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Sometimes it's the leader than needs to change and be trained

Unleashing Change: Train the Leaders, Tame the Chaos

     Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer™, can instantly1 turn unruly canine terrors into well-behaved pets. Change is the unarguable core of his trade and his abilities are remarkable. It is not so much that he changes dogs, but that so often changing the dogs requires changing the owners (leaders) because it’s the owner’s unwitting attitude enabling the dog’s bad behaviour.

Sometimes it's the leader than needs to change and be trained

Why is this relevant?

     Change management exists because the majority of projects in organizations fail when organizations do not change.2 The discipline’s methods and techniques are to help impacted employees make that change. But—channeling Cesar—are employees the right target? No doubt, if they do not change, that must be attended to. But even subsequent change will be ineffective if leaders at the other end of the leash—those driving the change—are not changed as well, if not first. Even strong leaders need to be shown how to lead change.

     Let’s do a little of that.

     To simplify, we’ll reduce the change story to two participating characters: (1) change leaders and (2) those being changed. Just like the pet owner and the dog. There are plenty of antagonists at hand. In Cesar’s case, it might be other dogs, hyper children, an intimidating environment, prior abuse. For a changing organization, antagonistic factors include the systems, technologies, processes, stakeholders, competitors and other busybodies, and so on. We’ll ignore all of this for now.

The Dominant Focus of Change Management is Employees

     Most change management methods give a bit more than lip service to “sponsors” and “change leaders.” Still, they dominantly focus on the employees. (Not oddly, lining up to focusing on the troublesome dog.) Thus the concern in change management method is technique to help those people change, be that by communicating more, securing buy-in, training and making them capable, and so forth.

     A key underlying premise is that if people have been engaged and the change explained appropriately, they can “buy in,” change as needed, and thereby contribute to overall success. There is nothing wrong with this at all and much to recommend it. To all but the most autocratic leaders, it is probably essential.3

But Wait, Change Management Addresses Sponsors Doesn’t It?

     Even to the extent that sponsors (the typical name for senior champions and über-leaders of a change) are addressed in most change management methodologies, it is implied this leader is aware of and knowledgeable about the change, cares about and is invested in the change, is active and working to effect the change.

  • Simply as the sponsor this executive is presumed to be effective as a sponsor. (Cesar might say owning a dog doesn’t make a good pet master.4)
  • As a result of some briefing/coaching/scripts, combined with the insight and actions of the financially accountable executive, it’s easy to assume the sponsor fully appreciates the nature and magnitude of the change (as opposed to the nature of the project).
  • Senior executives tend to be responsible for multiple endeavors, so daily demand for their attention is kaleidoscopic. An executive will flitter from file to file, often engaging emphatically but superficially. The important (read: urgent) aspects of the files get the most attention, vying only with the executive’s comfort zone.

     In all, it is a capital mistake to assume that familiarity with the larger currents of a project or operation indicate understanding of or investment in what’s really going on. Noting, appreciating, and addressing change management issues (e.g., whether people are changing, why or why not, and so on) are extra material in most “So You Want to Be An Executive” curricula.  

Sponsoring Executives are Instrumental… not Incidental… to Change

     Only by luck does one solve this problem while focusing on only one of the two critical variables. We’re at the point when after Cesar has brought the troublesome dog to heel and hands it back to the owner… and the bad behaviour reasserts itself. When the owner struggles to control the animal, Cesar knows the problem is not the dog. It’s the human.

     In the world of organizational change, much anecdotal information suggests a decade or more of change management has had some impact on the success rate of projects that involve material change.5 Some. During this time the dominant focus was employees. Hmmm.

     Besides, proponents of change management created proofs for the methodologies based on idealized leadership. Their focus on the employee variable was applied and tested and measured based on artificial leadership: extremely knowledgeable change leaders (or coaches) performed that role. But that’s not reality. It’s akin to when Cesar handles the dog. Unsurprisingly, things go well. But once back in the pet owner’s care: reversion to form.

     Maybe it would now be more appropriate to not tweak actions taken on employees so much as to focus on leaders. Is it time to show them how to be change leaders?

     That last sentence is guaranteed to polarize. Change management implementers are likely to applaud because they live day-to-day with the snapping and snarling. (Senior executive “sponsors” are insulated from most of that.) On the other hand, leaders and especially executive sponsors will take umbrage. Who am I to challenge their leadership? After all, THEY have the executive job. THEY do important work. THEY’ve proven their management and leadership skills, which is how they got the job to begin with. I am obviously not to be taken seriously any more… Or something like that.

