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
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?
Alain Bolea is delighted to be included in the 2015 list of Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trust. The list is put forward by Trust Across America | Trust Around the World. Founded by Barbara Kimmel, TIA|TAW is dedicated to bringing the topic of organizational trust to the forefront. It provides information to inspire leaders and tools to increase trust in business practices and institutions.
He is honored to be in the company of Patricia Aburdene, Ken Blanchard, Tim Cook, Stephen M.R. Covey and Bill George to name a few.
The complete list is available in the new issue of Trust Magazine. The magazine also contains my article Foster Trust—Build Team Performance. You can get your free copy of the magazine by clicking on the cover below.
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.
By Alain Bolea and David Keller
A high proportion of Technology projects do not deliver: they are late, the product or service does not match end-user requirements, and/or requires significant late stage changes to satisfy the client’s needs. Such outcomes usually reduce a company’s competitive position, increase project costs, and strain relationships. Creating success in IT projects calls for greater project team alignment upfront.
Common Pitfalls of Technology Projects
At their inception, troubled projects tend to follow the same scenario; we call it “Rushing to fail” and it typically goes like this:
- High-level project parameters are set by a few individuals using an incomplete view of the needs of end-users, project constraints and risks.
- Because key project assumptions come from senior management, the project staff often unconsciously avoids fully vetting them; “solutions” are railroaded to meet timetable, budgets and requirements.
This faulty process, sourced in an incomplete view of the project as a whole combined with a rush to performance, is the real reason why projects fail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.