The case of the new business head and his new vision

Ray stood there and explained to them why they needed to change. “These are some difficult calls you must make as senior leaders. Changes in business strategy are not easy and to achieve these new goals, we have to change the way we do things”.  Ray was being one of the most transparent leaders I have seen. He was in room of senior leaders in an old, comfortable, hierarchy-driven organization as an outsider, a new-comer, to the system called in to overhaul the system and sharing openly how the performance management system was going to change, how compensation would be driven by the work people did, how they needed to get creative in growing business, how certain non-traditional market segments would become more important as the organization looked for growth, why a talent system had to be in place to ensure you were not promoted simply because you joined one month earlier than the person next to you.

emotional leadershipHe was not speaking to the most cooperative audience. They were almost all very close to retirement, all of them male, and seemingly satisfied with what they had achieved in “over 30 years of service and loyalty” to the organization so far. He needed them to change and he needed them to be able to change the rest of the organization.

Sitting there at the back of the room, like a paralegal who could only take notes and not really defend a case, my interest was not really in what Ray was saying. I had heard it before – in speeches, townhalls, meetings – perhaps not so candidly, but I had. What piqued my interest was this bunch of people he was addressing.

The more he spoke about why what he was going to talk about was important, the quieter they became. Arms started to cross, bodies started to slump in chairs, legs started to cross, blackberries were drawn out as legitimate distractions.

MENTAL NOTE 1: People don’t like to be told why something is happening if they don’t care for it

As he moved into what he was going to talk about, the more agitated they became. The threat of the change, as they saw it, became more immediate and frowns and shakes began to make their presence felt.

MENTAL NOTE 2: Body language is a huge insight into how people feel about what you are saying

Tea and snacks arrived in the room at this point. Ray continued with the conviction of an Olympic athlete. Like the obedient paralegal, I walked up to him and indicated that tea had arrived. He shook his head. I walked away. He explained later that he didn’t want to break the flow and distract the group at such a critical juncture.

The aroma of spring rolls, sandwiches, tea and coffee wafted across the room. As the catering service laid out the tables at the back of the room, people started to turn and look around, fold away their notepads, drop their phones back into their pockets. Wow! Did the blackberries actually get put away?

MENTAL NOTE 3: The reptilian brain can be dangerous for your communication goal if it is not satisfied

So the meeting continued as did the agitated whispering and cross-talking at the tables when implementation details were discussed. At this point, Ray nobly decides to get the groups talking so they feel involved in the discussion. He asks the groups to pick each of the action items shared so far and come up with a list of benefits and challenges associated with the implementation of that particular action item.

The groups, by now, in animated conversation, come up with their lists at the end of 30 minutes. Two out of seven groups listed benefits and challenges. Five listed only challenges.

MENTAL NOTE 4: If the change is going to impact people negatively or they perceive that it will, resistance noticeably increases and listening stops

The presentation by the groups and discussions triggered by them continued for over two hours. The conversation got difficult by the moment with defenses for average performance, oppositions to meritocracy, disputes about linking compensation to reward, suggestions to extend new hire programs to several months and years to avoid more “eligible population”, conflicts on the commitment of tenured and newer employees, support and opposition alike for the need for national and global mobility and more. Ray made an attempt at brushing aside regressive suggestions and finding agreements in principle.

MENTAL NOTE 5: Encouraging discussion without ensuring common understanding leads to unnecessary time spent on clarifications, reorientations and driving agreements-in-principle

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