     That’s fine. For the most part, true enough that there’s no point to quibble. But just as in Cesar’s world, the desire and capacity to own a dog does not make you a good pet owner. The position of executive leader and “sponsor” does not bestow magical capability. Nor are executives all well-rounded.6 And, there is no shame in it, since most executives have not had the luxury of learning by training or by experience how to lead change specifically. Leading change is different than running an operation or general managing a large entity.

     Irrespective, it’s important to be clear-eyed about what has to be done and what needs to be learned to help leaders be better change leaders.

Focusing on Leaders

     If we focus on leaders, what does that mean and what does it look like? After all, every change management methodology has a facet dedicated to “sponsor” management.

     First off, change management and its techniques are interesting but not critical to making better change leaders. Certainly, it is reasonable to expect leaders to understand what change management is, how it works, even how to apply it. It is even more reasonable to expect a leader to be more than familiar with the underpinnings of change management method which, loosely said, are psychology, storytelling, empathy, courage, and perseverance.

     Notwithstanding what was said earlier, I would say most leaders (sponsors) ought to be near ready to effectively lead change if they have arrived at their roles having previously succeeded in marketing, sales, product management, or legal, or previously succeeded (even failed and learned) how to create, negotiate, and sell. Modest experience using the techniques while leading could mean they are almost as prepared as they think.

Consider an entrepreneur. Specific background doesn’t matter; entrepreneurial success is about creating a marketable offering (usually after many accommodations to the market), selling (often ideas and promises), and negotiating (commitments of financiers, employees, volunteers, suppliers, and so on). An entrepreneur’s job is leading change.

Insights About Change for the Change Leader

     Consider just a few things for the executive leader (sponsor) to be aware of IF success leading change is an objective. This list is not exhaustive nor in specific order. There is much behind each point, but space is short.

  1. Change is a sell. Presumably there is benefit, but so what?! In sales-y phrasing: employees don’t buy change; it’s sold to them. As leader, you are the main closer.
  2. All effective and successful organizational change starts LONG before the project is announced. I hope everyone knows expert players “think [insert number here] moves ahead.” Knowing that, you must struggle to find a sensible answer besides, “Not expert,” for the question: Why is leading the change so improvisational.
  3. Change management is fundamental to execution and should inform and shape project implementation, maybe even “solution” design. More emphatically, change leadership is not an “also” to the common functional considerations. It is central to the project; all other functions turn on its axis.
  4. Change management says: engage and communicate. Change leadership has to meaningfully engage and communicate. Engagement is not therapy: it is purposeful and with agenda. Certainly some (early) communication will be “oblique” to set the table for the change.
  5. Plan change leadership early and act quickly or you will lose the most important high ground.
  6. Resistance to change is normal, but unless you can be authoritarian it needs to be resolved: that’s a sell. See nos. 1–5.
  7. The change is in more jeopardy that your people let on.

Summary: Leadership, Not Management is Fundamental to Successful Change

     Change management focuses on the employee side of the change equation. While that is necessary, it is not sufficient for robust success. Like Cesar Millan, we need to focus much more on the leadership side of the equation. While most change management methods take note of sponsors and sponsor management, it is obviously not enough.

Institute X is a transformation leadership consultancy and transformation/change leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook. Be sure to check out the abundance of practical and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Subscribe to be notified of new, fresh content.

  1. As instantly as editing compresses hours of video into a 15-minute story. ↩︎
  2. Agree or disagree with the myth/fact. I, like others, have excavated it here and here. ↩︎
  3. Why not to “autocratic leaders?” If you haven’t experienced it, there are leaders with no direct issues with change management because change is not a request to employees: it’s an order. Resistance is not negotiated with or tolerated. ↩︎
  4. I use the word “master” here because it is appropriate to the relationship, not to extend the analogy to leaders and employees as masters and pets(?) or slaves(?). ↩︎
  5. Again, as I said about the mythical failure rate, I will not excavate that again here. You do you, but the breadth of information I’ve seen and personal observation lead me to accept the conclusion as generally right. ↩︎
  6. At the very top, executives get to be fairly well-rounded and broadly experienced. At the middle and lower executive levels that usually has yet to happen. But these are the people typically named to sponsor projects, some of which have material change impacts. And, frankly, even many of the very senior executives arrived at their lofty perches without experience leading change specifically. ↩︎
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