Archive | February, 2015

Why leading change just keeps getting more complicated

11 Feb

There are thousands of studies and books on managing change or leading change. The former tend to focus on ways to work with and overcome people’s resistance; the latter on creating a vision that people can sign up to and engage with. Of course, both these perspectives are important and indeed implementing change usually requires both.

However, most of the change that happens to people, organisations and societies is neither managed nor led – it just happens to us. Sometimes the impact is desirable; other times not. In reality, managing or leading change is largely an illusion – at best, we exert control over a very small proportion of the change that is happening around us. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, nor that we can’t be successful, but effective change leadership requires a recognition that change is not a linear process. It takes place mainly within complex, adaptive systems and therefore requires very different ways of thinking, planning and decision-making that are:
• More enabling and less controlling – releasing the energy of other people to make things happen. For example, in our research into talent management, a clear conclusion is that spending resources on trying to identify talent from above is a waste of time, compared with creating opportunities for talent to emerge of its own volition.
• More flexible and opportunity-led – with greater emphasis on evolving scenarios than fixed plans
• More involving. For example, in many organizations, innovation and change are increasingly generated within virtual networks, in which leaders share their current concerns and people anywhere in the organisation have an opportunity to contribute. Indeed, the key functions of leadership itself (identifying what needs to change, coming up with practical change solutions and creating/ implementing the resources to implement those solutions) are increasingly moving out of the C-suite and into the networked environment.
• More aware of the large impact that small changes in one area can have in others. Almost impossible to predict, by the sheer complexity of the interlinkages, the only defence leaders have is to ensure they are hyper-aware of small changes and that risk management is a core skill at every level of management.

From our workshops and interviews with leaders around the world, and from the growing literature on leading systemic change, we have been able to identify some of the keys to managing and leading change in a complex systems environment. These include:
• Balance focus on both short-term and long term. A critical question for all change leaders is “What is the long-term impact of the short-term decisions we make?”. And, of course, vice versa – “What is the short-term and medium-term impact of the long-term decisions we make?” The more connections we see, the greater our potential to influence positively. Leaders typically spend less than 10% of their time thinking strategically. A healthier balance would be one third strategic, one-third operation and one third in the space between.
• Address your own and other people’s attitudes towards change. Leaders tend to be significantly over-positive about their own appetite for change and their own capacity for change. A powerful question here is: “What change scenarios attract and energise me, and which do I feel reluctant about?” A contributing factor here is that when faced with evidence that the world is not as we would like it to be, we tend to discount the evidence, or simply tune it out. A key concept in employee communication is receptivity – the degree to which people are motivated to attend to or ignore information they receive. Before embarking on any programme of change that requires people’s co-operation, it’s essential to establish their receptivity. If it is not positive, then subtle or not so subtle resistance is inevitable. If it’s positive, you can take a much less directive approach than normal, effectively pointing them in the right direction, providing the support they need, and letting them get on with it.
• Go with the energy. When people work on tasks that energise them, they are more productive, more creative, and more collaborative. Instead of trying to create talent pools (which have a pretty poor record of success), leaders can do better by seeking out where the energy lies. All too often the greatest reserves of energy in an organisation are buried under thick strata of hierarchy, status, policy and uninspired supervision/leadership. In creating project teams to manage change, it’s normal to appoint people on the criteria of specific experience, hierarchical level and so on. But these people may not have great appetite for change. Asking “Who has the energy to make this happen?” may reveal very different candidates for inclusion.
• First change yourself. It’s easy to see change as something mainly for other people. Once the decision is off the leader’s desk, it can be forgotten about. But, particularly when change has a cultural dimension, people look for symbols and role models. If a new set of behaviours or perspectives is important, then leaders have to symbolise them. In effect, this means a certain amount of exaggeration, for two reasons: firstly, because other people tend to observe you through the filter of their existing expectations (so they discount contrary behaviour as an exception to the rule); and secondly, because, as already noted, leaders overestimate how easy it will be for them to achieve behavioural change. In practice, for a leader to change behaviours is much harder than for someone lower in the hierarchy, because the drive to sustain different ways of thinking and behaving has to come mainly from within, rather than from a balance of internal and external pressures.
• Be generationally and diversity aware. It’s easy to assume that the motivations and perspectives of the people around you are representative. They may well be, but only of a small sub-system within larger systems. Spend time talking to – and more important, listening to – people, who are likely to have a very different view of what’s important and why.
• Develop sensitivity for memes. Memes are “ideas with attitude” – powerful concepts or perceptions that seem to come from nowhere, but which have a significant impact on how people view aspects of the world around them. Leaders, who want to be ahead of change, need to be aware of the topography of potentially influential ideas and especially those that challenge the status quo. These may be societal or technological, internal to the organisation or external. Whenever a meme appears to be gaining traction, leaders can ask themselves and other people: “What are the implications if this becomes accepted?”
• Humility. Effective leaders of systemic change have the courage and self-knowledge to be open to criticism of their ideas and opinions. They don’t want to bend with every wind that blows, but they do need regularly to ask:
o “What am I missing?”
o “What if I’m wrong?
o “What if my perspective on this is out of date?”
• Speed up the cycle of Plan-Do-Observe-Reflect. When a change programme has multiple components, each may at any time be at a different, overlapping point in this cycle. Those responsible for each component must have responsibility for communicating with each other – constantly — so that the deviations from plan in one area don’t cause much larger oscillations in others.
• Make sure that small, localised changes are clearly linked into the bigger change themes. People will often accept minor inconveniences in their own area of work, if they can see how, by doing so, they are helping to achieve something bigger and more meaningful. (That is meaningful both to them and to a wider cause.)
• Above all, choose your battleground. Given that you have only limited ability to bring about positive change, it makes sense to target your efforts on what’s most important. A useful question here is “What do we need to change to be sure we will still be in business in 10 years’ time?”

