A Simple View on
Change Leadership

7 Things Leaders
Do to Enable &
Activate Change

The Path to Inspiring Followership

Excerpts

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” −Mary Shelley

A couple of years ago around New Year’s, our family went to Florida and enjoyed a really wonderful vacation at Disney. We bought a three-park pass, which gave us the flexibility to hop from one park to another. While the crowds and lines were really tough to deal with, we had such a memorable time! Our favorite ride was at Hollywood Studios—perhaps you’ve been on it—Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. The wait for the attraction was more than two hours so we only got to ride it twice, but we still talk about it like it was yesterday.

Like most roller coasters, there was a weaving line that felt like it was at least three miles long. As we approached the front, we felt the energy of the ride from the happy, excited, and not to mention really scared people jumping into a roller coaster car that was fashioned to look like a stretch limo. I remember staring through the chain-link fence that was positioned at the front of the line and watching the limos line up. While I like roller coasters a lot, I wasn’t sure how I felt about what I was witnessing.

You see, the “known for” on this attraction is that the ride starts by immediately launching you from 0 to 57 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds! While the full ride wasn’t visible at any point during the waiting process, watching that amazing launch alone built a mound of anticipation for all of us.

Two hours of waiting and visualizing the unknowns led to this moment … we were up! Our family jumped into the limo and, luckily, felt pretty locked in. No fears about safety. Check. I looked over at my then 9-year old daughter and thought, “I’m a terrible dad!” She looked back at me, grinning ear to ear, and I realized she didn’t agree with me. “I’m a cool Dad!”  Check.

The ride started with a slight jerk that faked us out but granted us a few more seconds to collect our thoughts. “This is going to rock! The wait was worth it!” Check. Then, the speakers behind the headrest filled our ears with Steven Tyler, the singer of Aerosmith, counting down …5…4…3…2…1.  Boom! Just like that, we were fired into a very dark tunnel lit only with strobe lights, Aerosmith blasting over the sound system, and immediate speed consuming our senses!

Here’s what I’ll tell you about that ride: even though you can see other passengers launch into that dark tunnel before you jump into your limo, it absolutely takes your breath away. Even though you talk about the ride for hours in line, sometimes with strangers who have the same fear and excitement, it takes your breath away. And, even when you’ve been on the ride before and know exactly what to expect at launch, it takes your breath away!

This experience reminds me why the work of Change Leadership is so important. Change works just like that Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster ride. There’s long anticipation and build-up, people have a pretty good sense for what’s going to happen or have talked to people who do, and in some cases, have already experienced something similar. Yet, time and time again, when something big changes at work, it takes our breath away.

My motivations for writing this book are simple. I’ve worked in the IT space for 24 years and have seen many companies introduce new technology, the Things, with the hope of building more efficient and effective organizations. (And who can blame them for that—I’m enamored, too.  That’s why it’s my chosen field!)  Almost every single one of those projects started with the same promise, “If you invest in this new technology, it will be a game changer.” If it’s not those exact words from someone in sales, then you often hear from an interested insider, “When we get this new solution, it will free up our people’s time to add more value.” Here’s the punchline: technology will never do such a thing on its own.

In fact, if we want to launch a transformation in our organizations, we can only do that by first honoring the human experience, the People, and recognizing how they can dramatically change the outcomes of any implementation. This human experience is the core purpose of my work.

I would love for project teams to feel the joy of making an impact, team members to feel nurtured and supported during a disruptive change, and leaders to feel empowered to act confidently because they have the loyalty and engagement of their people. I believe and want this so much that I’m willing to share some of my biggest failures and personal disappointments throughout my career, as well as the patterns for the approaches that brought the most success.

In full disclosure though, I’m going to provide tough love to leaders because of the hard lessons I’ve learned during the tenure of my executive career. Fortunately, many leaders I’ve met and worked with are very self-reflective and willing to improve. So, I trust this information will find a good audience—and my aspiration is that it will positively affect many well-intentioned and hard-working people downstream, who want nothing more than to do a great job and make a difference.

I hope you enjoy this journal of stories and experiences that remind us: if we are going to change our organizations, truly change them, we have to put people before things. Always.

Chapter 1: Failure is an Option

Patrick Lencioni is a best-selling author and founder of a boutique consultancy called the Table Group. In my opinion, he is the most important thought leader of our generation regarding organizational health and building cohesive teams. His books Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage highlight his core belief that to be successful, companies need to be SMART (finance, marketing, strategy, IT, etc.) and HEALTHY (minimal confusion and politics, high morale, high productivity, low turnover). In Pat’s experience, companies rarely fail because they aren’t SMART enough. As such, he’s built a life mission to help organizations get healthier. I couldn’t think of a better springboard for the People Before Things movement.

