Previously published on Forbes.com
If you are growing a business, you know you will have to change the way your team does things – disrupting habits that have served them well in the past. As the saying goes, “What got you here won’t get you there.”
Well, nobody really likes that. But that’s why you’re the leader. It’s your job to sell the change.
Change is not an easy sell, and leading it is a test – one that I have not always passed.
Recently, I got tangled up with my business partner, Carol. To grow our company, we’re working to build a better sales process. That includes intensifying our outreach. Carol had been resistant, which irritated me. On a group call with some of our team, I criticized her efforts. I was judgmental. Of course, she became defensive.
I had messed up. Making key members of your team defensive does not lead to change; it leads to resistance and discord. And failure. Over several conversations, both one-on-one with Carol and with our team, I admitted I had been wrong, and focused on what matters to everyone: growing our business and reaching new clients.
In other words, I communicated the big picture driving me, and the vision that would benefit the whole team.
And I changed how I led the change.
Almost all businesses today confront a relentlessly changing environment. Financial institutions are challenged by new payment methods, and new cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin) disrupting their models. The transportation industry is facing disruption by electric and driverless technologies. Utilities need to accommodate rooftop solar and smart thermostats that almost make their customers partners. Consumers have more choices than ever before, more information and heightened expectations of the organizations with which they do business. And the growing tide of Millennials and Gen Zers want to engage with businesses, and be approached, in new ways.
Change, change and more change.
How to inspire and manage change is a business obsession. And yet, change initiatives often fail. Earlier this decade, a spate of studies announced that 60% - 70% fail. Why? I believe the biggest reason is that leaders fail to communicate (or be honest about) how change will affect the individuals that must execute it. Why should Carol change the habits that have worked for her? Once I got over my pique, I focused on reminding her that we make a positive difference in the lives of the leaders we work with, and if we can reach more leaders, we can make a positive impact on the lives of the people who work for them. Not to mention that roles change with change, and Carol could benefit.
A good leader takes pains to paint a vivid picture of the future that will inspire the team, and present the consequences of not changing in all its urgency and heat. Conversations about real threats to the business often are held behind closed doors, not on the shop floor. So, team members don’t know that the latest change effort is not just business as usual.
Too often, leaders do not give their people clear, honest feedback about what they are doing (or not doing) to bring about change. We shrink from having those hard conversations. And we don’t begin, as we must, with ourselves. Ask yourself: What am I doing that no longer works? Ask your team what they think. If your team sees you working hard to change, it will become easier for them.
A Template for Change.
Patricia, the CEO of a mid-sized hydro-electric utility, walked out of her Monday morning management team meeting exasperated. Again. While several of her leaders are on board with the big ideas they identified to turn the utility company she runs into an energy company, others are making arguments for the status quo.
Patricia tried weekly team meetings to hold each leader accountable for making sometimes uncomfortable changes. She held large meetings to communicate the new strategies more broadly. She invested in dashboards with metrics to measure progress on her goals. She even brought in team-building consultants to figure out what might be standing in the way of cross-organizational relationships. And, still, the members of her leadership team were moving slowly.
The utility industry is being rocked, whether people inside her company feel the tremors or not. Patricia is trying to wake her team before it’s too late. Wasn’t this the way it was for the U.S. steel industry? It failed slowly, and then all at once.
So, Patricia focused on herself. She had, she decided, been too remote, too hands off. She committed herself to coaching, one VP at a time. She cleared her calendar for one-on-one conversations. She worked on communicating her vision, painting a picture that others could see.
And when her leadership team saw her changing, it conveyed both the seriousness of the situation, and her willingness to begin the change with herself.
And, today, the utility is, indeed, transforming.
Carol and I are working together to figure out what new sales processes will work for our team. Both of us must step outside our comfort zone, and how to do that is different for each of us. My job is to keep the big picture in sight, keep communicating, avoid showing frustration, and internalize the change in how I do my job. Carol’s job is to follow the new workflows, and give me honest feedback about what I’m doing.
It is okay to demand more of your people. They don’t have to like it. But they do have to do it. And they will, if they see you’re in it with them. That’s how a leader creates a culture of change, adaptability, and brings his or her team along.