Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Leading Change by Example

Leaders are more effective when they show others what to do than when they just tell them. The best leaders influence others by their example. Yet many change initiatives are directed by company executives who tell rather than show. And often the change is ultimately undermined by their actions.

As illogical as that may seem, I would list company managers failing to lead by example as one of the top reasons that change efforts fail. It's usually inadvertent, but the impact is substantial. When you're trying to guide employees through change, you'd better be prepared to change yourself.

Here's a common scenario: An A/E firm determines that it needs to improve its project delivery process. Quality and service has been spotty, interdisciplinary coordination problematic, the level of rework unacceptably high. There's broad agreement that something needs to be done, so the prospects for successful change seem promising.

But a handful of department managers and senior project managers are thinking: Yes, we need to change, but not me. I've not had the problems that some of my colleagues have. These individuals support the overall project delivery initiative, but don't want to change how they do projects. So their attempts to encourage others to change ring hollow.

There are other reasons why managers don't lead by example, of course:
  • In some cases, they're not supportive of the change initiative, in large part because they don't see the need to change themselves
  • They are too busy with simply doing the work to focus on changing how they do it
  • Their attention shifts to more urgent matters
  • They don't take their role as influencers seriously, preferring to simply pull rank and tell others what to do
The basic rule for leaders is this: Don't expect to influence others to make changes you're not willing to make yourself. In fact, you need to take the lead in modeling the changes that you want to see from others. Obviously, as a manager, many details of the change won't apply to your job responsibilities. But there are many ways for you to set the example for change: 

Get personally involved in the change effort. I've witnessed CEOs and other senior executives tell staff that a certain change initiative was critical to their firm's success, but then spend very little of their time contributing to the effort. If it's not important enough to warrant senior management time, it's hard to make the case that the change is very important--is it not?

On the other hand, active involvement of senior management in implementing the change--working alongside employees--sends a powerful message. This involvement should include several key influencers in the firm, what Kotter calls a "guiding coalition." His research found that the second most common reason that change efforts failed was not having a strong enough coalition of leaders actively engaged. 

Speak and act consistently with the new change. We're all creatures of habit, so it's understandable that leaders may occasionally revert back to old ways or terminology. But this has a deleterious effect on your change effort. As noted above, it's important for you as a leader to set the example for change. People are watching, looking for evidence of your commitment to it--or evidence to the contrary.

Since it's crucial that leaders model the new way, it's also important that the difference is readily evident. That's why I strongly advocate adopting new terminology, even naming and branding your initiative. Outline new procedures, set clear expectations, measure progress. Then set the pace for putting these into practice, making a break with the old ways that no longer meet the firm's needs.

It's also important for leaders to address any obvious inconsistencies between current company policies or practices and the new way of doing things. Eliminate as many of these as possible. 

Model an upbeat and optimistic attitude. Change can be difficult, but it can also be exciting and fun. Leaders not only set an example by their words and actions, but by their emotions. The best change leaders are energized by change, and that enthusiasm can become contagious. Try to find at least aspects of the change you can get encouraged and excited about, and focus on these when interacting with employees.

But balance that passion with some empathy for coworkers who are struggling with the change. It's okay to let them know you've got your own challenges in giving up old, comfortable approaches. That makes you human--and a better example to follow--than someone who seems detached from what others are experiencing and feeling. Empathize, but don't commiserate. Help others embrace the vision for how the change will ultimately benefit them and the firm. 

Make yourself available to listen to others' ideas and concerns. Leading by example works because people feel a connection to the leader--as teammates, not just as followers. There is a shared experience that is strengthened through relationship. That's why leaders need to devote adequate time to interacting with those they lead.

Listening--really listening--is a powerful way to build followership. People are much more inclined to follow those who show interest and concern for them. Listening builds trust. It also opens you up to more ideas about how to make the change successful. And when others feel you have truly considered their suggestions, even if you don't choose to use them, they will more readily embrace your ideas and direction.

Leading by example is the sixth step in the order in which I've presented the change process over recent weeks. But it is in some ways a prerequisite for all the other steps. Because you'll find it difficult to make the compelling case, set the vision, engage others, reinforce new behaviors, and align corporate culture if you haven't established your role as a leader. Setting the example is essentially the manifestation of your integrity--a coherence between what you espouse and what you do. You'll not get far as a leader without that.

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