Using Pat’s framework, the same could be said about projects or change initiatives, especially technical ones. For them to be successful, they need to be smart and they need to be healthy. Smart would include all the disciplines of selecting or engineering the right solution, good project management, solid quality assurance, and consistent support and operations. Healthy would include all of the people-related groundwork that needs to be done so team members feel prepared, nurtured, and supported during the changes they will have to adapt to and eventually adopt.

In my experience, failure rarely occurs because project teams aren’t smart enough. Rather, projects tend to fail because of people-related issues that cause them to not be healthy enough. This scenario is very common and organizations experience awful consequences as a result. I’ve experienced failure firsthand, and sharing one of those stories seems like a good place to start.

Chapter 2: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem

I’ve already made several references to “change leaders.” It’s natural to wonder how change leaders are different than plain old leaders. In truth, they should be one in the same. Harvard Business Review says that one of the seven skills you need to thrive in the C-suite is change management. I’ve met many people in the C-suite who have great leadership skills in terms of providing vision and communication and have done an awesome job assembling and managing a talented team. However, they’ve experienced struggles in leading change because they weren’t patient enough and/or their methods for building followership were limited.

As an example, when desired outcomes aren’t achieved during the rollout of a new change, you often hear executive leaders say, “We need to provide better training.” Even more common is the approach of writing memos or calling town hall meetings to communicate that team members need to focus more on the desired behavior change and outcome. These approaches put the burden of success squarely on the shoulders of the folks being impacted by the big change. Change leadership takes a different approach. It starts with, “How can I, as a leader, set our people up for success with this new thing that’s coming their way?”

While good change leadership needs project leaders to do their part, it requires enablement by executive leaders prior to the project team lifting a finger on the delivery work. It then requires on-going nurturing and support (activation) during the implementation phase—which is owned by project leaders, grassroots influencers, and executives.

Chapter 3: Absence Doesn’t Make the Heart Grow Fonder

I’ve also concluded, however, that absence isn’t always by choice. In most cases, executives aren’t sitting around consciously choosing words and actions that express passive involvement or interest. However, whether it’s conscious or not, the result is still hurtful and unfortunate. Take these blunders for instance:

First, I was speaking to someone whose husband worked for a public health organization. During a total team meeting, the organization’s executives gave their IT department a “Booby Award.”  I’ve made mistakes in my career, and I wasn’t always the model citizen for how to get things done. Therefore, I understand the angst some folks have with IT. On the other hand, the executives who chose to publicly insult their IT team weren’t exactly building an environment that enables change or future success. I’m guessing the recipients of that award didn’t feel very supported. Absence.

In another example, I spoke with a former CIO of a company in the business of aerospace engineering. The team members and former CIO himself are some seriously smart engineers (but remember, projects rarely fail because we aren’t smart enough)! He shared a story with me about an important technology initiative that had huge change and transformation implications. His team provided the CEO a detailed script for a company town hall meeting with the goal of reinforcing key points related to the project. When it came time to talk about the project, the CEO ditched the script and simply said, “Hey, that ERP project … make sure you pay attention to it!” The team members probably didn’t absorb the importance of the project because it was buried underneath inauthentic and ineffective messaging. Absence.

In the final example, I attended a CIO conference that had an audience of well-respected technology leaders representing well-respected companies. Our closing keynote speaker was the President of one of the attending brands. His talk was to reassure us the work of IT was vital and, in his case, moving his organization forward. Instead, he bragged to the audience, “My IT guy is here. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I know we’re spending $30 million a year on technology and innovation.” During the Q&A session, one outspoken CIO challenged, “How can you spend $30 million a year and not bother yourself with what your ‘IT Guy’ is doing?” Right. Absence.

I know all these stories are related to IT, but I share them because of the universality of technology change in organizations today. However, I’ve seen plenty of examples of non-technical changes, such as the implementation of new policies or corporate reorganizations, which suffer from the same kind of executive absence. The result is almost always the same: a reaction from impacted stakeholders and project team members who inevitably ask, “What planet is that leader living on?” When that occurs, I can confidently confirm, it’s game over.

