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A Leader Who is Not a Change Agent is Soon to Be a Follower


Unsettledness naturally follows change, and we begin asking saying something like, “Did I make the right decision?” or “This isn’t what I wanted.” Emotions fluctuate between excitement and fear, between joy and unhappiness. All of these reactions only prove that we are human.  Change has become the norm today, and a human response is exactly what’s needed to produce effective change leadership into the future.

You would think that by now we would have perfected the art of change.  Yet according to a 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of global senior executives on culture and change management, the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent. The high failure rate can be attributed in large part to an excessive focus on the process side of change management, rather than an appropriate attention to the human impact.

The costs are high when change efforts fail—not only financially but in decreased morale and lost opportunity. After employees endure the emotional upheaval due to an initiative first announced with fanfare, they see it fade away and cynicism sets in.

Leading change is what makes the difference between thriving and just acceptance.  That translates into fostering that “human factor” within each organization we call culture.  Lou Gerstner, who as chief executive of IBM led one of the most successful business transformations in history, said the most important lesson he learned from the experience was that “culture is everything.” In a Katzenbach Center survey, 84 percent said that the organization’s culture was critical to the success of change management, and 64 percent saw it as more critical than strategy or the operating model.

So unless culture, or the human-side of change is paramount to any change leadership, expect problems.  But first as a leader each of us must practice that age old proverb:  ‘physician heal thyself,’ meaning that you must first address the personal affect change has on you. Resigning yourself to uncertainty must be the first step. Set reasonable expectations with the understanding that nothing lasts forever. By not marrying yourself to the result you can remain flexible as to the outcome.

Choosing to manage only the controllable aspects of a change must also occur in tandem with reflecting on your own core values and purpose in order to remain centered. Successful change leaders persevere without surrendering to inevitable obstacles through an adaptable attitude that continually seeks innovative solutions. They maintain a positive can-do approach by dwelling on future possibilities rather than current challenges.

These leaders also see things as they can be by visualizing the big picture and adjusting their direction as needed. Adaptability doesn’t always mean just going with the flow; it also involves helping to redirect the flow when necessary. There’s something about making a commitment and putting yourself in the way of change that invites success. Consider R. H. Macy, the founder of the large department store chain. He started seven failed businesses before finally hitting it big with his store in New York City.

Those who view failure as a stepping stone toward learning how to be more successful “next time” invariably succeed more often than those who maintain a static view of life.  Those with a static view see failure as a form of punishment.  “This didn’t work, so I need to quit before this turns into a disaster,” they say.  On the flip side, those with a thriving mindset view the inevitable changes that must occur (because of failure) as a positive step toward reaching the desired outcome.

However, when leadership tries to force positive attitudes about change in the workplace their efforts often fail.  Many employees say that when management wants a change in structure, processes, people and so forth, they present inspirational sayings such as, “Change will help us to develop new skills and new ways of doing things” or “It’s an opportunity for you” or “Change can be good.” But for whom, really? Truth be told, many employees do not see change as positive.  They frequently feel disempowered or at worst violated.

The good news is you as a leader can minimize or avoid potentially negative aspects of change by following the “PACE formula” for effective change management.  At PACEsetters we studied 64 successful change leadership cases, from behemoths like Apple, Google, and PayPal to smaller organizations like Pearson and Atlassian.  Each demonstrated some common success factors for effectively dealing with change, by addressing these four foundations: purpose, attitude, connection, and energy —

1. Purpose:

For much of its early life, Google struggled with its core purpose. As Wired co-founding editor John Battelle explains in his book The Search, Google was once a maddeningly unprofitable company, fumbling left and right for a stable revenue source. After struggling to sell search appliances to businesses and its own search technology to other search engines, Google dramatically changed course by repurposing its direction. In 2003, the company launched its AdWords program which allowed businesses to advertise to people searching for things on Google.com. Almost overnight, Google’s newly purposed organization transitioned from being a popular search tool to an advertising powerhouse.

So how does that translate into your role as purpose-driven leader? First, realize that a compelling purpose provides direction and a way for everyone to see how they connect to the larger whole. When people understand how they fit and what their role is, you create a new sense of engagement.  In the case of Google everyone in the organization understood the purpose for the company’s new direction and their role in it.  A workforce motivated by a strong sense of higher purpose is essential to engagement, and that starts with perception.

