The importance of leadership for successful change

While most organisations recognise the importance of developing leaders, few invest in leadership. Yet in this time of rapid change, where competitors can emerge overnight, the impact of leadership on the success of any change project cannot be underestimated. Organisations need to be ‘change ready’ and this must be enabled by leadership.

A leader’s challenge is to set the scene for change and create the necessary alignment to enable these workstreams to happen concurrently. Leaders must ensure the ‘Golden Thread’ – aligned purpose, vision, values, and behaviours - flows down into the strategies and goals that provide the blueprint for change.  In fact, a recent McKinsey study shows that change initiatives with visible, persistent and positive demonstration of the new values at leadership level meant initiatives were six times more likely to succeed compared with those without.

Change Associates has conducted research into the key themes driving the agenda for change across organisations today and in our interviews, we asked how leadership needs to respond, what capabilities are required in order to give the organisation its mandate and meaning and how to build the trust needed that employees and customers will follow. What was clearly articulated was that an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach won’t do. In fact it is a major business risk.

 We identified eight key themes impacting leaders today with calls to action. You can download the full research report here.

Customers and Employees share the driving seat. Leaders need to create a sense of ‘joint endeavour’.

As we discussed in our previous report, 'Optimising the customer experience', while leaders are ultimately responsible for making decisions about the direction of travel for their business, customers will vote with their wallets and employees with their loyalty if their needs are not reflected.

In a socially connected world, leaders ignore customer and employee dissatisfaction at their peril. And of course, these stakeholders also provide invaluable insight and input. How can leaders connect in a way that builds engagement, connection and a sense of joint endeavour? By creating a ‘Golden Thread’ throughout the organisation, ensuring everyone is lined up behind a common purpose. Purpose, vision and values provide a rallying call for the organisation, with its strategy and goals as the high-level plan. This gives mandate and meaning, building trust and loyalty with employees and customers alike.

Leading Change is more than vision and strategy. Leaders must create the necessary alignment internally too.

Leading change – by which we mean anticipating and organising resources around change - must become a priority for leaders. Traditionally there is friction between the team responsible for the change and business as usual. Leaders riding what Charles Handy has labelled the 'Second Curve' in leadership recognise their role cannot be one of either/or in the face of such dichotomies; their role must embrace both. Leaders must anticipate change and create teams that respond effectively to take advantage of opportunities or combat threat.

It’s about alignment, not hierarchy. The days of the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) are over. Leaders must draw on the relevant parts of the ecosystem.

Leadership is a distributed responsibility, occurring in various parts of the organisation, not just emanating from the top. It is not one single person’s responsibility. Leaders should empower Subject Matter Experts to take on specific projects, often building non-hierarchical teams around them that may only exist for the duration of the project. It is essential to put customer need at the heart of decisions over and above any debate about how the organisation is hierarchically structured. Finally, build a leadership brand for the organisation to rally behind. As Dave Ulrich and Norma Smallwood said in their book 'Leadership Brand' – “Great leaders may come and go, but great leadership endures over time.”

Leaders can’t excel in every task, the hero leader is well past its sell-by date. Leadership qualities needed will depend on the business environment.

As Adrian Furnham and David Pendleton argue in their book 'Leadership - All You Need to Know', for reasons that are logical, empirical and psychological, it is extremely difficult for an individual to be a complete leader excelling in every task of leadership. The leadership qualities needed will change according to the business environment; some leaders will need to deliver the here and now and others prepare for the next curve. Hugo Bague, HR Director Rio Tinto, summed it up in our research: “Essentially, we are arguing for the return of the situational leader, which means tapping into the wider leadership team - or even needing a new type of leader completely. We try to look at the team first, what do we need, and what does the individual need to bring to complement that team rather than the technical skills. We start with the team in mind.”

Organisational supertankers are too big to change direction. Accepting failure must be role modelled from the top.

The traits that once maintained the dominance of the corporate behemoths (established infrastructure, tried and tested processes) can become encumbrances that hold the organisation back and stifle innovation. Leaders need to carve out enough time for delivering results now and future planning for the future. Don’t only focus on the short term but ignore it at your peril! Consider setting up an operation outside the core business without the constraints or complications of the super tanker to grow new ideas or business areas.

Companies are disappointed in their people and people are disappointed in their jobs. Leaders need to rethink traditional relationships with their people in order to retain them.

We have more choice than ever before, as consumers and as employees. As a result, our expectations have risen, yet our trust and loyalty has been eroded. The psychological contract is not as binding as it once was. Leadership must be encouraged to appear anywhere in the organisation so employees feel more empowered to make decisions and bring innovation to the workplace. In addition, retain ongoing relationships with those who leave, recognising they may return as customers, partners, suppliers, leaders or followers.

Is it all just a fake?

Too often leaders communicate one-way, or deliver information where an individual’s honesty and openness will be received without reward. The subsequent wall of silence is often misinterpreted as acceptance by leadership, and we know this might not be representative of the truth. The more project managers can facilitate feedback, making leaders and sponsors address concerns, then more open a conversation your employees will be willing to have and the more engaged they are likely to be. A rather old Forbes study from 2013 canvassed 22,000 leaders and reported that the top 10 per cent of leaders willing to hear feedback had significantly higher scores of engagement from employees.

An organisation’s purpose – why it was formed, what it exists to do, and how it captures the hearts and minds of its audiences - has never been more important. Purpose is judged by how a company operates, the decisions it makes and how its representatives behave. Gary Browning, former CEO of Penna, summed it up for us. “Leadership is all about relationships, so get to know your people, be transparent, honest, authentic and be fair. They’re human qualities.”

The future’s only just begun.

Leaders need to learn from new entrants into the workplace; the digital citizens for whom this is second nature. As a recent Computer Weekly article cruelly put it: “Executives need to become 21st Century humans before they can lead 21st Century organisations”. What do these above seven trends mean for leaders? Even organisations with compelling employer brands will need to think in a different way. 

 

For more from our interviews and the full practical list of recommendations for each theme identified, you can download the full report here. To discuss the findings from our research, please call 0207 101 979 or email: info@changeassociates.com.

 

 

Last updated: 3 Oct 2018