Chapter 4: We’re Confused That They’re Confused (Alignment)

Alignment is a lot like strategy. Everyone says it’s important, but it feels like nobody really knows what it means. Some of the most monumental failures in my career came when I was humming along on a project and a fellow team member would tell me, “I don’t think we’re on the same page.” And I’m guessing most of us have heard that dreaded line once or twice. On the other hand, I’ve experienced tremendous success and joy with teams who felt like we could do no wrong because we were so aligned. The emotional high produced in those moments was amazing. The level of engagement had the whole team hopping out of bed in the morning ready to take on the world. Getting great results and winning is contagious. When everyone is on the same page and perfectly aligned, anything is possible. Anything!

These experiences led me on a journey, about mid-way through my career, to demystify alignment. I wanted to discover why one project might be a huge success from an alignment perspective but another wasn’t. I don’t profess to have found the Holy Grail, but I did stumble upon one pattern that helped me tremendously. To explain it, I need to take you on an imaginary road trip.

Chapter 5: The Easy Button (Design)

Design can be a frustrating subject. I’ve learned there are more armchair quarterbacks in the world of design than just about any other functional area in IT. No matter what type of technology I’ve implemented over the years, someone had an opinion. Predictably, the opinion was a universal declaration that sounded like, “The solution needs to be intuitive and easy to use,” as if engineers and creative types make it their goal to produce something that doesn’t make sense and is hard to use.

I believe, as leaders, we have an opportunity to impact our organizations with thoughtful design. It starts with recognizing that declaring, “This ‘new Thing’ needs to be intuitive and easy to use,” will never enable a better outcome. More importantly, when something is not getting the adoption we want due to complexity, we need to acknowledge that training and communications aren’t always the best way to solve the problem, especially if it’s nothing more than a workaround.

 

Chapter 6: Ten Pounds of Crap in a One-Pound Bag (Capacity)

At one point in my career, I worked with an executive who used to say, “Ten pounds of crap in a one-pound bag.” Her intention in using this expression was simple: in her view, there was no additional capacity in the company to take on more work. Very often, I found myself agreeing with her. What I found startling though was that all of the other executives in the room agreed with her, too.

This circumstance left me completely bewildered and amazed. If we all felt the organization had too much going on and there wasn’t enough focus, wasn’t it our jobs to fix that problem? Certainly, as leaders, we must have caused this state of affairs with our lack of prioritization or our desire to accomplish more than we could at any one time. Instead, the executives often acted as if this overflow of tasks was something our team members actually wanted or caused themselves.

Chapter 7: Activate!

I don’t believe people are born lazy or obstinate. Even though science has proven that human beings (and most animals) will minimize their level of effort to get the maximum return, I don’t see that as a weakness; it’s just biology. None of us deserve to be judged for that kind of behavior. That said, we’ve all noticed people in the workplace that don’t appear to be cooperating or complying with the grand corporate plan… and sometimes appear to be giving no effort at all. No effort is different than minimal effort.

Over the years, I’ve kept a mental ledger of such behavior. When my teams were driving a large change, I had an intellectual curiosity to understand why certain people in the broader organization were not behaving as expected. While seeking knowledge, I examined frameworks like the ‘Change Curve’ to provide more clarity. To be honest, I just got confused and a bit overwhelmed. The linkage between emotions and behavior required a solid understanding of Psychology, which clearly I didn’t have the time, resources or expertise to focus on. There had to be a simpler way to explain why people were not behaving or responding as planned.

Chapter 8: This Ain’t a Box of Donuts (Communications)

Any interest in trying a social experiment? If so, pick up some donuts on the way to work tomorrow, put them in the break room, and send an email to a group of people announcing, “Free donuts in the break room…enjoy!”

Most of us have either done this or have been on the receiving end of such a message. If you haven’t, try it!  There’s a pretty predictable outcome—if people don’t get to the break room in two minutes or less, the only thing they’ll be doing with the donut is thinking about it. (A funny aside is that a friend of mine at work did this with those awful, orange marshmallow circus peanuts. I couldn’t believe it, but they were gone in no time flat. It just goes to show people will eat anything!)

You don’t need me to tell you that pushing large-scale change isn’t the same—change ain’t no box of donuts! Can you imagine if it were? Change leadership would be as simple as, “Brand new HR system in the break room—enjoy!”

We can learn something from that box of yummy, warm glazed donuts though. Why does that message work with food but not change? Well, food meets a basic need. We don’t need a fancy message to entice us when we’re hungry. The same is true with change.

