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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

Three Things They Don't Teach You About Change Leadership

Somewhere between reading John Kotter's Leading Change and Michael Watkin's First Ninety Days, most change projects are tested by currents of resistance and indecision that are often quite subtle, but need to be played right if the change initiative is to gain traction and maintain its momentum. Overlooked, or played wrong, they can become the beginning of  the end, as with time these currents have the power to grow and derail any chance of success for the change initiative. Often it is not so much that the planning for change is incorrect, as it is that the impetus for change is slowed, either by forces that resist change or are indifferent to an initiative, or by an insufficient motive force inside the leadership team to push the initiative forward in the face of hesitation. This is leadership failure, not management failure, and is often associated with three leadership requirements that we frequently see missing in discussions of big change efforts:

You need to be immodest. Big change is built upon big dreams, and all too often those dreams never get dreamed because all we see are the constraints of the world as we know it, and they are overwhelming.  An important role of the Change Leader is to inspire us with big dreams. Sure, we'll eventually compromise, but if we compromise on small dreams, we'll never move forward. Today's world abounds with big dreamers: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Jack Ma.... you can't get much bigger than the dreams these fellows are pursuing.  Let them be a benchmark for all of us who are pursuing change.

You need to be impolite. As a result of our work on Virtuoso Teams, Andy Boynton and I long ago subscribed to the notion that the motive engine behind the considerable success of many all-star teams was their impoliteness. After all,  polite teams get polite results! Yet, more often than not, when you put bright, ambitious, energetic managers into a team, they tend to defer to one another.  A fear of offending others can turn into a willingness to accept the average. In change programs, this is the last thing you want. Be impolite [not insincere, abusive or corrosive]. Listen carefully, but it's ok to be skeptical, although not cynical. Show me your best stuff, but at the same time rally support for your ideas as well; don't give-up too easily. The highest professional respect that you can pay to a colleague is to challenge their ideas in an effort to make them better.

You need to be unreasonable. A good change leader demands more from people (and from themselves) rather than less. When Jack Welch looked back, in 1985, on his first five years as CEO of General Electric, a period during which he reinvented the company in preparation for a very different future than the past that it had been so successful in, he separated more than 100,000 employees from the company, reduced at least four of nine hierarchical levels from the organization, and did away with 100 years of process guidance. Yet, despite such Herculean changes, Welch remarked [in a Harvard Business School video compilation by Christopher Bartlett]: "I don't think that I've moved fast enough and I don't think that I've moved as decisively as I should have..... I was too cautious and too timid, and wanted too many constituencies on board."  Nearly twenty years after that, I watched a small leadership team completely and abruptly turn around a major geographic region for a globally leading European-based FMCG. They observed: "we could have done it all at once, instead of doing it in stages. The organization was more resilient, and more capable, than we had believed." At about the same time, I had the pleasure of working closely with the team which was starting-up MMO2, a new telecomms company in Europe. The new CEO, Peter Erskine,  lamented that the worst part of the job was that he had to be unreasonable in order to get anything done. Instead, he would have preferred to be liked, accepted as "one of the gang," be a friend,  but George Bernard Shaw was correct when he observed that all progress depends on the unreasonable man. That start-up today is a major player in the industry, thanks in part to his unreasonableness.

Plan your change initiative carefully, that's what Kotter and Watkins are for. But, act differently, as well (as both Kotter and Watkins endorse). There is too much at stake to lose by being unnecessarily modest, polite or reasonable.

This post originally appeared on Forbes on October 13, 2014

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