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The Challenge of Transformation – Part II: The Leader’s Strategy

How does a leader lead through the process of radical change (transformation)?

Part I described what actually happens when transformation is initiated in an organization, focusing on the inevitable resistance. Some readers found the descriptions discouraging and were eager for Part II!

And the magic answer is:

Focus on your own functioning

Before attempting to understand what is happening in others, understand what is happening in yourself, e.g.:

• What will this transformation require of you? What will you need to let go? What will you need to embrace? What losses will you need to grieve?
• How is your ego affected by these changes? Do you think you will “lose face” or “gain face” in your own eyes, or in the eyes of others?
• What are the emotions that are stirred by this prospect?
• What are the values that are most important to you now? Are you aligned with them in the direction you’re taking? Are you yourself convinced at a gut level, and fully committed to this direction?

This calls for dedicated reflection time, an intentional commitment to monitor your own emotional reactions, not just at the beginning, but also on a regular basis throughout the process. This cultivates a non-anxious presence. Your ability to remain steady and focused will be the most carefully watched signal, consciously or unconsciously, that communicates to those around you how this will eventually play out. Your ability to manage your own anxiety, to adhere to your values and vision, WILL ITSELF promote (provoke) transformation in the system. In that sense, then, this first task may be sufficient to create the transformation.


Find the balance between staying the course, and remaining open
You need to demonstrate on a consistent basis, over time, through a sequence of incidents and stances:

• That you are committed to setting out in this new direction
• That even if the precise destination is not clear, the ship will sail, and
• That you are looking for a crew that embraces serendipity and can help chart the course.

Here there is a challenging balance to strike: Order-giving and bullheaded insistence must be distinguished from visionary, sensitive determination. If the leader holds the attitude that “I must make this system change, and therefore, I must make these people change”, the effort is clearly doomed to failure. Or, if the leader holds the attitude that “The system must change in the exact way I want it to change”, the leader will one day look around and find that no one is following.

There is a difference between a firm stance and dogmatic dictation. The well-differentiated leader is able to maintain a genuinely open dialogue with others in the system even as she challenges their most fundamental beliefs, traditions and behaviors. So consistency and firmness over time need to be blended with the possibility of others having valid points of view that need consideration.

Invite, never force

So the challenges have been issued, people have been invited to join in the transformation. All the predictable resistance has kicked in, and people are in reactions. This is the time for the leader-as-coach to emerge. Here are some images that might fit: thinking alongside them, peeking around the corner with them, joining them as they test-walk the new landscape. It may mean helping them do some exploring:

• What is at stake for them; what might they need to let go; what might they need to embrace; what losses might they need to grieve?
• How is their ego affected by these changes?
• What are the emotions that are stirred by this prospect?
• What are the positive possibilities this transformation might hold for them?

In other words, help them do exactly the kind of work that you have done and continue to do. Revealing some of your own struggle with the same issues may help. This is all in the interest of helping them find their new stance in relation to your changed stance.

Of course, you now represent the changes to them. You, after all, are the one who is forcing the question. So you may need to provide objective resources that can help them find their own equilibrium, or encourage them to seek those resources. Without this kind of resource (coaching from you or others), people may continue to react, and eventually choose poorly. Potentially excellent employees can be lost in the process. This notion of coaching or providing resources can even be viewed as an ethical requirement of a leader who is initiating a transformation process.

Invitation vs. forcing also means: be ready to let go. Some may not come along, because they don’t see themselves fitting in the new culture and processes, or because they are unable or unwilling to make the required shifts. One signal of a healthy leader is his/her ability and willingness to let go of those who choose to leave.

Look for bridges

Find ways to honor and bring along the best of the past. Where you are able, retain the familiar and cherished qualities and processes of the former system and culture. Find links and graceful transitions that symbolically or actually give people cause to celebrate what has been and preserve what is of value. Here are some possibilities:

• Ask people to identify items that symbolize the best of the past.
• Ask for volunteers to assemble a history of the company up to this point.
• Have people submit favorite stories about the company’s historic moments.
• In an assembly, ask people to tell stories about when they have felt most proud of working there.

None of these strategies guarantee a clean, uneventful transition. That is simply not the nature of true transformation. But attentive and responsive planning, beginning with a commitment to your own self-management, will keep you sane and provide the best opportunity for others to join you.

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