Leading Through Change

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
Winston S. Churchill

When chatting with one of my management friends the other day, he expressed the sentiment that the staff was frustrated by the constant change. Changes in our organization structure, changes in our product direction, changes in our project plans, changes to our insurance options, you name it, if it had “change” in the sentence it was a source of frustration.

While I empathized with the confusion that change can cause in the short-term, I expressed my thought that it is up to us as a leadership team to be able to understand, explain, and stand behind the reason for these changes. Most change is a response to the current business climate and/or our customers changing needs. We all live in a world of constant change and that change is coming faster than ever before. As a leader it is our responsiblity to be able to articulate and paint the vision of the future so that our staff can understand where we are headed.

In an effort to find others who thought as I did, I used my friendly tool Google, and I found the following blog on leadership during change. I’ve include the link along with a short excerpt. http://www.greatleadershipbydan.com/2012/04/how-leaders-can-build-change-friendly.html

“..Think Sherpa. Leaders today need to focus less on traditional methods of strategy and more on preparing people for a very different kind of technical climb: Achieving and sustaining competitive advantage amidst short life cycles. The climb requires more than good equipment. It’s mental as much as physical. A storm or unpredictable conditions can strike at any moment. Leaders must exhibit fearlessness to show people how to expect, notice and respond to anything…”

In this blog the authors outline the five characteristics that leaders must have in order to build a culture that embraces change; Clarity, role models, right-sizing empowerment, bias to act for the customer, and procreate DNA. This last characteristic is not about selection of the right spouse in order to have the best and brightest children, but it is about your company culture. Building a culture that is “change-friendly” and then systematically passing that on in the DNA of the business culture is important to the continued success of your business.  In order to do this, we must consciously build a positive workplace culture and pass that along to the next generation of leaders.

After reviewing the characteristics, I would substitute the “right-sizing empowerment” with “build smart trust.”  This week I listened to a dialog with Steve Covey, Jr. on this topic  detailed in his new book, “Smart Trust.” This book sits on my iPad and as I write this I am looking at it’s predecessor “The Speed Of Trust” on my book shelf (pre-iPad days).  The speed of trust topic is around why trust is so important from a business level and how having trust can speed the decision-making process, speed time to market, and ultimately contribute to profitability for the business. Covey details the five types of trust; self, relationship, organizational, market, and societal.  In the second book, “Smart Trust” he goes on to discuss the balance that we as leaders must strive for between the risk and possibilities, character and competence when we increase trust within our organizations. I think both of these books should be required reading for anyone in a leadership position.

Back to the conversation with my management friend, when faced with staff members who are frustrated, I would suggest that first you should be glad that your staff is comfortable coming to you to discuss the issue and then second make sure that you understand the real source of their frustration.  If it is change in general rather than a specific change that has impacted them in their personal or work life, then ensure that you understand and can present the reason for the change in a positive supportive manner and at the same time use this as an opportunity to discuss the changing climate that we live in today. If on the other hand the change is specific, then depending on what the change is, determine how you can help them deal with that change and support them as they come to terms with the impact that it is having on them.

For myself, I have seen more change in the last five years of my professional life than I have in all of the prior years combined. I too have been frustrated at times, but I can say that having clarity around the reason for these changes and understanding the vision for the future did ease if not banish the frustration.  When reflecting on the quote above from Winston Churchill, I now just look at all of this change as my opportunity to work  toward perfection.


What Is A Leader?



“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou


In my continued quest for professional improvement, I have again turned to books for inspiration.  Like many others, my aspiration includes becoming a more effective leader. In order to do that, I thought it was important to understand the attributes that great leaders share. Of course, my quest is to be a great leader not just a good one. You might call this my search for “leadership enlightenment.”  With that in mind, I downloaded three new ebooks to my iPad, No Fear Of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal With Risk…, by Gary Burnison, The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, also by Gary Burnison, and The CIO Edge 7 Leadership Skills You Need to Drive Results, by Waller and Rebenstrunk.