Chapter 9: A Gun to the Head (Learning)

When I was a kid, I got really excited when my father thought I was old enough to mow our lawn. I know it’s weird, but there was something “coming of age” about being able to press my 120-pound body up against the lawn mower handle and completely destroy tall grass! My dad was really thrifty so we used an old Briggs & Stratton mower that had been around for years and was full of mechanical problems.

In particular, the mower was hard to start from time to time. One Saturday afternoon, my dad wanted to train me on how to troubleshoot the mower when I couldn’t get it to fire up. We quickly walked through a checklist of items, which included a kludgy method to engage the spark plug since the faulty connector was hit or miss. I was instructed to use a screwdriver as a proxy for the faulty wire to get a start.

A few weeks later on a hot summer day in Florida, I couldn’t get the mower to start. Running through my dad’s checklist was a memorization activity, which included things to evaluate as well as the safety measures that needed to be used in the process. I grabbed a screwdriver and in a fairly rushed and sloppy manner, put the metal up against the spark plug. However, my hand wasn’t on the insulated handle of the screwdriver and instead, I was gripping the metal a few inches from the contact point. I got the shock of my life!

After being thrown backwards a few feet, it was clear memorization wasn’t going to get me very far in life. And after many years and experiences in my corporate career, it’s clear the same can be said about work!.

Chapter 10: Dumbo Comes to Mind (Stakeholder Engagement)

As a kid, I remember frequently getting in trouble for my big mouth. Teachers and parents alike constantly said, “Chris, you need to tune in your listening ears.” One teacher even noted, “Chris, pretend you’re Dumbo and your ears are bigger than your whole body!” I guess some things never change because most of my professional mistakes come at times when I’m doing more talking than listening. However, if what I discovered at Red Robin is universally true regarding communications, then we have to tune our project teams and ourselves into the feedback people give us on a daily basis.

To me, stakeholder engagement provides the toolbox needed for listening and is the single most important dimension in activating people for change. Tuning in our listening ears can actually help us win the hearts of our team members and inspire them to care. Imagine the power of saying to your team members, as an example, “We’ve received feedback from all of you that you would like more career development, and we agree that this is something we should focus on. As such, we will be moving forward on a project to implement a Talent Management software tool in the coming months.”

In a single statement, you’ve aligned people to the WHY, which was sourced from them directly and provided knowledge about a new tool you’re hoping they will adopt. In essence, you’ve captured their eyes (awareness) and have started to capture their hearts (preference) all in one simple sentence!

Before I talk about ways an organization can easily tune in their listening ears, I’d like to share an important caveat. A respected friend of mine, Hayes Drumwright, the Founder & CEO of PoPin, has brilliantly pointed out, “Most people think the worse thing management can do is not ask people for their opinion. I actually think the worse thing management can do is to ask people for their opinion and then do nothing about it!” Listening does little to win the hearts of our team members, if we don’t actually take action on the feedback we’re receiving.

Chapter 11: Lifetime Warranty (Support)

The worst casualty resulting from my garage door experience was my reluctance to take on even the simplest home repair projects. I concluded that if a 6-minute, how-to video on common issues with garage doors didn’t cover the basics like the stupid spring, what other landmines would I eventually step on. As an example, I was frightened to think about what might have happened if I was troubleshooting an electrical issue. Therefore, I became resistant.

This is the challenge that change leaders have on their hands. For instance, if a change was pushed last year, and it didn’t go very well, team members will be reluctant and resist anything that slightly resembles that experience. Who can blame them? Even worse, if the change didn’t go well and they didn’t receive good and compensating support, they certainly don’t want to hear about anything new. This reminds me of a story from very early in my career that reinforces this important point.

Conclusion: The Problem is…Care

“You give loyalty, you’ll get it back. You give love, you’ll get it back.” —Tommy Lasorda

I was traveling out of the San Francisco airport and had the opportunity to try out the American Express Centurion Lounge. As a cardholder, I received lots of direct mail pieces advertising the new clubs but hadn’t tried one yet. Since I got to the airport early enough and the club was near my departing gate, I thought, “Why not?” I qualified for free entry and anything had to be better than sitting in a gate designed for 50 people even though at least 150 passengers are waiting for their flight!

As I checked into the lounge, the woman behind the counter asked me if I’d ever visited the club. Since I was a newbie, she carefully shared all the amenities I could enjoy. More on that later.

I was in absolute awe. The facility had beautifully designed aesthetics and limitless free (high quality) food and beverage selections. This felt like one of those “too good to be true” moments. Before I left, I took a survey because I purely wanted to express, “Please don’t ever take this amenity away!”

