Anything But Poetic
Lessons From Leading Change
Leaders have to act more quickly today. The pressure comes much faster. — Andy Grove, Ex-CEO, Intel
Change can be anything but poetic. Life in a business seldom proceeds as neatly as the two alternate, rhyming lines of a beautifully composed poem. At times, change can be extremely chaotic and incredibly challenging for leaders. Other times, the orchestra performs as the conductor directs. On balance, change is turbulent and full of surprises. This article looks at many different scenarios and examples of managing and leading change. It ends with the most important ingredient for all change to be successful.
Business should operate at the speed of change. In reality, it seldom does. Competitors often move faster to the market. The slowdown occurs because of the people involved in a project. For a project leader, it is very critical that everyone involved in the project understands exactly how their efforts combine to deliver the desired outcome. More importantly, it is important for the project team to buy into the project managers’ and ultimately, the business’ vision. The project manager should be able to articulate very clearly the benefits to the client and to the business. If not, a corporate mandate can buy minds but not the hearts of the team members of a project.
A lot of projects, today, have adopted a leaf out of the AGILE software development life cycle. Instead of using a traditional ‘Waterfall’ approach, projects are divided into chunks which are delivered and tested quickly instead of waiting for all the chunks to finish and then testing them. This method sounds easier than it is. Project management teams are often well versed in the theory the AGILE method of project management but not the practical challenges of doing things differently. The single biggest problem for a project leader is to help the team ‘unlearn’ outmoded ways of attacking challenges. Many people are not open to lifelong learning. This includes the project manager and perhaps, the CEO of a company.
Taking Charge of A New Business
The biggest lesson for a new leader taking charge of a new business is the fact that she is not taking charge of a Profit and Loss account. Rather, she is taking charge of the people delivering the results. Financial statements such the balance sheet and the profit and loss (P&L) account are historical records of what transpired in the business. In that sense, they are not real time. People decide the fate of the business and the direction of financial statements.
A great leader realizes that the collective employee base that she leads is responsible for delivering results. Therefore, one of the first things she does is to seek feedback from the ground. I have seen leaders do that in multiple ways:
- Setting up a confidential email account that prompts employees form the lowest rungs of the organization all the way to the top. This method announces the arrival of the leader. It also reinforces the fact that the leader is accessible and willing to listen to the people she leads.
- She also makes “walking the floor” a weekly routine. She walks around the floor and stops and talks to employees to understand morale amongst her people. This technique can be more powerful than surveys that report on disenchantment after the fact.
- A leader also conveys her vision to the people she leads in simple language. I have often observed that people who understand their subject matter thoroughly can explain it in the simplest possible language. A good leader can also modify the language to suit the audience.
- A good leader also tries to assimilate into the local culture and establishes a bridge with the “locals”. This could also mean learning a foreign language.
Thomas. L. Friedman wrote a very inspiring book titled “The Lexus and The Olive Tree”. In it, he writes:
“You can be a rich person alone. You can be a smart person alone. But you cannot be a complete person alone. For that you must be part of, and rooted in, an olive grove. This truth was once beautifully conveyed by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his interpretation of a scene from Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: Márquez tells of a village where people were afflicted with a strange plague of forgetfulness, a kind of contagious amnesia. Starting with the oldest inhabitants and working its way through the population, the plague causes people to forget the names of even the most common everyday objects. One young man, still unaffected, tries to limit the damage by putting labels on everything. “This is a table,” “This is a window,” “This is a cow; it has to be milked every morning.” And at the entrance to the town, on the main road, he puts up two large signs. One reads “The name of our village is Macondo,” and the larger one reads “God exists.” The message I get from that story is that we can, and probably will, forget most of what we have learned in life — the math, the history, the chemical formulas, the address and phone number of the first house we lived in when we got married — and all that forgetting will do us no harm. But if we forget whom we belong to, and if we forget that there is a God, something profoundly human in us will be lost.”
The above words are very profound. They apply as much to the entire human race as they do to a business leader. A business leader that operates in a vacuum or in the proverbial “ivory tower” cannot be successful in the long run. Employees of an organization are also it’s clients and they need to believe in the products and services of the company they work for. Even if they don’t, they need to provide honest feedback to the senior most leadership. Without trust in a new leader, a two way conversation is impossible to achieve.
What Works For One Can Work For Others
For new leaders moving to a new geography, there can be a tendency to apply the best practices of a region to a different geography. The same mechanism for gathering feedback from employees can be applied before adopting a common strategy across geographies. A leader has to understand the client base and how it differs from region to region. It seems pretty intuitive but it seldom is. While psychographic segmentation helps, nothing works better than verbatim and honest feedback. To do that, clients must trust the change agent ie the new leader. Again, it boils down to reputation.
Active listening is very different from hearing. The difference is empathy. Even today, there are segments of population without access to the Internet. It may seem surprising to many but the needs of this segment are very different from the much hyped millennial population. Even within millennials, there are differences in behavior.
Billionaires are also a different story. There are ones who buy a $20 bottle of wine and there are others that import their Malbec from France.
A good leader must make talking to clients a part of their day. Without access to honest feedback from clients, the best laid plans have to meaning.
One Last Thing
In today’s world, the biggest challenge for leaders is to inspire employees to adopt a mindset of lifelong learning. The biggest impediment to lifelong learning, ironically, is unlearning old habits. The most important factor for change to succeed is mindset. Mindset is critical not just to a business but also to nations. An open mindset can help nations overcome divisions of caste, class, language and religion. Unfortunately, it takes a crisis or a common external enemy for a business or a nation to come together. That should not be the case. A business that believes in a higher purpose of serving its clients and making their lives easier is bound to be very successful. In doing so, competition can be a catalyst. More importantly, a business should aim to be the best version of itself. It cannot do so without a mindset that treats change as a way of life.
In a business, the old guard which has extensive experience can view new talent to be boastful and unaware of how business is done. I have often learnt that a wise approach for a newbie is to think of everyone as a partner and to leverage experience and supplement it with a more efficient way of doing things. The difference is subtlety and taking everyone along. Once again, it boils down to adopting a different mindset.
A reputation is built by treating a word as a commitment. Ironically, the phrase “my word is my commitment” is an also an old school definition of honor among thieves. In business, a brand is built by treating the business’ mission as a commitment to clients. In fulfilling the mission, ways of doing business must change with the times.