Transformation starts when senior leaders change their behaviours
A recent Harvard business review article Organizations Can’t Change If Leaders Can’t Change with Them revisits the relatively high failure rate of transformation efforts reported by McKinsey, and proposes that leaders need to start by focusing less on their organizations and more on themselves.
This is very evident in our work with senior groups leading the transformation to increasingly connected matrix, virtual and global organisations.
Our involvement often starts with a request for capability building for middle management populations. Senior leaders often understand the critical role of middle management in a transformation and that their behaviours and ways of working need to change.
It’s common that we will work with this middle management group for some months and even years before we will get access to the senior leaders. When we do they are often more focused on how others need to change, rather than on how they need to change their own skills and behaviours.
One of the reasons for this is that as organisations become more complex, the more senior roles change less radically.
If you are the CEO and you introduce a matrix, your life does not change very much. You and the people who work for you usually don’t have multiple reporting lines upwards. Influence without authority and accountability without control are not a problem.
Because you will have spent months or years working on strategy and structure before an organization announcement, it is all very clear to you and it is difficult to understand why people in the middle of the organisation find it so difficult to execute such a compelling idea.
Senior leaders may also get less feedback and have had their legacy behaviours reinforced over a long period through increasing seniority and reward. Their behaviour in the present is often a function of what made them successful in the past. In more complex organisations these behaviours may be less effective or even counter-productive.
One example is around level of control and involvement. In a relatively simple environment, leaders are expected to have a close understanding of the operational details of their businesses. They expect to know what is going on in detail. As the business becomes bigger and more complex this may be unrealistic. They may need to make the transition to managing the environment that enables distributed control rather than exercising control themselves. Leaders who fail to make this transition can easily shade into micromanagement.
I often say in our workshops with senior leaders, when they complain about the behaviours of their people or the slow pace of change that “leaders get the followers they deserve”. For the first six months or so you can blame your predecessor but after this your followers are displaying the behaviors you have either created or allowed to continue.
We get leaders in our workshops to make a list of how they want their people to behave. Once they have done this we ask “what do you need to do is a leader to create these behaviors in your followers?”
For example, if you want your people to challenging, then you should encourage challenge and you have to respond positively to it. If you want people to be decisive you must give them the space to make decisions and not jump in with your own solutions.
The lists of senior leader behavior this generates are very different from the traditional “hero” leader. It becomes more about giving people space and building capability and confidence to decentralize control.
So a good way to get senior leaders thinking about how they need to change, is to consider the behaviors and changes they want to elicit throughout their organization. Changing behaviors is hard; it requires both a change in mindset and a new skill set to allow people to work in a different way.
If senior leaders maintain their legacy behaviours and expect others to change, they will normally be disappointed.
Take a look at our website page on “leading the transformation” to find out more about how we help companies do this.
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