How to lead transformation

Organisational transformation is often a tough and usually brutal process, but it need not be so. Michael Bunting explores how leaders can make it easier and put rocket fuel into organisational transformation efforts

True leaders, great leaders, have the foresight to keep their people engaged, especially when it comes to the challenge of transformational change. Leaders need to get their communications right, new processes in place, consult with key stakeholders, organise training and so on. However, there is one key element in the change process that is all too often overlooked and undervalued. We call it modelling the way, meaning, “Are the leaders in the organisation modelling the behaviours needed for the challenge of change to succeed?”. Are they open to feedback, do they resist the God complex and admit they are learning too? Are they totally and unrelentingly honest with themselves when they are unwittingly road-blocking change? Without the engagement of the hearts and minds of your people, successful, efficient change is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, the moment people see their leaders failing to “model the way”, a secret resistance begins and the leaders are usually the last to know or understand this resistance.

Setting the example
Does modelling the way make a difference? You bet it does. My friend and co-author, Barry Posner, recently analysed more than 950,000 leadership assessments, and the data revealed that of all five practices in The Leadership Challenge framework, the practice of modelling the way – defined as walking the talk and role modelling what you expect of others – accounted for the most variance in a leader’s impact on the engagement and performance of colleagues and direct reports.

Additionally, scientific research now recognises that there are “mirror neurons in widely dispersed areas of the brain” that program our emotions to mimic those of others. These “mirror neurons” help followers take cues from their leaders, mimicking not only their behaviours consciously, but also subconsciously. In other words, as a leader, whether you like it or not, your people will be highly likely to mimic your behaviour, and if you are not modelling the behaviour needed for successful change, it’s likely they won’t be either.

The challenge of transformation
Organisational transformation is a daunting and painful process. In effect, it is the death of one thing and in its place the birth of something else. This is classically represented by the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The problem for the caterpillar is that it literally has to die, to go through the messy process in the cocoon, and what comes out – a butterfly – does not eat the same things as a caterpillar, does not see the world from the same viewpoint, and does not even have remotely the same body. That is true transformation. Most people want to become caterpillars with wings. They want the benefit and the beauty of the wings, but they are not prepared for the tough and usually brutal process of organisational transformation. They want the pill, a quick fix, to somehow circumvent the messy and difficult process of the actual transformation itself. This is all too often true of organisations, but wise leaders know differently.

Great leaders know the key is to inspire change through vision, transparency, humanity, authenticity and deep listening, but they also know the process is painful and challenging and their people want and need to see them going through the process with them. In other words, change done with them, not change inflicted on them. If you want to guarantee that your change efforts fail or flounder then just send your people the message that they need to change but you don’t. Let’s talk about a few simple leadership strategies to keep your people engaged and really put rocket fuel into your organisational transformation efforts.

Be curious
Swap all defensive, blame-based reasoning for open-ended questions. Be curious, not defensive. Ask others for feedback, but ask it from genuine curiosity. That is not easy to do, especially if you fear difficult or challenging feedback. It’s no accident that the worst-scoring question on our 360 assessment is: “Ask for feedback on how his/her actions affect people’s performance.” And it isn’t an intellectual challenge. I have never met a leader who does not intellectually understand that asking for feedback and listening is important.

It’s an emotional challenge. It’s about getting past your need for good news on how wonderful you are. If you can develop the emotional stability and strength to keep listening, to keep opening in the face of uncomfortable feedback, then your learning curve will grow more rapidly than you ever imagined. More importantly, you will be modelling the very behaviour you desperately need from your organisation. A mindset of curiosity is the cornerstone of innovation culture, and every organisation needs innovation. Rationalisation, defensiveness, denial and blame are the enemy of progress on every level.

It’s time to understand that your behaviour matters in this very moment. This is where true personal transformation meets the real world.

We are often unaware of what we are doing in any given moment. We are so good at operating this way that we can drive to work and not remember the journey, or walk out of a meeting and not remember much of it at all. Behaviour change is next to impossible if you cannot self-observe from a clear, uncluttered mind. If you are not noticing mindfully what is happening in your attitude, your speech, your actions, you are playing Russian roulette with the engagement of your people. It takes a few small bad behaviours to put people offside. When you lack mindfulness, it’s too easy to be ruled by reactivity, denial and blame. To cultivate mindfulness, you need to commit to bringing yourself into the present more and more. Its sounds easy, but when you are challenging a lifetime of obsessive, distracted thinking, it can be far more challenging than you realise.

