Some truths about leading transformation

The first story. Late one evening, about six months into a company transformation effort, I approached a team member’s empty desk to drop off a document. In the middle of his precisely ordered desktop was a message clip holding a 3×5 index card. I picked up the card and noticed it was colored in red marker on both sides. These words embellished the front of the card: Something done. And on the back: Find closure wherever you can.

Before raising his hand to help change a culture and company, this leader had been successfully delivering multi-million dollar interiors for Cessna Citation jet aircraft for over a decade. Days filled with tangible accomplishment now lost in the vague universe of helping transform a 75-year old culture with process maps and marginally less skeptical employees the only evidence of his progress.

The second story, told by the late and great Dr. Michael Hammer, is a helpful one for change leaders. He noted that 20% of the people are on board from day one. These are the folks that raise their hand and ask how they can help. Another 20% are incorrigible skeptics unlikely to support the change. The middle 60% are making up their minds whether to join the first or second group. The primary responsibility of a change leader, Dr. Hammer noted, is to keep the middle 60 away from the bottom 20.

There is a misconception that everyone needs to accept, commit, and engage in a change effort for it to be successful. It’s not true. The reality is that some percentage of the team, made up of formal and informal thought leaders must commit and engage to drive the success. The vast majority of people, even in the lower 20%, will not actively resist. Most resistance will be passive, arguably neither helping or hurting the cause. Most will learn the new processes and systems and competently perform their jobs. Some will choose a different path and voluntarily leave the business. A few will continue to resist and be asked to leave. These employees decide that the new way of working isn’t for them.

The last point, for now, about change. Leading during a transformation is the hardest thing you will ever do at work. It is frustrating, painfully slow, exhausting, and filled with more ambiguity than most are comfortable living with over a period of weeks and months. This is normal.

Change leaders can expect to spend time commiserating long after others have left for the day.

They wonder what to try next to get through to a reluctant leader, how to say the right thing to an audience of peers that will help connect with the vision and support people who act like resisters but who may not yet understand. They will frequently question why they signed up for this duty.

The effort may not change the culture, but it will, 100% of the time, transform every change leader.

My counsel is to embrace the importance of the work you are doing and connect with the motive of leading to make things better for the people and the company. Take regular breaks to clear your mind and get away from the fray (i.e., long weekends, long walks, long runs, Long John Silver’s), and take the work but not yourself too seriously.

Takeaway: It’s important and necessary work, and it’s not going away. Leaders that step up to do what’s uncomfortable, unpopular, and necessary for an organization to achieve its potential are role models of courageous leadership. I’ve yet to meet an organization that had too many of these.