Archive for August, 2011

August 18, 2011

Change Leadership in No Easy Steps

by Richard Edwards

This week I attended a conference–the Global Implementation Conference–sponsored by the National Implementation Research Network. It was fascinating, and I’ll write more about the conference itself and Implementation Science in coming posts. I wrote about it briefly in a previous post, “According to the Evidence…”, but it’s implications for the human services system in NC bears further exploration and discovery.

One of the things that surprised me about the conference was the emphasis on change leadership. It makes sense, if you think about it–implementation means change, and in human services, that means helping people to bridge the divide between where we are and where we want to be. Over the course of three days, I participated in several workshops and heard more than a few poster presentations on change and resistance to change. This model is simply my attempt at pulling together all that I heard, and what I’ve learned previously.  So, here it is…your feedback is much appreciated–

Now, I know this might not look very cheery, but hear me out.

First, credit where it’s due. Two of the folks who have really informed my thinking on this are Tony Bates at the Headstrong Foundation in Ireland, and Brian McNulty at the Leadership & Learning Center. Both are excellent speakers and thoughtful leaders in education and human services.

Okay, first principle–leaders are always leading change. Even though there’s an arrow from one side to the other, this is a continuous process. You are, as Tony said, ‘surfing on the edge of chaos’ as a leader. And if you try to stand still on a surfboard, something predictable happens, because the water you’re surfing on, and the environment and world we live in, is always changing. So, think of the arrow as directional only, not as Point A to Point B.

Leadership, someone once said, is about connecting memory and possibility. This is as eloquent a description of leadership as I’ve ever heard. Great leaders help us bridge the gap between that which grounds us and that to which we aspire. The most important tools for bridging that gap come from providing context–the why of what we’re doing, moreso than the how. People will figure out the ‘how’, if they really believe in and understand the ‘why’.

The best tools that leaders have at their disposal for providing this context are values, stories and focus. Values that help guide our decisions when they, our leaders, are not around. Stories that connect with us emotionally, and fill in the gaps in our cognitive understanding. And Focus to remind us of what’s important, and what’s just extra baggage.

But a single leader can’t do this alone, or at least not for very long, and many hands make light work. Effective change leadership requires alignment of those who are being led.

Q: What do you call a leader with no followers?

A: Someone out taking a walk.

To be aligned, or engaged, people need context of the very kind described, but they also need to provide feedback and be heard. Leaders need feedback, too, to be sure that the context they are setting is understood accurately. Rick Anicetti, former CEO for Food Lion, says his job was basically “Talking all day long, and then running to the other side of the organization to see if I can hear myself.”  Leaders provide context, and followers provide feedback on how things really are–it is this dialogue that keeps us moving towards our common vision.

Certainly, there are leaders who, through sheer force of will, can effect change, but when they leave, the ability to adapt and change leaves with them, because the changes have been all about them, and not about those who are being asked to change the most.

The consequences of not changing? Jack Welch, CEO at GE, said famously, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” This can go one of two ways–both of which we are more naturally inclined to, I’m afraid, than successfully managing change.

The first is the violent death–chaos, when things spin out of control. Surfing on the edge of chaos, sometimes it’s tempting to let yourself (or your agency) slide into that chaos–this is the death wish at work. When human service agencies flame out, suddenly go bankrupt, or close their doors overnight, they’ve ignored the imperative of managing change, which means knowing how much you can tolerate at a given moment.

The second is the wasting death–atrophy, when organizations simply become less and less relevant over time, until someone says, “Whatever happened to…?” The entire universe moves towards a lower state of energy, towards stasis, and we would, too, given the choice. Safety is tempting, but for organizations in an ever-changing world, it is illusory. When organizations waste away, when they become irrelevant, when no one buys their products anymore, they’ve ignored the imperative of managing change, which also means embracing it.

So, while I think change leadership isn’t exactly natural–we’re all opposed to change on some level–given a vision, and the ability to connect people to that possibility through values and stories and focused goals, change leadership goes beyond just being about Point A to Point B, to being about a way of life. Because change is the way of life.

But that’s just my angle, what are your thoughts?