the boardroom but really challenging the decisions in the corridors. In a true coalition, there is not only unity of thought on the overall objective, but also an environment where differences of opinion on lesser issues can be aired constructively.

Obviously it is not all smooth sailing. Real change can be particularly threatening to managers. After all, they reached their positions by doing things in a certain way. At a fundamental level, senior people have to review their roles, responsibilities, attitudes, behaviors, personal leadership styles and above all – their relationships with each other.

Some of this can be uncomfortable. Experience shows that a true coalition will learn how to work through conflict to get a shared view as to the best way forward. Training and development play a critical role in facilitating this “growing together” of the coalition prior to launching any initiative.

Middle managers need to be on board early. Directors have a key role to play in leading from the top, but the attitudes and behaviors of middle managers also are vitally important. During the initial stages of a change program, there can be a great deal of excitement and activity. Keeping middle managers fully informed can ensure there isn’t a feeling of being marginalized. An ignored manager can end up undermining and blocking the change progress. Process improvement teams with good local management support tend to go from strength to strength. Conversely, such teams fizzle out and have to be rekindled when managers aren’t interested or see teams as a threat to their role.

Creating a Powerful Vision Is Vital

Developing a clear vision is important in making a culture change a reality. With an inspiring vision, people can see the exciting possibilities of the future and can begin to act in accordance with them. Keeping the vision in the forefront of an organization’s thinking will ensure that energy and focus are sustained.

What will the organization look like during and after the change program? Why should individuals and teams be engaged? What’s in it for them? What are the concerns that will emerge and how can they be addressed? These are all critical questions that a powerful vision can address.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

All organizations know that culture change communication takes time and effort – but the investment is worthwhile. It is critical for people to be reminded of the vision but also how far they have come. This helps maintain morale and belief in the change process. Positive evidence that things are changing will combat any cynics.

Communicate about 10 times more frequently than you think is necessary. Reseach shows that on average the total amount of communication going to an employee during a three-month period is 2.3 million words or numbers, transmitted in meetings, notice boards, bulletins, etc. The typical communication of a change vision during a period of three months is approximately 13,400 words or numbers. So on average the vision communication captured only 0.58 percent of the company communication market share – nowhere near enough.

Communication is not through words alone – it’s the dance and the music too. Clear messages are sent through actions. It never ceases to amaze that companies struggle to re-launch an improvement program after just having concluded a downsizing where change facilitators were first on the list to go.

Create and Train the Facilitators of Change

Engaging people throughout the organization in change activities is a departure from the old directive style of leadership. The best way to enable broad-based action through teamwork and securing the success of change teams is by trained facilitators. (The word facilitator comes from the Latin facere, meaning to make easy or simple.) Armed with powerful tools of problem-solving and an ability to inject energy and enthusiasm, these individuals can be the catalyst of any change initiative. By seeking volunteers from the organization who, with training, can be capable and credible agents of change, the backbone of change will be in place.

Organizations using Six Sigma as their improvement initiative should select appropriate Black Belt training programs for their facilitators. Some Black Belt certifications emphasize technical, analytical or statistical skills and ignore people skills. With too much emphasis on the technical, organizations can be thrown into confusion when Black Belts return from their development program all fired up and speaking a new, unfamiliar language. Black Belt training should be a balance of hard (tools and statistical analysis) and soft (behavioral skills). Then the outcome is likely to be the sound application of cutting edge techniques that are clearly understood and warmly received.

Meanwhile back in the boardroom, the coffee has been cleared away and the meeting is beginning to wrap up. Then, one by one, board members begin asking questions: “How will we communicate this to the business?” “How can we engage our middle managers?” “Has anyone thought about how we can resource it with trained facilitators?” “What exactly do we expect this will achieve – what will the business be like in two to three years as a result?” “What capabilities will I need to develop to make this change program a success?”

Time to pour some coffee. The real discussion has begun.

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