How NOT to Lead During Change

Changes Ahead

If we want change to be lasting and more effective, we have got to get better at leading it.

A group of us were talking the other day about leading through change, and I couldn’t help but recall the many reorganizations I’ve watched (or been part of) during my years in the Five-sided Puzzle Palace. It might surprise you to know that not all my experiences with change in the home of the world’s greatest military were positive. Some were slightly less painful than others, but almost all were less than effectively executed – yes, I’m being charitable – because the changes weren’t well led.

In fact, we’ve led it so badly for so long, the very word “reorganization” has taken on an adversarial connotation. I’ve heard it called realignment, refocus, transformation, shake-up, even “simply changing who people work for,” but not once did it feel like we were doing anything but reorganizing.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Here’s some lessons that came from examples I’ve see of how NOT to lead during change. I know there are other kinds of change besides a reorganization, but the leadership lessons learned – or not learned – apply across the board.

Most importantly, don’t plan the change in secret. I know… you don’t want to distract anyone from their work by giving them something else to stand around and have fact-free conversations about. Well guess what – too late. You can’t stop the rumor mill with secrecy, and they’re already distracted all day long by wondering “How does this change affect me?” They’ve even given it a pet name, like The Great Disorganization of 2015, Musical Cubicles or Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic.

Instead, communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. To the whole organization. Start with the “why” you’re changing, follow with “what” you’re trying to get out of the change, and continue with soliciting “how” it might work better from the people whose day-to-day activities are affected by the new way of doing thing. You’re trying to get buy-in from the doers, not the affirmation by middle management that they’re okay with the new power distribution.

Next, pleeeeeese don’t change the organization to fix someone’s lack of performance. As in, don’t move a function away from a poor manager and give it to a top performer as a reward. If you do, you can bet you’ve just sent a horrible message to your workforce.

Instead, make sure the change is about the good of the organization. Individual needs do not override the collective goals of the organization (thank you, Mr. Spock). If a manager’s not getting the job done, get him some help (development, coaching, etc.) or replace him. It shows that accountability is more than a slogan on the break room bulletin board.

Finally (almost), don’t continue down a dead-end road just to save face. Not all newly-created organizations work the way they’re envisioned. Teams don’t gel, new leaders don’t lead, promised resources don’t materialize, etc., etc. In fact, a lot of changes don’t pan out the way we think they’re going to, so…

Fix what you messed up, and don’t be shy about telling people why you need to change again. Help your people build change resiliency, and keep everyone’s focus on organizational performance.

Okay, really last… don’t drag out the implementation date. It’s hard on people to have to dance between their current, but soon-to-be-former boss and their soon-to-be boss. Would you rather have your tooth pulled in one appointment or have pieces of it extracted over a series of months?

Change happens, and there are winners and losers in every re-shuffle, but the only people who are happy with change are those in charge of it and those who benefit by it. Still, led properly, growth and success are its by-products, and everyone can get behind that.

The alternative is not as good.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.