The good news is that change is more complicated for everyone. So even a partial move towards more systemic thinking can result in competitive advantage. The bad news is that many organisations are still selecting leadership talent on the basis of linear thinking – so the skills of leading systemic change may remain a scarce commodity!

© David Clutterbuck, 2015

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When not to coach a team

11 Feb

Just as happened with coaching individuals, as team coaching becomes more mainstream, the assumption emerges that it is some kind of cure-all for team problems. Of course it’s not, but team coaches increasingly bring to supervision issues relating to how they manage client team and sponsor expectations about what can and can’t be delivered.

It all starts with getting to know the team and its situation before contracting with them. Experienced team coaches know the danger signs to look for and when they should say no to an assignment. Here are some of those signs:

1. When there is no compelling rationale for being a team – for example, when members of a group have little interdependence
2. When it is too large to be a real team – above eight, it will become harder to gel as a team; above 12, social loafing and other dynamics will be a major impediment to performance
3. When only the leader wants team coaching to happen
4. When the team leader is weak – for example, unable to deal with dissension. In such circumstances, the team coach can easily find themselves in the role of surrogate leader
5. When the team expects you to rescue them, or for you to find the solutions to their problems instead of working things out themselves. If they won’t take responsibility for the process or the outcomes, you are liable to become the scapegoat when things don’t work out
6. When the team has no prospect of acquiring the resources it needs to succeed
7. When you are a stakeholder in the team – any real or potential conflict of interest can undermine your effectiveness
8. When you have close relationships with some members of the team, but not with others
9. When the team’s problems are pathological – deeply unhealthy teams will find it impossible to engage with the team coaching process.

The initial scoping interviews with members of the team provide the opportunity to identify potential red flags. Interviews with key stakeholders and observers of the team provide another, valuable perspective.

If you find a red flag, explore your concerns first with the team leader and the assignment sponsor. If they are not prepared to acknowledge the issue(s) and work with you on them before the formal coaching begins, then walk away. If they will not let you take the issue to the rest of the team, individually or collectively, walk away. If you feel that the complexity of the problem is beyond your competence, walk away. In each case, if you explain clearly the reasons for your concern, you are likely to emerge with greater respect and self-respect than if you take on an assignment that has failure built-in!

Once you start a team coaching assignment, keep your eyes open for signs that the team may be uncoachable in its current form and be prepare to confront the team with your observations. “This is my observation. What do you want together to do about it?” Recontract regularly and reiterate the limitations of team coaching, where appropriate.

If you do find yourself coaching an uncoachable team, don’t panic. It happens to all experienced team coaches at some time. Think of it as an occupational hazard of the role—like a sorts injury is for an athlete! Extract yourself as soon as you can, and put some quality time into reflecting on the learning you can extract from the experience.

