Sustainable change needs home-grown leaders

developing leaders to seed change

Making improvements to the way your team or organisation works is hard. Changes have a habit of yielding initial improvements, but failing to sustain over the longer term. The reason for this is that the change needs to be embedded or absorbed by the organization’s culture.

The mistake we’ve seen many organisations make is that they focus too much on the process, roles and tools. These are the artefacts of the formal culture, as described by Stanley Herman in 1970. Herman describes two levels of culture, using the metaphor of an iceberg. Above the waterline, we can see the obvious visible manifestations that we tend to focus on. Like an iceberg though, there is a lot more going on underneath the waterline. This is where the informal culture hides: the undocumented beliefs, language, values and behaviours are the real drivers in any organisation.

If you only change the process, roles and tools and don’t put some serious effort into the informal culture you’ll probably find that any improvements melt away. Changing the culture to support the change (and drive it further) requires a change to the language, the values and behaviours. Doing this requires home-grown leaders who have the skills and knowledge required to implement the change. They need to really buy into the vision and be enthusiastic about making a difference. They also need the knowledge, skills and ability to explain to others why change matters and why it is urgent. When the going gets tough (and it will!) they will lead by demonstrating the behaviours under pressure, sending a clear message that there is no going back.

Another common mistake is to assume that change comes from either the top or the bottom. The truth is that culture is reflection of the whole organisation. This is why you need change leaders at all levels of the organisation. Without it your chances of a true cultural shift — rather than temporary improvements — will be negligible.

Leaders typically comes from three different areas:

  • Grass Roots – perhaps the most important, these are the people who actually implement and experiment with new approaches. Don’t impose process, roles and tools on these people, simply communicate the principles, values and what the desired outcomes are. Then give them room to experiment and develop their own way of working. Don’t rush them or attempt to “roll-out” the change, turn the change into a pull system.
  • Roaming Experts – some teams may well have their own resident expert or change agent, but others will want some guidance and coaching from experts to help them avoid potholes and speed up their learning. Typically this is provided by external consultants, but a more sustainable approach can be to grow this expertise in-house to assist teams and serve as internal consultants.
  • Senior Leaders – organic change is good, but without support from the top the change can be brought to a standstill, or quickly reversed. In particular, there are often systemic impediments that require change across organisational boundaries and with governance. The primary role of transformational leaders is signaling through the use of new language, how they spend their time, who they hire and how they react to crisis.

In a further blog post I will talk about how to build the capabilities you need in these three areas to sustain improvements.

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