Leading Change | Easier Said than Done

Over the years, I have witnessed many intelligent leaders stumble while leading change. A few because of external challenges or outright hostility; most because they did not recognize what being a leader means nowadays in the fast-moving economy of the 21st century. Without trying to be exhaustive, I want to address how organizational change often becomes a personal dilemma for leaders.

You don’t choose change, it chooses you

Truth is that by the time leaders consider the need for drastic change, they have already experienced loss of control and stress:

  • something is not going as they had hoped,
  • worse, it has gone completely awry,
  • often, they are in conflict with others about what to do next.

The specters of poor performance and failure haunt the leader’s thoughts. Self-protection rather than change is more the mood of the moment.

The old way got you in hot water

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Confronting Toxic Behaviors in Organizations

Why do organizations tolerate dysfunctional interactions that destroy trust? And what prevents leaders from confronting toxic behaviors effectively? In this short clip, Elizabeth Holloway, PhD in Psychology, provides a useful introduction to understanding how toxic behaviors persist.

To access the complete presentation, click here

Our Viewpoint on Toxic Behaviors in Organizations

As Dr. Holloway argues toxic behavior relies on a system with different players. Identifying the participants in a toxic situation can help everyone gain clarity about the dynamics at play and decide for themselves what is the right course of action, whether as a leader or as a participant.

The players:
In her presentation, Holloway identifies three players in a toxic behavior system as:

  • The perpetrator,
  • The protector and
  • The buffer,

For good measure, I will add the notion of:

  • Avoiders.

In fact, once a pattern of toxic behavior is entrenched, everybody in the organization becomes an avoider to some degree. (As we will see later this often also applies to the leader.)

The glue:
What holds the situation in place is fear. Most of us have no expertise in confronting toxic behavior. Besides, in many instances the person calling out the toxic behavior gets labelled the trouble maker. So no one thinks they have anything to gain through confrontation.

The Making of a Toxic Culture

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Trust in Action

This article was first published in TRUST MAGAZINE winter 2016

Most executives give little thought, if any, to how trust in action strengthens the performance of organizations. Trust is just not a priority for them. Why that is so remains a leadership puzzlement, especially when a growing body of evidence indicates that trust is key to success.

In one-on-one conversations leaders often admit that, in fact, they are not sure how to build trust. But such moments of candor are brief and generally followed by rationalizing that trust-building takes too much time anyway.

Whatever rationale is put forward to ignore trust; the fact remains trust is not just nice to have. It’s the center piece that determines how individuals behave and interact — whether team members are open with information or secretive, inclined to help out or hold back, willing to take risks or just looking to play it safe.

What to do?

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Exploring Project Unknowns through Conversations

In this interview conducted on November 15, 2012, I explore with David Keller the need for exploring project unknowns through conversations before launching major projects.

David has extensive experience in complex trading systems and led technology projects in both start-ups and large corporations as Co-Founder, Data Symmetry, Chief Information Officer & Senior Vice President, NEW YORK MERCANTILE EXCHANGE, Chief Information & Technology Officer, Founder, EnergyNet® & EnerSoft® Corporation.

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Empowerment—DOs and DON’Ts

When pressure mounts at work is usually when leaders speak most of empowerment. In truth they are looking for greater initiative.  With high expectations to see an impact on performance, few things rile leaders more than advocating for employee empowerment and seeing  little employee initiative in return.

Left frustrated, leaders often rationalize this “apathy” as the sign that something is wrong with employee motivation: disinterest, laziness, stupidity, stubbornness, or the like. In isolated instances character “flaws” could be valid explanations, but if this perceived “apathy” is pervasive, something else is necessarily at work.

Trust — the Missing Link

When I look at situations where employees lack initiative, a strong correlation usually reveals itself with what leaders themselves are doing . Fundamentally a lack of engagement stems from the absence of trust in the leader. Trust builds from many different aspects, but two are critical for leaders: they must be trusted as leader and as a person.

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Overwhelm: a Dangerous State for Leaders and Organizations

Individuals, teams and entire organizations can easily slip from working hard in a productive manner to a state of overwhelm that generates diminishing results. Some even confuse overwhelm with results. The flawed thinking goes something like this: “we are so miserable; it’s got to mean we are productive”.  In reality overwhelm  is a state of ineffectiveness. The challenge for leaders is to understand the signals of overwhelm correctly and then refuse to accept it as a normal state of operation.

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The Imperative of Building Trust in the Boardroom

Sitting on the board, whether in a corporation, partnership, family business or charitable organization, often becomes a source of constant frustration. Board members will readily confide — off-the-record of course— that trust among board members is too tenuous for anyone to be able to raise the real issues in a productive manner and consequently little gets accomplished.  Board members also report they have given hope that things will ever change because no one seems to know how to change the culture of the board itself.

Behind the frustration and discouragement, exists a genuine concern that real dangers loom if critical business matters of strategy, governance, technology, among others, are not addressed. I would go so far as to suggest here that when organizations run into serious difficulties or fail to capitalize on opportunities, one can probably find that the seeds of trouble were sown 3 to 5 years prior in the mediocre functioning of the board.

Unfortunately the likelihood is high that a board without a culture of trust will become somewhat dysfunctional. Without trust, dysfunction is baked in the very nature of what a board is. Boards are different from other groups of people in several critical ways which become problematic when ignored.

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Fundamentals for a Successful Strategy

Misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of a strategy abound. Some business people confuse the analysis of competitive forces with the strategy itself. Others equate strategy with their annual budgeting plan. For many strategy remains a vague concept that does not apply to them. Often it is enshrined in a document that the C-suite has blessed but few have seen, and even fewer can relate to.

