Removing barriers to change

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Even as the global recession gradually recedes, our volatile economy makes change unavoidable for all of us. Whether it’s lingering high unemployment, rollercoaster financial markets or political turmoil, the landscape for leaders keeps shifting — and most of us are quite uncomfortable in it.

That’s understandable. Change, after all, entails risk and conflict. It brings the fear and stress of leaving behind the old routine and venturing into the unknown. For leaders, whose decisions in this climate have tremendous implications for colleagues, clients and their own careers, the pressure is even greater.

And that makes change leadership the vital — and often missing — link for grappling successfully with uncertainty. For individuals, change is challenging enough. It pushes us to learn, think and act in new ways. For organizations, change demands that same response from entire groups of people, whether they are corporate divisions or military units or sports teams.

Large-scale, effective and sustainable change only happens when an organization’s culture is transformed to match the needs of the new organization– and that work calls for sophisticated shared leadership capabilities that are beyond individual competencies. It also requires patience and preparation because individuals and organizations typically do everything they can to resist change.

When change leadership succeeds, however, exciting changes in the culture unfold. Those organizational dynamics that senior executives dream about, from agility and speed to execution and teamwork, manifest themselves. I’ve seen it happen with clients, and these positive changes are exciting to behold. Employee morale rises. Innovation and quality increases. Bottom-line performance improves.

That happens when leaders focus more on leading change than merely managing it. Indeed, knowing the difference between management and leadership in your day-to-day work is more important now than ever. First, though, a word about change management: it’s not easy, and its value shouldn’t be underestimated. It focuses on external systems and processes with the goal of streamlining operations and creating new markets. It takes mental toughness, foresight and strong analytic skills.

But that is only half of the story, and not the most interesting half. Change management can only take an organization so far, and in the end, is always about technical efforts designed to minimize uncertainty and risk. It aims to create a predictable world. But the world, as we’ve been reminded over the past two years of economic strife, is not predictable. It is highly uncertain — and that’s where change leadership matters. Change leadership recognizes that human systems and organizational cultures must be aligned with business strategy. Business strategies need to be paired with leadership strategies. When they aren’t, companies find again and again that their people have not developed the collective leadership capabilities actually needed to enact a well-designed strategy. Consider this — if leadership is not capable of executing strategy in your organization, then who is? Research tells us, by the way, that 90 percent of organizational strategies fail to be implemented.

At the Center for Creative Leadership, we’ve identified four mindsets that cause people to retreat from leading change and to resort to the old, comfortable task of simply managing operations. Recognizing and reversing these mindsets builds the groundwork for real and lasting culture change:

“Someone else will do that”: Markets are shrinking. The product development pipeline is dry. Yet, everyone is content to pass the buck as they wait for an innovative, brilliant leader to arrive and save the day. Vice presidents defer to senior vice presidents who defer to C-level executives, all of whom defer to the CEO, who rarely has a magical solution either.

“Yes, but”: Another familiar refrain: “Yes, I will stand up and lead change, but I need total control over how it turns out.” In their push for happy outcomes, leaders often do not want to give colleagues time and space to innovate or find new ways of responding to change in the business climate and broader world. By sacrificing a thorough process, they get the same old results.

“Either-or”: With their intense, change-management focus on numbers and operations, leaders give the people side of their organizations short-shrift. There’s not enough time to deal with sticky culture issues, they say. Ultimately, though, culture eats strategy for lunch — and it will consume their operations, too.

“Check if off the list”: Leaders with a results-oriented, analytical mindset want to check “culture change” off their list as fast as possible. But it doesn’t work that way. Lasting organizational change can take months, if not years. Impatience will sink it in a hurry.

McGuire is a senior faculty member and Transformation Practice Leader at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus and co-author of “Transforming Your Leadership Culture.”