by: Fred Johnson, President/CEO, CUES
Death and taxes aside, the only thing that’s certain in life is that things are going to change.
If you’re a leader in today’s world, you’re in the business of leading others through the battleground of constant uncertainty. You are—by necessity—up in the front, setting the example and facilitating, as those who follow you face fear and experience shifting sands.
How effective are you at leading change? Here’s a little scorecard for you to gauge your performance in this area, based on my career experience of 25-plus years in the military and 23 years at CUES.
Give yourself 10 points if you model the behavior you’re asking for when it comes to dealing with change.
Remember the story of the woman who took her son to see Mahatma Ghandi because she couldn’t convince the boy to stop eating sugar? She and her son walked a great distance to visit the young man’s idol, the peaceful Indian leader. Ghandi listened to the mother’s story, then asked her to come back in two weeks. She found this puzzling and asked, upon her return, why Ghandi had not just told the boy to stop eating sugar when they came the first time. Ghandi replied that two weeks ago, he, too, had been eating a lot of sugar. Clearly this leader wasn’t about to ask a boy to do something he wasn’t doing.
When I led soldiers first as a lieutenant and later as a captain in Vietnam, I had to be up front, leading by example. Your men figure it out right away if you’re falling back for protection, and not leading the charge.
The business world expression for this is “walking the talk.” At CUES, I ask a lot of my staff, especially in terms of member service, but my expectations of staff don’t exceed my own commitment to taking care of our members. CUES staff know I travel a very large percentage of the year to be present for members at CUES events and special meetings—and that I follow up with our members with calls and handwritten notes on a regular basis, as well.
Give yourself 10 points if you have already earned the trust of those you lead, well before you have to lead them through big change.
I’ve been at CUES for 23 years. My staff feel comfortable with me because I have a long track record of being predictable and trying to do the right thing. For example, when CUES had to eliminate its defined benefit plan because the organization couldn’t survive with the burden of funding it, I chose to pay it out to staff, even though we could have just said it was “under duress” and never paid out a dime. I also brought in financial advisors to educate the staff about their options for what to do with the money and was so proud of everyone’s choices—100 percent rolled over that payout into our 401(k) plan.
Give yourself 10 points if you know your staff’s preferences for how things are handled when big change hits.
Both my family background and my military background taught me to handle change by digging in and going on. But my staff, in contrast, likes to talk things over, even before the change hits. In response to this, I recently called an all-staff meeting to discuss where CUES is on the selection of my replacement, since I’m retiring at the end of this year. Staff raised a wide variety of questions during the meeting. Since the CUES Board is handling the CEO hiring process, I didn’t have a lot of answers, but several people have since told me that they appreciated the chance to air their concerns and to be reassured that when information became available, it would be passed on to them. This brings me to my last point.
Give yourself 10 points if you give your staff as much information as you can.
Special ops forces in the military sometimes can’t tell their spouses where they’re going—and it’s probably a place of grave danger. But this is one way that business and the military are different. In business, information can usually flow more freely. In times of change especially, leaders need to talk with staff members and provide as much information as possible at every given juncture. With the selection of my replacement, I’m not in full control of the information, but my staff knows I’m good to my word that as the information becomes available, I’ll share it with them.
How Did You Score?
Add up your score for each of the four items above. Then rate yourself based on the following scale:
- 40 points: You’re an excellent leader in times of change.
- 30 points: You might benefit from examining one or two of your change leadership skills.
- 20 points: You might benefit from exploring formal professional development opportunities to help you boost your change leadership.
- 10 points: Do all you can—and quick—to strengthen your leadership when it comes to change, because this era is full of uncertainty.
You know how the old baseball saying goes: You can’t steal second unless you lead off of first. If you’re going to have change for the better, you have to take a little risk. And to make the risk pay off, you have to be ready to lead your team through it.
Fred Johnson is president/CEO of CUES, a Madison, Wisconsin-based, independent, not-for-profit, international membership association for credit union executives. CUES’ mission is to educate and develop credit union CEOs, directors and future leaders. www.cues.org