I once coached a CEO who was struggling with implementing change in his organisation. His people just did not follow through on their change commitments. He could not understand it. It turned out the problem was his example: he said yes to nearly everything – to his board, his executive team, to nearly everyone – and that was putting a huge strain on both his time and his people’s time. Inevitably, they missed deadlines, performed below standards and their change efforts just never got off the ground. Turns out, his behaviour was linked to a strong need to be liked and approved of. This is all too common in Australian leaders. He could not put clear boundaries in place and say no when he needed to. In effect, he was out of integrity, he violated the truth for his favourite addiction – being liked and approved of. Once I taught him some basic mindfulness and took him through the painful process of getting out of the addiction, his leadership changed and his organisation finally got focused.

This CEO was a man of integrity, he was committed to values and honesty, but saying yes to things that you quietly know you cannot possibly deliver, even though you want to believe you can, is a violation of integrity too, and in this case it was having a serious impact on his organisation.

200 per cent responsibility
Consultants will tell you the world over that every client wants you to come in and “fix things”, but what they rarely realise is that an important aspect of “fixing things” is for leaders to first take responsibility for their own behaviours.

In the case of another struggling CEO, I found that he became emotionally abusive when people did not meet his expectations, then angrily took their workload on himself. Ironically, he brought us in to help him develop real accountability and performance in his business. But he wanted us to change his people, change the system, change anything but himself. He just could not see the links between his behaviour and the organisational outcomes. In fact, like so many leaders, he was not even aware that his behaviour was supporting the exact opposite of what he was trying to achieve.

We made an agreement based on the concept of 200 per cent responsibility, meaning he was 100 per cent responsible for changing his self-sabotaging behaviour, while his team was 100 per cent responsible for delivering their outcomes. It was a contract of trust and responsibility, with clear consequences and accountability for change. Five years later, his team’s revenue and profit has nearly doubled and he is no longer engaging in his self-sabotaging behaviour.

Reach success with introspection
Having the resilience to look at yourself, time and again, and not shy away from asking yourself and others how your own behaviour is supporting or blocking change, is a skill that great leaders embody. When you can learn to cope with the emotional discomfort that comes with transformation, you’re more able to cultivate personal growth and, by extension, the growth of your people.

Challenge is a great teacher and a potent motivator, but changing or improving your leadership behaviour is the epitome of personal progression. Never stop looking at your shortcomings and finding ways to overcome them. Never stop acknowledging your strengths too – it gives you the resilience and fuel to keep looking at the tough stuff. Do that, and your people will always respect and admire your leadership, and above all, they will be engaged – the research proves it.

5 ways a HR executive can impact behaviour

  1. HR executives should help leaders make the connection between their own behaviour and the intended organisational transformation, and implore them to personally model that behaviour in order to send all the right messages to the rest of the organisation.
  2. Keep it simple. Transformation practice at a personal level is really challenging, so don’t try to change more than one behaviour at a time.
  3. Model the way. Model your own behaviour change to set the standard. You lose all credibility to challenge and inspire others if you’re not walking the talk.
  4. Accountability. Run regular review meetings and ask executive team members to cite examples of their new behaviour. Research shows that tracking team members through the tough process keeps them engaged. This is business-critical.
  5. Celebrate good behaviour. We all need a lot of encouragement through the gritty process of organisational transformation. As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s research shows, people will do more of what makes them feel good. It’s an enormous achievement just changing one behaviour, and when it’s the right behaviour it will make all the difference.

5 potential pitfalls along the way

  1. Moving on to the next “cool thing” too quickly. In an information-addicted culture, this is really tough to avoid. Stay the course with simplicity and accountability.
  2. Not making the links for the new behaviour to the desired organisational outcomes. If people don’t know their “why” for the tough challenge of changing behaviour, they will very quickly give up.
  3. Not preparing leaders for the actual transformation process. Though it may be intellectually easy to understand, it’s unbelievably difficult emotionally and awareness-wise.
  4. Getting the right support. If you get support from someone who has not done their own transformational work, it is inevitable that you won’t get the results you want. Ideally, you as the HR executive need to model this understanding.
  5. Prepare for casualties. There will inevitably be leaders who do not take on the new behaviours. If the HRD and CEO tolerate this behaviour, their entire organisational efforts will fail or be heavily watered down. Stand behind the importance of leadership behaviour.

Michael Bunting is a coauthor with Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner of Extraordinary Leadership in Australia and New Zealand: The Five Practices That Create Great Workplaces. Michael is also the founder and managing director of leadership development consultancy, WorkSmart Australia. He also teaches leadership and mindfulness on the University of Sydney’s award-winning Executive MBA program. Michael is also presenting at Leading Great Workplaces for Great Business Outcomes: The Future of Employee Engagement, held on February 18 @ 9:00 am – 5:30 pm at Dolotone House, Accenture Building, Darling Island Wharf, Sydney. Inside HR readers can receive a 10 per cent discount by using the discount code HIB upon registration. Image source: iStock