© David Clutterbuck 2015

Gaining and keeping commitment from the top to your coaching and mentoring strategy

11 Feb

It’s evident that a coaching and mentoring strategy – especially if the aim is to create a coaching and mentoring culture – requires the sustained support and energy of an organization’s leaders. In our interviews on this topic with both HR professionals and leadership teams, a number of themes recur frequently enough to warrant inclusion in practical guidelines. In no particular order of importance, these are:

1. Taking the leadership’s perspective, how does a coaching and mentoring culture contribute to achieving the key business priorities? Following the chain of influence, how does a coaching culture support the priorities of each of the major business functions, from finance and IT to sales? (It doesn’t always follow that functional priorities are fully aligned with business priorities and indeed, this may be yet another area, in which a coaching style of management may be productive.)
2. How does it resonate with existing, powerful organisational narratives? With core organizational values? What would it take to make coaching and mentoring integral to the organizational narrative?
3. How sustainable are the benefits?
4. What are the personal benefits to the leaders?
5. What is the personal cost to the leaders of creating a coaching and mentoring culture? Are they really capable of the considerable change required to become role models for coaching and mentoring?
6. It’s important to sound out potential champions individually before you ask them for support in a group. People often like to see who else is on board before deciding to opt in themselves. In your initial conversations with them, get them to talk about their own experiences of powerful developmental relationships.
7. Ask leaders and potential champions bluntly about their fears with regard to creating a coaching and mentoring culture. Doing so brings likely resistance to the surface, so that you have time and space to address it. Moreover, the fact that they have voiced their concerns may stimulate them to look for ways to overcome them.
8. Ensure your line manager champions get to the top team before you do, with a clear brief to demonstrate how a coaching and mentoring culture is important for them and their areas of the business. (They may have greater credibility in this context than HR.)
9. Choose your time. Take soundings as to when is the best time to present your strategy, when they will be most open to new ideas and commitments.
10. Be prepared to smart small with pilots, to provide proof of content
11. Expect coaching and mentoring to fall off the leadership team radar at some point. Keep them informed and involved to delay this point. Have a rolling programme of additional initiatives, which will help maintain interest.
12. A training programme is not a strategy. Make it clear from the start that there are many elements that need to go into a coaching and mentoring strategy to create a coaching and mentoring culture. Many coaching and mentoring strategies have been seen by the leadership teams as failures, because, for example, the leaders think they were promised that a line manager as coach initiative would deliver more substantial change than was realistic.

Above all, remember that creating a coaching and mentoring culture is the leadership team’s responsibility, not HR’s. Allowing them to abdicate that responsibility creates an environment and expectations almost guaranteed to lose their support in the medium term. Instead, HR can assume a coaching role with the leaders, helping them to reflect upon how they will lead and energise the gradual change to a coaching and mentoring culture.

© David Clutterbuck, 2015

Finding the levers for gender equality

11 Feb

A while ago, I asked a Government department what data it had on the gender and ethnic distribution at different levels and in different functions. Not surprisingly, it had a lot, at considerable depth of detail. Then I asked the critical question: “Can you give me a single example, where this data has resulted in a promotion or career-enhancing lateral move for an individual. After much reflection (and quite a bit of soul-searching) the answer was “no”.

It’s an age-old problem. Macro-scale, generic data can be useful in creating policy and monitoring its impact over time, but policy implementation comes down to multitudes of small decisions, where generic data has little or no influence or relevance.

To make change happen on the micro scale, a different, more systemic approach is needed. In the case of the Government department, we spent time exploring another critical question: “Where are the fulcrums – the levers that will exert maximum influence on decisions about individuals and their careers?” One fulcrum stood out – reputation-building project teams. Research in recent years has shown that just doing your main job well is a hygiene factor in career management terms. To be noticed as “talent” it’s important to contribute beyond your job description. That gets people appointed to projects, which have high stakes and high visibility. And that in turn helps them build the kind of track record that reinforces their reputation.

Unfortunately, research also shows that men are far more likely to be appointed to these reputation-building project teams than women. Moreover, when men are given project teams to run, they typically have higher budgets and higher headcount than their female counterparts.

