Courage, care and communication: a toolkit to lead through change

August, 2016
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Being a leader in this time of flux is a challenge. How will you come up on the winning side?

Being a leader in this time of flux is a challenge. Some are good enough to push through the inevitable setbacks and steer their businesses from strength to strength. Many will flounder. How will you come up on the winning side?

Leading through change demands a different set of skills and strengths to the ones you find on the standard ‘what makes a good leader’ list. Upheaval brings the best and the worst out in all of us, and leaders, as the example-setters, have the most important role to play.

Richard Jolly is Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. As Co-Director of the School’s Leading Change programme, he’s one of the world’s top authorities on the challenges of leading through change. He’s boiled his years of experience down to ten key takeaways.

  • Focus your time on your key priorities – don’t get distracted by the thousands of things competing for your attention. Analyse what percentage of your time you spend on your top three priorities – you probably allow yourself to get distracted by easy, trivial activities that don’t add real value to the organisation. Protecting time to think is critical – don’t fall victim to ‘hurry sickness
  • Build your team – they need to understand your ambition and be committed to ensuring it happens. Recent research found that 68% of employees questioned didn’t understand their company’s vision. How can people work together towards a shared goal if they don’t know what it is?
  • Over-communicate – people want to know where we are going and what, specifically, you need them to do differently to get there. People feel valued simply by leaders sharing information with them. It shows that you trust your staff and helps them to do their job. Most senior executives are terrible communicators, but think they are great. And ask for feedback to check employees have understood.
  • Have the courage to confront the difficult conversations – things typically get worse the longer you avoid them. Base these conversations on facts, not feelings. You need proof of how people aren’t hitting the mark. Remember that as a leader, you’re a teacher. You need to give your employees the information they need to do well, even if it’s hard to give.
  • Create an environment where people believe they can impact the firm – the role of senior executives is increasingly not to lead change, but to create the conditions for others to do so. ‘Command and control’ increasingly doesn’t work in complex organisations. You can’t impose change – your employees need to find their own ways to solve the challenges and bring them to the table. It’s your job to empower them to do that.
  • Be a role model of the behaviours you want from others – people aren’t really listening to what you say, but they are mimicking your behaviours. Role models have an infectious passion for their work and live according to their true beliefs. People have a sixth sense for integrity in others.
  • Trust your instincts – in the second half of your career, you are more likely to fail because you are too careful. You are not in a china shop. Organisations typically fail not because they have the wrong strategy, but because employees don’t do what they think is right for the firm. Beware of the killer phrase, “They should…”. There is no ‘they’.
  • Ensure people know that you care about them – demonstrate empathy, as this leads to them caring about the firm and your ambitions. How does it feel to be someone else? Empathy is sometimes called the deepest form of respect. It shows you care about people more than rules and regulations and builds strong links between employees and teams. Southwest Airlines is a great example of this.
  • Get momentum – often, change happens gradually, so build from common ground where people already agree to enable you to get traction. Change can take its toll on resources – both human and financial. Some employees may want to see the benefits of one part of a big change before venturing further down that path.
  • Map your stakeholders – list the key people involved in making the change happen: how do they feel about it and what strategy do you need for each specific person to get them to play their role? Who can you get to influence them if you can’t do so yourself?

When change goes wrong (and most change processes fail to meet their objectives), the results can be devastating. Apart from the money and resources wasted, some of your people will have put in extra hours and put themselves and their teams through the mill for, well, nothing. And there’s nothing like wasted effort to kill employee morale.

The ten principles here can give those leading transformation a scaffolding to build on amid the shifting sands of change. It’s hard, but it’s possible, and the best leaders among us will make their mark on history with their flexibility, bravery and foresight.

The above article was written by Richard Jolly, Adjunct Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and originally published in London Business School Review, January 2016.