At its purest, a strategy is what you want to accomplish as an organization and the steps you need to take to accomplish it. Strategy, therefore, is important to all organizations because it gives them a context for everyday decisions to move the organization in the desired direction. In the words of  Michael Porter, the Harvard University strategy professor: “…strategy is completely useless unless the result of the strategy process […] is understood broadly. The #1 purpose of strategy is alignment. It is really getting all the people in the organization making good choices, reinforcing each other’s choices because everyone is pursuing the common value proposition, the common way…”

To be an effective tool, a strategy must address how its concepts will be brought forward to be understood and embodied by the individuals in the organization. The question for leaders is how to move from concepts to action by creating the needed alignment in the organization so that its members can follow the blueprint encoded in the strategy. If the conception of a strategy is one side of the coin,  its implementation is the other side. One side is the rational process of creating the right strategy, the other side is  about  creating the right culture in which to achieve it. Not surprisingly this second element is the variable that is commonly dropped from the equation.

Requirements for a Successful Strategy

Strategy must fulfill the organization’s major objective of remaining relevant and valuable to its stakeholders over the long run. What it comes down to is whether the combined efforts of leadership and staff can create sustainable economic value, that is to say, generate outputs that are greater than its inputs.

So how does a strategy help an organization create and sustain economic value? First it clarifies for everyone how the organization is going to deploy its resources to fulfill its mission, i.e., the strategy conception. Second, it describes how the strategy is to be implemented; it also must tackle two of the most challenging questions an organization can ask:

  1. How effectively does it currently operate?
  2. How well does it adapt to changing conditions?

At the end of the day, organizations are economically sustainable when they can integrate and manage the complexity of their own system while managing change in their environment in a timely manner. A fast changing world requires organizations to operate holistically both internally and externally. Strategy needs to have a feedback loop between concept and implementation in order to quickly respond to change instead of the traditional top-down model. In order for the feedback loop to work, there must be an open and proactive culture. Leaders are called to consider strategy and culture as one continuum.

The Strategic Drift

Without a deliberate strategy organizations drift away from economic sustainability. Often it is easy to miss the signs, and even easier to avoid looking at them — until it is too late. In family businesses, the drift shows up in the deteriorating financial performance that often ensues as the business moves from first to second, then third generation. In the world of agencies and NGOs that are not performing up to par, the shock takes the form of sudden funding cut backs imposed by dissatisfied funding institutions. In the world of business, we are all familiar with corporations that spiral down for decades, periodically down-sizing as they try to rebrand or reposition themselves while displaying little conviction about their own story.

The Search for Performance

The dilemma for most organizations, whether business, NGO, or government agency, is that although many actually work very hard, their performance does not improve in proportion with their efforts. They are unable to reach a level where they deliver increasing value with greater ease and have sufficient excess resources to adapt and innovate. Many function in a permanent state of overwhelm.

Performance ThresholdFor many organizations strategic objectives remain mostly unmet. “New” initiatives are introduced at regular intervals, only to promptly fade away before they can generate the expected results. Unfortunately these aborted initiatives reinforce a culture of numbness where the dominant attitude is to wait for management’s latest fad to pass. The inability to get to a place of sustainable performance where success breeds success is what I call the Performance Threshold. The Performance Threshold is as tangible as it is elusive to the frustrated leaders that try to break through it — tangible in its direct impact on financial results and elusive as it arises from hundreds, no, thousands, of individual behaviors that are near impossible to identify.

Poor Strategy or Poor Implementation?

Although failure to break through can sometimes be traced to an inadequate strategy, it is more often due to implementation issues. A deeper analysis almost always reveals that the performance breakdown had its roots in a lack of engagement of individuals and poor group dynamics.

Why is a lack of engagement the underlying cause of strategic failure? The answer is simple. Although managing complexity and adapting to change drive long-term success, they are not the levers for action. During the long strategic cycle, from conception to implementation, it is in the human interactions where most breakdowns appear when a complex system is in flux.

As simplistic as it may seem at first, the only mechanism that can repair these tears in the organizational fabric is open and effective conversations. In fact, meaningful dialogue is the only way to ensure that everyone involved understands and agrees with the desired outcomes. Conversations create alignment and engagement.

In situations of rapid change, it is critical that people understand their roles, feel safe enough to contribute to the whole picture, and take on assignments from a place of knowing and sincere commitment. It is in the quality of the daily interaction of people, in how they show up and how they behave with each other that change and complexity are mastered and performance improved.

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Basics for Team Engagement and Performance

Whether it is in sports or in business, it’s commonly accepted that a “star team” will outperform a “team of stars”. How competent people work together to accomplish the tasks at hand accounts for as much, if not more, than the sum of their individual talents. The dilemma in organizations is that many working groups never succeed in tapping this higher level of synergy because they get embroiled in day-to-day work pressures and conflicting priorities.

Working with teams in trouble, we find that the real source of problems is rarely technical in nature even when signs seem to indicate that it is. The source of problems usually reveals itself after just a couple of hours, when project members clamor for better communication; problems invariably stem from people dynamics.

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Collegiality and Accountability in the Workplace

A major challenge to leaders is how to foster both high collegiality and a high level of accountability in the workplace. Leaders often experience the challenge as the difference between being a nice boss and a hard-driving one. On the receiving end of the equation, i.e. from the staff point of view, collegiality and accountability are also experienced as opposite extremes, the trade-off between a friendly supportive culture and a hard-nosed, results-oriented culture.

Neither approach, however, offers a complete answer to how to get things done; the positives and negatives of each approach can be readily identified (see matrix below.) So the truth lies elsewhere: in fact both are legitimate, and each approach deteriorates if not tempered by the other. The aim is therefore to manage both factors at the same time.

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