Developing leaders and embracing change

Imagine being asked by the top brass of an organization to develop and facilitate for its esteemed leadership team a training program focused on change management, only to discover through post-training follow-up that despite giving the program excellent reviews, neither the executive staff nor members of the leadership team incorporated an ounce of the program into their management practices. It is not uncommon that even the heads of organizations who recognize a need for change are often among the most change-averse within an organization. Ironically, research suggests that organizational change is most palatable when leaders are seen as change agents, effectively modifying their own behavior before demanding others do so.

Lee Hecht Harrison(LHH) helps companies around the globe transform their leaders and workforces so they can accelerate performance. Their recent Workforce Transformation study reveals 70% of organizations around the globe identify advances in digital technology as the primary external factor driving change and 59% identify increased use of digital technologies and automation as an internal catalyst for change.

Regardless of the vehicle driving change, if change is inevitable how can it be presented in a way that employees will cotton to it?

It comes down to leadership and the culture established at the top.

Solutions might be found in Behavioral Economics, which according to Investopedia is the study of psychology as it relates to the economic decision-making processes of individuals and institutions. The theory is that understanding rational behavior does not necessarily lead to it because humans are emotional beings, able to be persuaded by shiny objects or well-spun data. The paradigm is one on which advertisers focus to maximize results. It would seem obvious that leaders of organizations, who are typically results-oriented, would be open to change, and many are. The problem is that rarely do they see the need to change themselves. Instead, many think change should happen at the next level down and that all will be well if everyone else simply follows their edicts. Ah, the human factor emerges again.

According to LHH’s findings, 85% of employers around the world are concerned that their leaders are not capable of transforming their workforces to meet the needs that will ensure future success. Forbes Councils Member Nadir Hirji reports similar findings. He says getting buy-in from management is among the top three causes of change aversion. Hirji also cites technology as a leading driver of the need for change. He says that because digital transformation has no endpoint, organizations are under constant pressure to adopt new business models and refine their processes.

Having been established under the precept that change is constant could be why some 21stCentury organizations adapt more readily to technological changes compared to organizations that struggle to remain relevant in the digital age. Remaining entrenched in 20thCentury business models is a death knell. Kudos to staples like Colgate, Brooks Brothers, Pfaltzgraff, and dozens of other organizations that have flourished for hundreds of years because of their ability to adapt to new technologies.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day!

According to the LHH study on Workforce Transformation, while primary change drivers are technological, the most important challenges are not. Workplace culture is the key to successful change implementation. The study reveals that resistance to change is a nearly universal challenge to most transformation initiatives. Fifty-four percent of respondents identify cultural inertia and resistance to change as the number one barrier to workforce transformation. Lack of a disciplined approach, mediocre leaders, lack of an overall strategy and vision, and the absence of a strong leadership pipeline round out the top five barriers. This is where strategy meets culture.

Hirji recommends focusing on change enablement rather than change management. Executives with whom he spoke recognize that ongoing success comes down to people and culture. Strategy and culture are mutually influential. To address the challenge of cultural resistance to change, LHH recommends objectively defining current culture, and then creating a vision for the ideal culture. Empower those responsible for championing change and set clear expectations and measurable goals. The idea is to embrace change.

Leaders can make or break culture; therefore, it is imperative to put the right people in the right seats on the bus—to borrow a chapter from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.”

Focusing on people and culture is a concept that is not missed on job seekers, either. A recent Wall Street Journal report reveals culture ranks nearly as high as salary on a list of prospective employees’ most important considerations. The need to attract and maintain the best talent is yet another reason for organizations to regularly test their cultural waters and adjust accordingly.

The other Fish Philosophy

While many professionals are familiar with the workplace culture established at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Fish Market, the more commonly known philosophy associated with sea creatures is the adage, a fish rots from the head down. An organization’s tolerance for change comes down to leaders who are ready rather than reactionary.

According to LHH’s findings, leadership capability is a major theme differentiating high-performing organizations from low-performers. If a majority of organizations recognize a need for change and a deficiency in the quality of leadership necessary to drive change, where is the weak link? The answer lies in training and development. The study finds that 91% of organizations are not meeting employees’ development needs, thus impeding innovation and growth.

Take a look at how HR professionals rate their organization’s employee development:

  • 90% identify a lack in meeting career development needs
  • 91% identify a lack associated with providing tools and resources necessary to reskill and realign roles to meet organizational needs
  • 13% say they successfully train managers to hold effective career conversations with direct reports

The findings indicate that fewer than half, just 40%, of organizations fill open positions with internal candidates. That means a majority of organizations not only lack the talent pool needed to grow, but they also are failing to leverage existing talent to meet emerging business needs. The solution is to embrace quality training programs. Consultation from an outside organization will ensure objectivity. Sure, there are costs involved but they are minimal compared to the costs associated with employee turnover and low morale.

Just one more thing (cue: Columbo)

Imagine a well-oiled business led by quintessential servant leaders, from the C-suite through middle management and supervisory staff. Growth is steady, employee turnover is remarkably low, and the applicant pipeline is miles long. Strategists prepare for outside influences that will impact internal operations, yet every now and again, some necessary changes are met with resistance by even the most contented employees. If not handled appropriately, implementing change even in a seemingly perfect environment can cause unwanted disruptions in morale and flow. The solution here is to establish consistent communication processes. In conjunction with quality training, communication from the top down is most effective when these 5 Cs are employed: clear, concise, complete, correct, and courteous.

To protect the bottom line and keep it growing, leaders need to demonstrate enthusiasm for change, embrace opportunities associated with workforce transformation, and communicate a vision for success. Authentic buy-in at every level will abet smooth transitions and accelerate growth. The workforce transformation process is strategic, according to LHH, and it involves planning, developing, and redeploying employees to ensure companies have the critical skills and capabilities to help drive business forward. By its very definition, transformation implies many moving parts. In business, successful transformation requires an integrated approach that includes people, processes, systems, and technology.

Lorraine Ranalli

Lorraine Ranalli

Lorraine Ranalli is Chief Storyteller & Communications Director, as well as published author. Her most recent work, Impact: Deliver Effective, Meaningful, and Memorable Presentations, is a pocket book of public ... Web: Details