Lessons in Leading Change

Dr Ivan Joseph
January 11, 2021

Leading organizational change can be challenging because it involves addressing the management styles of the current team who are in place. I have found that individuals feel put upon or discounted for how they have managed the organization if I come in like a whirling dervish speaking of changes. This approach, as you can imagine, puts people on the defensive right off the mark—making them resistant to any leadership initiatives that I might be trying to introduce.

Early in my career, I had a lot of trouble trying to drive organizational change. I thought I did all the textbook things right. I painted a clear and compelling need for change. I articulated the goals, roles and responsibilities with drill-like precision. I laid out the mission, vision and purpose so that everyone had a clear sense of direction. I even made sure there was operational alignment back to our goals. Still, success did not happen.

My first foray into leading organizational change was a complete and utter failure out of the gate. Needless to say, I was expecting a significantly different outcome.

I remember coming back from staff meetings when I was trying to put forward a new initiative and feeling like I just went through battle. I was beaten, bruised and often felt defeated. I would bring a new idea forward, laying out a plan towards operationalization and then ask for feedback on the initiative before moving forward. I was surprised at the feedback that came at me. There was a ‘piling on’ effect that would happen during this consultation and collaboration phase that I was not used to or properly equipped to handle.

The feedback became like a snowball rolling down Mount Everest, getting bigger with every revolution and picking up more speed with every voice adding to what was wrong with the initiative.

I often felt run over. I was overwhelmed with the negative thoughts and criticisms. I had to work hard to keep myself from abandoning my idea or bringing forth a tepid version (that would pass the feedback and consultation process but miss the rigor to drive the change I was looking for).

One day, I was speaking to my mentor about how I was feeling at the staff meetings. I distinctly remember telling him that I pictured myself going into battle—putting on elbow pads, a helmet and chest protector to deflect the attack and avoid coming out injured from the feedback sessions. He gave me some valuable advice that I still take forward to this very day. I use it in all the meetings that I lead when trying to build a coalition or persuade a team towards a new way of thinking and acting.

He said: “Ivan, it’s hard to fight a pack and defeat group mentality… never bring an idea to your board chair, to a committee, or to your team for a vote before you know what the outcome of that idea will be. It’s your job to do your homework before you get to the meeting. Make sure that you have all of your people on side.”

It was a simple and effective point that created an aha moment for me. I was doing all of my consultation, collaboration, and feedback gathering on the wrong side of the meeting. Instead of doing my consultation during the meeting, it was time for me to move that before the meeting. This did not mean that I eliminated the consultation stage during the meeting, it simply meant that I added another level of consultation.

1)      Separate the pack.

By bringing consultations to one-on-one meetings, I significantly reduced the band-wagon effect of people to piling-on the criticism. I needed to get to the strong voices of dissent and resolve their issues earlier in the process. By introducing one-on-one consultation, I also gave myself more time to think and plan how I wanted to address the critical feedback. 

This additional layer of the consultation process allowed me to circle back—ensuring my team members felt heard and my solution or response had merit. This doesn’t mean I always responded the way they wanted me to, but it did allow me to come to them with a well-thought-out plan and rationale.

I found that I had a much easier go of things in meetings. There was less snowballing. I had fewer voices of dissent. People were more ready to get on board with the idea when it wasn’t the first time that it was being heard.

2) Empower your allies to have a voice and share the leadership.

Another valuable practice that I engage in when driving change is to give away some of my power. Being the only voice at the table doesn’t build coalitions. Simply stated, I stopped being the loan presenter of new initiatives. I needed to find other champions of the ideas. Let other people bring new initiatives forward.

I started spending time cultivating leaders in the organization to move beyond the status quo and generate new ways of solving problems. I needed them to have the ownership of the ideas instead of them seeing them as my plans and thoughts that they were subservient to. The process takes longer, but the change becomes sustainable because it is coming from within.

This combined approach shifts the attention from challenging an external leader to supporting their fellow employees who are often part of their own internal management team. Not only were ideas easier to pass through the gauntlet of acceptance, my management team gained experience and skill, as an added benefit.

Taking the extra time helped the team feel invested in the initiatives. We were moving forward as a unit.

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