How do others perceive you, the change process, and the end result? You may believe that everything is moving along smoothly, that people understand and accept the change and its implication, but those are your perceptions. Have you confirmed your reality with the reality of your colleagues and others involved in the change? Do other people perceive that you are an effective change agent and that the change will actually benefit them?

Ask yourself and others the most important question: Is there a perceived need for change? If the answer is “no,” then your most critical task is either to persuade people of the need or to create a need. Otherwise, without a recognized need for change, the entire change process is doomed to failure.

Next, as a change agent, you need to ask yourself these questions:  Who will benefit from it, and who will not? Is the change worth it?  Does the change align with my values and mission?

2. Attitude:

Zappos has become almost as well known for its culture as it is for the shoes that it sells online. So how did they do it? It started with a ‘cultural fit interview,’ which carries 50% of the decision making process of whether the candidate is hired. New employees are offered $2,000 to quit after the first week of training if they decide the job isn’t for them. Ten core values are instilled in every team member. Employee raises come from workers who pass skills tests and exhibit increased capability, not from office politics. Portions of the budget are dedicated to employee team building and culture promotion.

Fantastic benefits and a workplace that is fun and committed to making customers happy all fit in with the Zappos approach to company culture – when you put culture first, great customer service and a great business results will happen on its own.  Leadership at Zappos realizes that employee attitude comes first, profits second, because motivation is the fuel for success.  How workers feel about their work tells more than what management says.  So how did Zappo handle the changes of their rocket growth?

They looked at the people within their organization who were affected by the change. Was their attitude one of commitment or resistance?  Sometimes people resist change because they don’t have the needed skills to succeed in the change process, so the leader must empower them with new skills. Some are simply risk adverse, so their attitude must be adjusted by presenting a positive view of what the final outcome will look like – “Here’s how we will look when all is said and done…” Don’t ‘sugar coat’ the situation by saying everything will be easy – it will not.  People who clearly understand the benefits versus the challenges are much more apt to buy into the change.

Use statements like, “I am hopeful,” or, “We will find a resolution,” throughout the change process. The words you use when you talk have a major impact on your attitude and that attitude will directly influence the outlook of others.  Next, ask yourself this question: Are you changing attitudes or just dispensing information?  The truth is, most of us just don’t care about changing attitudes… unless, of course… that change affects us personally.  So make change personal, because the attitude of those around you will be reflected back on your works.

By attitude we mean: confidence, empowerment, resiliency, hopefulness, responsibility, etc.  In other words, attitudes are what a person expresses based on their interpretation of reality. Your goal as a leader is to nudge someone’s viewpoint toward a positive interpretation.  Aristotle once suggested that people can change their attitude by first changing their behavior…”we become just by the practice of our actions, we control ourselves by exercising self-control, and become courageous by performing acts of courage.”

Fast forward to today, and social psychologist Timothy Wilson explains this as, “Do Good, Be Good.” In other words, people’s behavior shapes the personal narratives they develop. If they act with a can-do approach, they begin to see themselves as being able to achieve whatever they set their minds to accomplish, and the more they view themselves as the master of their success, the more likely they are to welcome change as a means to accomplish their goals—thereby changing their viewpoint (that change is bad) to a new narrative that change provides them with an opportunity to do good.

So as a leader, change peoples’ attitudes by getting them to act like leaders of positive change, and voila – they will feel enabled to create a new pathway toward positive change.

3. Connection:

“Building relationships is one of the strongest skills sets related to leadership effectiveness,” says Jean Leslie, a researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).” Leaders with experience building relationships are seen as more effective, she says.  That statement emerges from a comprehensive research study undertaken by CCL involving more than 438,000 respondents. Two thirds of respondents said that “building and maintaining relationships is a critical competency.” Indeed, our case studies of successful change companies revealed similar statistics, in that the leaders within these organizations put the “people element” of building their business first, and did so in a collaborative way.

Here’s how many of them built these strong connections.  Before initiating a change, they asked questions first. Ask questions that will help people explain what they’re looking for.  Uncover their sincerest and sometimes hidden motivation. Once you know that information, it’s much simpler to show how the change can satisfy that person’s needs.  Asking questions is fundamental to relationship building, and the more skilled you are at utilizing questions that force the other person to think deeply, the stronger the relationship you will be able to create.  True connection begins with understanding.