Each of these books has a focus on the leadership qualities that make a great “C” level executive – CIO, CTO, or CEO.  Being a “C” level leader is not really within my career aspirations, but my thought was that if I was focusing on leadership skills, why not look at what makes these “C” ones great. As my reading has progressed, (yes, I do read three books at one time, you could say I have a lack of focus, note to self –must work on that) I am learning that all of the great leaders share several common attributes.  These attributes include; how they deal with risk, how they communicate, how they embrace their softer side, and how they think analytically but act collaboratively. There are other commonalities, but I found these to be the most meaningful for me.

On the topic of dealing with risk, great leaders move forward with no fear of failure. They are comfortable with ambiguity, complexity, and change. It’s not that they take risk lightly, they just accept it and understand that they will sometimes fail. To take an excerpt from the book, No Fear Of Failure, “the most important aspect of failure is not the moment of defeat or loss. Rather, it is what happens the moment after failure occurs and a choice is presented: to allow fear or shift from setback to lesson learned….” leaders who are great “exhibit tremendous courage around the possibility and even the inevitability at times of failure.. they strive for what is possible rather than become paralyzed by the risk of failure.”

From reading these books, it was also interesting to learn that these same great leaders are exceptional communicators. To paraphrase, they listen, learn, and lead.  They realize that they are in the “people business.” They understand that in order to succeed they must develop the ability to inspire others and be able to effectively communicate a sense of mission and purpose.

When it comes to embracing their softer side, I was surprised to see that this was focused on as important. Not because I don’t think it is important, but because I did not think that anyone who was at this level found it was important to their overall success. Let me clarify a bit, this does not mean being a “softie” what it does mean is understanding that in order to be effective you need to “lead, inspire, and guide people – that you can help them to do and become more than their own vision for themselves…. At its best, leadership is a vocation, a calling. It is a heavy responsibility that far outweighs the privileges, calling to mind the words that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. At the heart of it, leadership is how you make others feel. “

As I read on and came to how you needed to think analytically but act collaboratively I was at first slightly confused.  Putting this into an example from my day-to-day life helped me to understand this better. I realized that what I might need to work on when faced with a challenging problem was to let the “thinker” in me first work through the problem from an analytical point of view and then let  the “feeler” in me take over and give ownership to the team to collaboratively work on the solution.

I would recommend that if you want to sharpen your leadership skills or move forward on the road from good to great as a leader, you might want to invest in one of these books.   You should also remember that as Burnison says “leadership is like life, it is a journey.”

As I continue my journey, I know I have a lot to work on, not the least of which is to listen more than I talk so that I can learn and then lead, to be aware that as a leader I must rise above the “I” and focus instead on the “we,” and most importantly for me I must be aware that as a leader people look at me differently and gauge many things by my overall demeanor and that the people around me will read my mood like tea leaves.

I started this by asking the question, what is a leader? What I have come to understand is that leadership itself is about grace, dignity, and restraint. How you say things is almost more important than what you are saying.  As a leader, people look to you for direction and assurance. And lastly, as a leader you must move beyond “what must be done” to “why we’re doing this.”  This last is what Burnison cites as the essential difference between being a manager and being a leader.

Supporting Innovation

 “Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.” — Warren Bennis http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/citycar-hiriko-fold-car-future/story?id=15472566#

For the video: http://www.necn.com/02/24/12/A-fuel-efficient-fold-up-car/landing_scitech.html?blockID=657652&feedID=4213

I’m reading a new book this week, The Wide Lens: A New Strategy For Innovation, by Ron Adner. As I am reading I thought of the above article and video I saw a while ago on the new Hiriko, a fold up car.  Right about now you’re probably asking yourself “what does this have to do with leadership?” I think that no matter what type of business you are in, as a leader you need to be thinking about innovation. Whether it’s the next new item you put on your fast food menu, the newest software product, or the most fuel-efficient car design, all of these innovations have something in common, the need for support of the innovation by their surrounding ecosystems. Whether it’s the baker of the buns for the burger being able to accommodate the new square 10 inch bun requirement, the software sales partners building the new skills required to set up and install the software, or the need to have recharge stations installed in parking curbs for the electric car.  Leadership is about makings sure that all of the ecosystems are thought about and in place to sustain the success of these new innovations.

