LEADERSHIP FOR CHANGE

We tend to think that driving change in business is a tedious endeavour. Changing minds and taking action is complicated. We are aware of the complexity of change in business, yet we find real examples that show us otherwise.

Change – A success story. There is a fascinating story of a manager who successfully changed the mediocre purchasing policy of his company. Spending millions of dollars on items that made no sense was a major waste for the company. All he had to overcome was the board of directors who refused to believe in the opportunity of change.

The normal thing to do would have been to convince them with an overdose of data in clean spreadsheets presented on polished Powerpoint slides. Instead, he asked a collaborator to investigate just one single item: work gloves – worn by most of the company’s employees. He asked him to identify and list all of the many kind of gloves in use and their respective cost.

This research yielded astonishing results. Within a short period of time they had collected 424 different types of gloves. Furthermore, they discovered that most of them came from a wide variety of suppliers. Prices were negotiated separately with each of them, resulting in considerable price differences and overall expenses. A pair of gloves purchased in one factory may cost only five dollars, while in another they may cost seventeen.

Finally, they gathered a collection of 424 gloves, labelled nicely with their corresponding prices. On the day of the presentation, all glove samples were placed in the center of the huge boardroom table. The entire board was invited to witness the “Glove Show”. The reaction of the board was immediate and forceful: “This is crazy, this has to stop”. Soon the “Glove Show” began to go on tour visiting all the company’s production sites. It didn’t take long to see radical changes in the glove purchasing policy. A change had been initiated that was going to generate significant cost savings for the company.

This example highlights a simple truth: some seemingly impossible changes can have a simpler solution than previously suspected. Sometimes, the hard part is not make the change in itself but finding the right strategy. Here are 3 keys to leading change in your company.

 

1. Clear objective and concrete actions. The “Glove Show” highlights that clear and concrete communication is crucial for driving change. Clarity reduces one of the biggest obstacles and stress generators in times of change: uncertainty.

A lack of clarity paralyzes employees and paralysed people don’t drive change. In times of change, people need concrete answers to simple questions like: How does this change affect me in my day-to-day life? What am I expected to do from now on? What am I going to do differently tomorrow? What are my executable priorities?

The key to these questions is to identify concrete behaviours. When leaders generate clarity, people start moving because and it will be easier for them to take action. More clarity, less resistance.

 

2. Small steps. Another obstacle is the change strategy itself. But it’s not about business strategy or technical engineering solutions, it’s about social engineering. It is common to encounter the “all or nothing” strategy. Trying to promote big changes in no time without support or training is a fail-safe recipe for many to back out. Resistance is high and so is lack of enthusiasm. Let’s take a typical case. The moment when companies decide to introduce big-time cultural changes that translate into a mass of new HR or management practices: employee interviews, team meetings, performance evaluations, interdepartmental projects, etc. Facing this HR tsunami, people are understandably little enthusiastic, and they have good reasons for it.

The winning strategy is to reduce the size of the change: the “small steps strategy”. When faced with big challenges, some people grow, but many others feel unable to cope with them successfully. Talking about HR processes, a company that decided to implement quarterly One to One interviews between managers and their team members. The initial requirement was to hold these talks with each of the team members every 2 months for 1 hour per person. Taking into account their heavy workload, for many of the managers, this change was totally unfeasible and provoked a kind of mutiny amongst them. Though being convinced that these talks had many benefits, they doubted their capacity to carry them out with the desired frequency, duration and quality. To unblock the situation, the solution was precisely to reduce the size of the change, starting with quarterly talks of about 15 minutes and, instead of 10 questions in the script, “only” 4 questions. This adjustment was much appreciated by the Managers and contributed to take small realistic steps in the desired direction. Reducing the size of the change drastically reduces resistance to change because people can feel able to cope with it successfully. Small steps generate small successes and small successes generate a sense of competence, not resistance.

3. Manage constancy. Finally, with all eyes on “change”, another key point goes completely unnoticed: consistency. There is no value in filling out once a brand-new log sheet in a newly introduced security procedure. It only has value if it is done every day. There is no positive impact of going to the gym once a year, but going 100 times a year has. As Toni Robbins said: “It’s not what we do once in a while that makes our life. It’s what we do constantly.” Lack of consistency turns changes into fads.

The main function of the Leader is to assure consistency by constantly following-up in order to reinforce new practices, procedures and tasks. Without follow-up, there is no change. In the eyes of others, a lack of follow-up is easily interpreted as a lack of priority, disinterest or disorganisation and can lead to demotivation. For example, if a weekly report is required on new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives but no response is ever received (neither “received” nor “thank you”) or no follow-up meeting is held, the message received by co-workers “this is not important”. And what is not important will be delayed or just be left undone. At latest, it will be done in a hurry at the time of an audit.

Please mind that following-up offers the opportunity to receive valuable information on difficulties that need to be addressed in order to progress with the change. For example, a company with a large number of maintenance teams fixing water pipes and deployed all throughout the country decides to introduce “cero paper politics”. Leaving “pen-paper-phone management” behind, they start to register incidents and maintenance work by tablets. Going paperless was the Star project for many of the managers, but the use of tablets was not successful, and many technicians fell quickly back to the old habit of using paper, pen and phones. Why? Because tablets, software and internet connections didn’t run smoothly and

people were not properly trained to resolve these incidents on their own. What should have been a digital blessing turned into a digital curse.

In the absence of rigorous follow-up, these problems became evident too late, resulting in loss of money and motivation. Management didn’t spend time on follow-up because they were already thinking of another “Star project”. Jumping from one change to another change without consolidating new routines and practices does not mean constant change but constant chaos.

One of the best examples of constant follow-up and relentless implementation is the case of former Boeing and Ford CEO Allan Mullaly. He was named “CEO of the Year 2011” and officially recognised for Ford’s turnaround, saving Ford from bankruptcy. It has always been clear to him that a good plan only works if it is implemented on an ongoing basis. His well-known Business Plan Review (BPR) meetings were held every Thursday at the same time, following a simple and rigorous process. Attendance by all managers was mandatory and clear data, action plans and results were expected to prepared and shared effectively, every single week. In his decades of executive activity at Boeing and Ford, Mullaly only missed approximately a dozen of these meetings.

In short, without follow-up there is no improvement. And if there is no improvement, why change?