Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Challenge of Leading Change

During the month of September I have been spending time with leaders who have a strategy to transform their business. The commercial rationale makes sense, the timing is right and the numbers stack up. And yet – why is it that most efforts at driving change fail to deliver the expected business outcomes? Why is it so difficult to do? Peter Drucker, one of the most extensively published management gurus ever, once said “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and herein lies the challenge for leaders everywhere. You can have the best business case in the world, the right moment in the market, the financial resources to make it happen – and still it fails because, as always, leadership is a relationship business. The ability to demonstrate leadership in times of change and uncertainty remains an acute one. So, what exactly do they have to do (other than say that they want to change the culture)?

Here are some practical verbal strategies with which to hone our ‘Executive Presence’ as a leader:
  1. Ask searching, simple questions. For example, we are hardwired as humans to associate change with loss. Loss of time, loss of money, loss of status, loss of energy, loss of happiness, loss of security etc. What exactly do we think we will lose? What might be possible if we embraced the change? What support do we need? How do others help us get there? How can we focus on what’s possible (rather than what’s not)? Often these – and other such questions – need repetition - as part of the power in asking them is to allow others to process their thoughts aloud. Be patient and persist.
  2. Get our stories straight. We may have seen the email, glanced at the Chairman's report or even read the pitch distributed to the whole company, but that doesn’t win hearts and minds around the business case for change. Simple, effective, conversational stories that make the point crisply, engage others easily and motivate us to remember and repeat those stories are what it’s all about. Stories are the fuel of motivation. The right kind encourage our people to engage and connect with the journey; the wrong ones….well, they do the exact opposite.
  3. Find small wins and celebrate. Making time to find and communicate ‘wins’, no matter how small, are always worth the effort. In the absence of information it is all too easy to either make it up, or assume we’ve not been told. Neither is desirable when trying to create a positive energy around momentum.
  4. Remember SUMO (Shut Up; Move On). Not everything will work in an environment of change; so once the point has been acknowledged then shut up and move on. Don’t keep going back to it and talking for months or even years afterwards about what didn’t work. We get it; let’s learn from it and then focus on the future. Avoid rambling incessantly on about the past.
  5. Retain a sense of humour. It’s a moment of connection that is unique to humans. Every once in a while that’s a good thing. When we laugh, we love.
Sarah's new book ‘Executive Presence – Demonstrating Leadership in Times of Change and Uncertainty’ is out now.  Find this on