Another year has come and gone, and now it’s time to hit the reset button — right?
While the thought of turning the page on both the previous year’s successes and failures excites most leaders, changing course and setting new strategies in motion can leave the rest of the organization less than thrilled. It’s not because they don’t share leadership’s desire to help the organization reach new heights (they do). Despite the vocal minority that willingly expresses a love for change, an overwhelming majority doesn’t want it. Like the many New Year’s resolutions that people create and subconsciously dismiss by March, there is little faith that leadership’s new strategic changes will have staying power. To say employees have change fatigue is a gross understatement.
A superior ”change management” plan is not the answer. Employees are smart and they’ve heard it all before. They’ve lived through numerous failed new initiatives and by now are quite skilled at visually showing lukewarm support while letting changes die their inevitable slow death. Most would be delighted to simply do the job they were hired to do while receiving the occasional pat on the back for a job well done.
Regardless of how brilliant and timely the new strategic initiative may be, an organization’s employees will frequently perceive and experience it as a disruption to what they know. Although it may be strategically imperative in the eyes of senior leaders, the new strategy can register as an inconvenient disturbance to the norm. Many leaders underestimate the power of the disruption they’ve introduced and therefore believe that the disruption can be managed – it can’t. So what is the leader to do?
Answer This: Why Now, Why Us, and So What?
Leaders must acknowledge that a strategic shift is, in many ways, a foray into the unknown, especially for their people. While leaders may completely understand the impetus for change and how it benefits the organization, they shouldn’t assume their people do. Moreover, leaders shouldn’t assume that briskly declaring the merits of their new idea from the podium sufficiently answers THE most important question their people will have: why?
Instead of leading with the problem this change in course seeks to address and the numerous actions employees will be required to take, try this: lead with why this shift represents an optimal opportunity, why this organization is uniquely positioned to seize this opportunity and, most importantly, what the organization and its employees stand to gain. A logical step, perhaps, but certainly not an easy one and, unfortunately, often overlooked. Empathetically acknowledging the disruption your proposed strategic shift will cause while nailing the “why” will go a long way toward capturing the employees’ attention – but it alone is insufficient.
Extend an Invitation to Shape the ”How”
Why would a leader need buy-in if he’s the smartest person in the room? The new strategy he laid out is clearly the “right” one, or he wouldn’t have thought of it. Yet a leader’s intellect is often not the missing ingredient in a failed transformation effort. To advance an agenda and generate results, leaders frequently accept nodding heads and silence for buy-in and support. Support that looks like this is problematic and is not positive reinforcement. A true measure of support and buy-in can be expressed in one word: urgency.
Few things can create a sense of urgency around a new strategic shift than an invitation to help shape how it is implemented. As organizations grow and become more hierarchical, however, the “start-up” mentality of everyone pitching in and everyone working toward a common goal is diminished. It is critical for leaders to remind the company of its entrepreneurial roots in order to renew this urgency and organizational agility.
If leaders are being honest with themselves, they know that going it alone is a recipe for disaster – their people know this as well. Leaders have an obstructed view from the front lines. They are too far removed from where the work actually gets done to be an authoritative voice for how to make it happen. If they’ve successfully made the case for “why,” they can unleash the ingenuity and creativity of their people, allowing their good ideas to rise up versus pushing orders and action items down. The result: genuine, shared ownership and leadership at all levels of the organization.
A change in course presents a unique leadership opportunity. Indeed, it is a disruption that can further cement cynicism within the organization or it can cultivate a relationship and gain the trust from those that need to embody the change. Answering the “why?” and extending the invitation to shape the future of an organization could be the difference between the troops rolling their eyes yet again or leaning in with a level of engagement they’ve never had before.
At Kotter International, Shaun Spearmon works with clients seeking to acquire change leadership competencies required to support large-scale change initiatives within their organizations. For more information, visit Kotter International and its just-launched Center for Leaders at www.kotterinternational.com.