Change Leadership: Taking People Along in Change

At a recent workshop with a client, I was helping a bunch of people managers understand what people management was really about. That it was not only about feeling pride in being able to decide someone’s rating and salary hikes at the end of the year or reveling in the social status of a large team size. As clichéd as it can be, with great power comes great responsibility. And my work was to help them discover their role in setting people up for success in the first place rather than analyzing post-mortem if they had succeeded or not.

A Culture Of High Performance

It was new. To all of them. And obviously came with a heap load of resistance. Often their own, masked as potential resistance from their teams. After all, their teams would see it as a new “performance appraisal system.”

It was my second day of the workshop. I must say, I was proud of myself for the work done. We had really covered much tedious ground and come to a point where the managers in the room started understanding and valuing a “performance management culture” as against the “performance appraisal system”. Phew! That was an achievement. I felt delighted. Yet, there are always some who will have doubts, who will resist and who will be negative about any change, if it has the potential for organization-wide transformation that could benefit everyone in the process. I am a change consultant. Who would know that better than me? And after three months of ground work, one week with another group of managers and my 12th hour with this group, I was possibly coming to a point where I felt, this small group of three people in this entire group of 25 just might be a part of that 25% you can never bring on-board initially. “Let this change roll-out successfully. Once they see proof, they will come on-board themselves”, I said to myself.

Taking A Hard Stand

So the next time I had one more question from this group on “Why should an employee do this?”, my answer was simple. I said firmly, “Well, they are employees of the organization. As managers, you have to help them understand why and use your experience from so many years along with our discussions in these two days to do so. But after all that, if they don’t, they have to know it is an organization-wide initiative and they will need to follow it.” It was high time an organization vision stopped being compromised because people were at liberty to ignore it. We needed an execution focus.

I narrated this to a senior business manager who was there supporting the initiative. He was scheduled to address the group in the next slot and I wanted to ensure he had perspective of what had been going on, what were the strengths and possible roadblocks so he could address the group meaningfully. I had also invited him earlier to join this table with questions, while we were discussing this.

He came up post-tea-break and started his address. Honestly, for a while, I wanted to hide. He was being all big-picture and visionary plotting graphs on the white board with messages on “Where we are” and “Where the client wants us to be”. After a while, I felt like it was a game of X and Zeroes. “The other business managers before him did such a fantastic job”, I was telling myself, wondering where this was all headed. And then suddenly, I heard it.

Taking People Along In Change

“Why would they not?”, he was asking the group. I broke my self-talk and listened. “I heard the discussion at a table earlier where people were saying, what if employees refuse and why should they do this. Why would they not?”, he continued. “As a manager, you need to understand that. They obviously have their reasons. If you know their reasons, may be you can help them understand. Or maybe you will find something we need to fix as an organization and bring that up to us in the leadership team.”

I felt like kicking myself in the shins. Why hadn’t I said that? I have been saying that to every business leader on every change consulting project I have partnered on. I have helped managers recognize that in every managerial skill development program I facilitated. Why did I not say that today? At such a critical time?

Every Miss Can Be A Learning Experience

It taught me something. This incident. It taught me that no matter how trained and self-aware you are, frustration or emotion of any kind really, can get in the way sometimes. And that I needed to be on-guard a 100% of the time. Not only to avoid such slips, but more importantly to recognize them when they happened.

And that every leader, every consultant, every coach needs to be conscious of how emotion can impact the perception of conviction and the execution of a vision through others.

Words, meaning and emotions

I read an article that said words are not only a means of communicating, a tool to interpret the meaning of what is being said and people subconsciously use words to interpret making it even more critical to choose the right words in an organization’s message that goes back to an organization’s culture. I felt it that day.

Imagine the power of a single statement to drive or compromise a vision. “It is an organization-wide initiative and they have to follow it” had all indications of a top-down, unilateral management style while “Why would they not do this?” was all about listening, an inclusive leadership, a balance between a top-down and bottoms-up approach – everything that I stood for, yet uttered a simple but significant sentence against.

I came back from that workshop reminded sharply of two things I have always believed in:

Even if you are the one who is supposed to have all the answers, your own learning never stops and never should

Yes, I was the consultant. Yes, I was the brains behind what we were doing in the client organization. But I learnt something very important that day. And I need to be open to that kind of learning – even when it makes me feel like kicking myself – if I need to be an effective leader

It is absolutely critical to have business partner with so-called “non-business” initiatives

Ultimately, it all comes back to business. If you can’t have your business leaders speak about it with conviction, it is never going to succeed. That day, I was happy business had the conviction. That day, I was happy somebody else was there to ask, “Why would they not?” when I forgot.

  • Mayank Mohan Upadhyay
    September 8, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this experience. This article will remind someone someday to keep ones cup empty 🙂

    • Radhika Subramanian
      September 8, 2014

      @Mayank, thanks for your thought. I am glad you identified with this experience. It made a huge difference to me and hope it does to you and many others!

  • Ferdi
    September 8, 2014

    I so much agree with the fact that no matter how trained and self-aware you are, frustration or emotion of any kind really, can get in the way sometimes and possibly leave you blank. I am sure most of us have experienced it. It definitely needs conscious effort to be watchful and do what is required at that ‘moment’. Being fully in ‘that moment’ needs practice.
    Thank you for sharing your experience Radhika. It is some food for thought to me.

    • Radhika Subramanian
      September 8, 2014

      @Ferdi, so true. Thanks for sharing your thoughts after reading the article. The experience has surely made me a lot more aware of how I manage my emotions and leverage them for true emotional leadership

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