With the visit now behind me, I immediately reflected on my last “too good to be true” moment, which happened at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay. When Kristine and I checked in, we acted like giddy children because of how excited we were; the property was gorgeous! The man behind the counter welcomed us, and then surprised us with a simple and direct question: “Can I offer you a complimentary room upgrade for your visit?” I looked at my wife and she looked back at me as if we were just asked a trick question. Simultaneously we said, “Yeeeaah, we’d love one!” He topped off the checkin process by asking, “Can I offer the two of you a glass of wine?” Now we were really pinching ourselves.

It’s natural to read these stories and jump to the conclusion, “Duh! These amenities are all benefits which result from being a premium American Express customer and a guest at the Ritz Carlton.” However, I saved the punchline for you. Remember the woman behind the counter at the American Express lounge? That’s where the truly special and magical part of the experience happened.

As soon as she heard I was a first-time guest, she was beaming with pride to curate my visit. She was so kind and patiently walked me through all the options I should explore, even though she delivers that spiel hundreds of times a day. Honestly, I felt like a guest in her home.

The same was 100% true at the Ritz. And it didn’t end with the man behind the counter.  Every team member we encountered were all just as insanely nice and helpful—from the restaurant servers to the bartenders to housekeepers to groundskeepers.

There are many ways to explain those experiences. Since I’ve been an executive in the hospitality space, I naturally walked through the options. First, it was easy to believe what I experienced was a product of brand standards and good training. After all, I’ve heard people say, “I don’t understand why I’m getting such poor service. It’s just not that hard!”  What they’re implying is that it shouldn’t be hard to have a standard for good service and for team members to know and follow those standards.

But to me, the problem isn’t…hard. I believe a lot of companies do have standards which address service. And I don’t believe their team members have difficulty remembering the standards or deliberately choose to ignore what’s expected of them.

I think the problem is…care. If you want customers to love your brand, it starts with your team members loving your brand. And love is a strong word. As an example, you could give a newly married couple a contract of expectations (think standards) that outlines all the musts and must-nots of the relationship. However, if there isn’t an authentic love between the individuals, the rules will likely get broken and the relationship will be compromised.

The same is true with a company and its customers. Team members who authentically love a brand will create customers who love a brand. Team members who like a brand will only create customers who like a brand. Team members who hate a brand will certainly lose customers who grow to hate a brand.

I think the same could inherently be said about an individual’s work with internal stakeholders, too. Despite whether or not you are good at your craft, people will notice if you love, like, or hate your department or team. It’s hard to hide a state of like or hate with solid work quality alone because stakeholders don’t just judge the things you produce—they also judge how you treat people in the process.

So, if the problem is care, how do leaders get their team members to care? Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer to this question. If you’re a leader, I would ask: what would it take for you to love the organization you serve? Certainly, you wouldn’t expect your team members to love an organization you don’t love. If you do love where you work, is it possible for your team members to love it for the same reasons? (As an example, your pay and status isn’t something they can share in.) If so, evangelize those reasons!  

After reading this book, I would hope you conclude a good start is to put People Before Things. Human connection and experience provides a path to meaning, hope, and authenticity. A well-respected mentor once told me, “People walk around with an invisible sign on their foreheads that says MAKE ME FEEL IMPORTANT.” It’s a leader’s job to make their people feel important, nurtured, and supported to grow the kind of authentic love which shines through to other stakeholders and customers.

This means the Things can’t be the sole focus. Whether it’s an enlightened vision, a big change initiative, a set of milestones, or a daily task list, Things can’t be all leaders think and talk about. Good ideas don’t transform organizations and results—People do. So go forth and lead with your heart; change your organization; show your team members you care and; finally, always put people before things! Always!

Appendix: The Nitty Gritty

We all read business books differently.  Some folks like audio books; some prefer Cliffs Notes and cheat sheets and; yet others enjoy the 500-page variety of dry, academic reading.  One thing is clear – a “one-size fits all” approach will never work.  It doesn’t work in change leadership, and it sure doesn’t work in building followership for new ideas.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that I toiled in the writing process to find the perfect balance of high-level concepts which don’t prescribe solutions but provide just enough detail for any reader to successfully implement my ideas.  (And I’d be flattered if anyone did such a thing.)

I decided the right thing to do was to include an appendix.  It ensures that people who prefer high-level reading get exposed to the most important conditions regarding change leadership and not get lost in the details.  However, if you’re looking for a little more meat on the bones, you’ve come to the right place.