Monday, March 22, 2010

Gaining commitment from senior leaders

Right off the bat I've got to say - if you are expecting change in your company and you don't have commitment from your senior leadership team, it is not going to happen. Each of the individuals around the board room table has influence over a large proportion of your company's people resources, and everyone who reports to them will gauge from their behavior whether the change you propose is real or not.




There are completely understandable reasons why senior executives might be resistant to change, even when it's intended to improve business results:



They have learned (and have been rewarded for) a particular way of leading. They have developed habits. The longer a habit has been in place, generally the longer it will take to overcome.

Doing something differently might equate to admitting they were wr---. For some executives it's hard even to say, and the feeling of having been wrong is to be avoided at almost all cost.

Their feelings of risk are higher because many of them are hooked to the company with golden handcuffs. Yes, they are senior leaders, but it's hard to face risking a six-figure salary for the sake of an unknown outcome.

Their status under the old system was clear, but their status in the new system has yet to be established. The period of change can increase the political jockeying that takes place while senior leaders set out to prove their value all over again.

There are means by which senior leaders can be brought around to the change, although no change in habits is instant:



Provide them with information that validates the rationale behind the change. A conceptual buy-in has to accompany a buy-in to the specifics if you want the change to be sustainable. In addition, your leaders can apply their experience and brainpower to find some of their own unique ways to apply the concepts you're promoting - ideas you have not yet considered. When you help that happen you're creating the opportunity for wins both individual and company-wide.

Establish structure and process. You won't achieve a one-eighty simply by describing your new direction. Your executive team members need a chance to take the concept and figure out what it means on a day-to-day basis. It's also dangerous to assume that all of the players already have all of the tools they need to succeed. Give them the opportunity to develop themselves, and the vehicle by which to do so. This may mean hiring someone from outside your company to help get it done.

Work on building the team. It is often advantageous to train them in a group so they develop shared norms for the "new" way of doing business. In other cases indlvidually tailored coaching may be preferable, but ultimately they will have to come together. Shared goals are a fundamental component in building your team, and your senior leaders will be more committed to them when they've helped to develop them.

Put a stake in the ground. If you know this change needs to happen, communicate what needs to be done and stick to it. Not everyone else has the same information that you have, and despite the intitial resistance you need to persist - even (especially) when the resistance comes from those who are closest to you on the org chart.

Accept that someone might leave. We've seen it over and over. A leader says, in effect, "If this is what you're expecting me to do I don't want to have any parts of it." And they resign. Better to have them leave than to stay and throw grit into the gears as you're trying to get the company moving ahead.

This isn't an easy task. If you're making a big change it can take 1-3 years to accomplish, even when you're devoting a lot of energy and focus to it. In addition, structure, rewards, and processes may also need to change as you're bringing people in better alignment with your strategy. But keep your eye on the prize - the improved results you expect will come when you create the catalyst for activity in that new, better direction.

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