So how can organizations use this knowledge to bring about micro-level change that will aggregate into macro-level change? In this instance, the proposed solution (still not implemented, sadly) is for each of the divisional heads to identify quarterly upcoming projects that fulfil the criteria as potentially reputation-building, then to actively manage the membership of these specific teams. The process can be reinforced by:
• Raising awareness of the issue
• Providing training on how to be an effective member of a project team
• Allowing and encouraging people to make the case for how they could contribute to the project team
• Making (leadership) development one of the core objectives of project teams – so success is measured in terms of both task achievement and learning

Taking a systemic perspective can identify a wide variety of fulcrums. For example, when (and if) women return to work after maternity leave they often often subtle but powerful biases and barriers that slow down or even halt their career progress. A systemic approach would:
• Identify those barriers (both those generated internally by the employee and those generated by her environment)
• Map how they interact with each other (and especially how they are mutually reinforcing)
• Look for solutions that address all of the barriers in an integrated manner.
In this case, two fulcrums seems to be the quality of conversations that returning mums have with themselves, their peers and their boss(es), and also their sense of connectedness, both whilst away and when they return. So a combination of well-designed communication and maternity mentoring is at least part of the answer,

If gender inequality were a simple issue, it would have been resolved a long time ago. It continues to be problem, because the solutions offered typically stem from simple, linear thinking; and from macro-thinking rather than a combination of macro and micro. Superficial remedies produce superficial results. It’s time to seek ways to make the system work in favour of gender equality.

© David Clutterbuck 2015

Eight practical tactics for dealing with the office sociopath

11 Feb

The sociopath in the workplace brings frustration and misery to colleagues and to anyone, who tries to manage them. They are manipulative, and expert at both dodging responsibility and shifting conversations to their own agendas. It often takes time to recognise them (not least because they are good at flattery and because we don’t like admit how badly we have been taken in) and even more time to get them out of the organisation. However, it is possible as a manager to counter the psychopath’s machinations to the extent that they opt to take their “talents” elsewhere.

The starting point is to recognise that sociopaths enjoy exerting control over others and have many tactics for doing so. In particular, they keep you off balance, constantly shifting ground so that you can’t pin them down. Seen through their eyes, it’s a game, in which they have no conscience about who gets hurt, as long as it’s not them. It takes two to play a game, however, and you don’t have to play by their rules – in fact, you give them control, if you do play by their rules.

Some practical ways you can put yourself back in control include:
• Make performance targets clear, specific and unambiguous – the sociopath will turn any leeway into an excuse
• Make clear what is solely their responsibility. If they try to push the blame for failure onto someone else, point out that their responsibilities include influencing others
• Set a clear and short agenda for performance meetings with them. Stick to it. If they keep moving the conversation to their agenda, warn them once that you don’t have time to waste on items that aren’t on the set agenda. If they persist, close the meeting and walk away. Send them an unambiguous note thereafter, copied to your own boss and HR as needed, to record the fact that they would not discuss the performance issue. (Make it an official warning, if appropriate.)
• Don’t hold meetings with them in your office – it’s harder to walk away
• Keep meticulous notes of every conversation. They will, but their notes will be distorted to bolster their agenda and shift blame onto you.
• Expect them to manoeuvre against you. For example, to butter up to your boss or your boss’ boss. The most effective defence is to name the behaviour. List the characteristics of a sociopath (the book Snakes in Suits is helpful here) and place alongside them specific examples of the person’s behaviour. Where possible, draw these examples from other people’s observations and experience, as well as your own. Of course, you are not (unless you have appropriate qualifications) able to make a diagnosis. But you can ask Human Resources for advice and guidance on how to deal with an employee showing these behaviours. By doing so, you have created a marker that may make more senior managers think twice before taking what the sociopath says at face value.
• Make it easier for the sociopath to leave than to stay. Reduce their responsibilities, where you have evidence they are unlikely to deliver. Offer them the option of going through a formal disciplinary process or leaving of their own accord. Once they recognise that you are not going to be an easy victim, they are more likely to look for easier pickings elsewhere.
• Once they have gone, spend time with your team helping them to cope with the emotional confusion that often occurs in such circumstances. The sociopath may well have “befriended” a few people, who they saw as useful to them, while blanking out others. Encourage sharing of perceptions, perhaps with the help of a psychologist-facilitator.

© David Clutterbuck, 2015