Most people are resistant to change or uncomfortable with impending change, so it’s important to acknowledge their feelings. Those who avoid these emotions by not listening to others disconnect from people.  When you acknowledge your emotions and those of others, you accept change as if to say, “we’re in this together and this isn’t as bad as you might imagine it to be.” Empathy evokes a license to enact change. By openly and sincerely preparing yourself and others for the new situation, and then identifying some ways that everyone involved can learn more about what they will be facing, connection occurs.

The key is to decrease anxiety around change by acknowledging that you are in a transition and that change is inevitable and sometimes hard. And then to continue the connection by saying something like, “I accept that change is occurring, and it’s up to each of us as to how you and I together will handle it.  Know that I am committed to your success and that you are a valuable partner in creating something great.”

That’s how one successful change leader made things happen. Rick Wagoner took over a dying General Motors (GM) and freed the company of hierarchal  management practices to empower and engage all of the employees. He brought in fresh talent and gave the newcomers free reign to develop new products. Wagoner by nature was collaborative in allowing decision-makers to decide. This one simple change broke through stifling silos and created better connections throughout the organization.

4. Energy:

Some of our best-practice companies had “renewal rooms” where people could routinely go to relax and reenergize. A group at Ernst & Young successfully went through this process of allowing employees to refuel at the height of tax season. With the permission of their leaders, they practiced defusing negative emotions by breathing or telling themselves different stories, and alternated highly focused periods of work with renewal breaks. Most people in the group reported that this busy season was the least stressful they’d ever experienced, and most productive.

At the root of failed change leadership is the flawed understanding that by working longer hours more gets done. Time is a finite resource.  Not so for energy, which can be renewed and produces far better results than simply putting in those longer, often tedious hours.

For most people, the greatest good they could do for themselves is to change their energy.  Without momentum most changes will fail.  Your emotions give off energy that can be positive or negative. It’s a common experience to walk into a room during a change and feel tension in the air, as opposed to a room where the atmosphere is joyous and relaxed. We tend to assume that energy is physical, but two people can eat the same meal yet produce completely different energy. One person may be angry, unsettled and confused, while the other is grateful, comfortable and focused.

The first thing to realize is that you are in control of your own energy, and your energy invariably infuses others with the same energy. The second is to realize that your emotions do not define you, and in fact you can change your emotions by immersing yourself in several energy boosters—the kind that comes from caring relationships, taking a break, and relying on your faith. All these sources of energy are available to you anytime. They connect you to a form of renewable energy that others can plug into.

Change typically induces stress, with the antidote being to take a break and appreciate the positives. Relaxation can help decrease stress and increase emotional health.  Practice progressive muscle relaxation by slowing down your breathing, inhaling deeply and slowly exhaling.  Next, tense your fists for a few seconds, then release. Continue this tense and release method throughout your body, including your back, neck, face, chest, quads, calves, ankles, feet, and toes.

Stress in the midst of change runs counter to productive energy.  Studies show that it reduces responsiveness and diminishes mental acuity over time.  And just as relaxation can reduce stress, an equally effective energy booster is exercise. Aim to exercise for 30 minutes each day on most days, with aerobic exercise at least three time a week.  Exercise and other physical activities produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and it also improves the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.

Despite any positive turn of events from leading change and adapting to a dynamic world, none of it matters unless you remain committed to your physical and spiritual health. Many experts view faith as the most important stabilizing factor to help us go through change, followed by good eating habits and regular exercise.

Remaining faithful to what is most important will balance an otherwise unstable environment. Look to your faith, loved ones, purpose, and values, which should always remain constant. They serve as your anchor when the waves of change become too rough.  Because only leaders who enthusiastically embrace change can effectively motivate others to do the same.

To effectively reenergize our teams through change, as leaders we need to shift our emphasis from getting more out of people to investing more in them, so they are motivated—and capable—to bring their full potential to work each day.

To recharge ourselves, we need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them.  That’s the human side of business, and the best outcomes can’t happen without fully realizing the human potential to do good.

– Randy Kay is a CEO of TenorCorp/PACEsetters, a strategic and talent development firm. Prior to this he has overseen training and development for top performing companies, been a biotech CEO, Board Member for over 20 organizations, executive for Fortune 100 companies, and has published four books and several articles in business magazines such as Switch & Shift and Forbes as well as conducted interviews through numerous networks. He is also an ordained minister and trained corporate counselor. Do you want to grow and develop your career and life? Contact Randy Kay directly (@ randy_kay@tenorcorp.com) or discover more at www.pacesetters.training

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