In the book, there is a story about Michelin’s invention of the “drive flat tire.” When I read this I thought “wow” I’ve got to get those tires, but then as I read on I realized that the problem with them was they were really expensive, there were no tire repair shops that had the needed equipment to repair them when I had driven my 50 miles on the flat (it never is really not flat you can just continue to drive on it for a while), and that it was unlikely that either of these things would change in the near future.  But as I continued to read, I realized that there were several peripheral inventions developed at the same time that I am already taking advantage of in my Honda Insight. One of these is the system that tells me my tires are running low on air. I won’t spoil the rest of the book for you, but you get the picture.

As I continue to read the book, it has started to dawn on me that as a leader it is not enough for me to encourage innovation. I must also be aware that support for that innovation needs to be a part of “selling the idea” to the executives.  While this at first might seem daunting, it is absolutely necessary. I would go on to claim that it is just as required as understanding the market segment for the product and the pricing models. If you don’t have a bun big enough to fit your new burger, then you’re never going to get it into your customer’s hands. Well, let me rephrase that, you might just literally get it into their hands, but you’re certainly not going to be able to claim a premium price for it unless you make it a protein burger and wrap it only in lettuce. The same is true if you can’t sell your software because no one can support it or your new car is just left to languish by the side of the road when the battery runs out of juice. This last assumes that you don’t also invent a really long extension cord that will stretch to the nearest Costco that has an electric car plug-in station.

I am not recommending that you squash your innovators by burdening them with thinking through all of these details. I am, however, taking the position that we as leaders must think ahead and act in concert with our innovators. We must support them, build a creative environment for them, and nurture their inventive ideas. Then, when we take the best of those ideas and sell them to the executives who need to buy in and fund the efforts, it is our job as leaders to also think through the ecosystem support that will be required to see a successful launch in the market.

There are a lot of books about innovation, but I highly recommend this one to help you build your thoughts about what we each can do as leaders to support the innovation that is definitely required in this economy to sustain our long-term business growth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and the ecosystems that you need to support innovations for your business. Just remember, like Warren Bennis has said, this requires “courageous patience.”

Developing Character Muscles

“We develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.” Stephen R. Covey

What do Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox have in common? They both share the struggles associated with having Parkinson’s disease.

When I read an article this week about Michael J. Fox and the fact that April is Parkinson’s awareness month, I was reminded of the quote by Stephen Covey.  I’ve read the book, Lucky Man, by Fox and I am inspired by his continued positive attitude. Where most of us would use this disease as a reason to hide away or give up entirely, he has not let this disease stop him and has continued to be productive. Since he wrote Lucky Man, Fox has gone on to fight his battle with Parkinson’s and has even written two other books, Always Look Up: The Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Future….



I have not read either of these books, but intend to put them on my priority reading list.

While Fox may have many of his muscles taxed and weakened by his disease, he certainly has strengthened and built up his “character muscles.”  Most of us fortunately will not face a devastating illness like Parkinson’s, but when we do experience the setbacks and challenges of day-to-day life, I think it is important to put them into perspective and always maintain a positive attitude.  As I said in a prior blog, I am a glass overflowing type of person, but even I need the occasional reminder and inspiration from folks like Michael J. Fox.

Just as the steel blade is tempered and made stronger by the heat of the fire, all of us should come out a bit stronger after facing the fires of day-to-day life. Having a positive attitude not only makes things easier to deal with, but it also makes us easier to work with – well at least I hope it makes the doer in me easier to work with, I’ll let you be the judge.

So when you face the next challenge in your personal life or the next Fire Drill at work, take a deep breath and think of Ali and Fox and put your challenges into perspective. At the end of the day, remember how you handle yourself during these moments is not only what leaves a lasting impression, but just the fact that you have had these experiences is making you stronger.

As I think of all the people I know who suffer from Parkinson’s, I am humbled by their continued drive and determination.