The Change Leader's Calling

Managing change in today’s world is like trying to dance with a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired. You stop when the gorilla gets tired.

A poor but very avid golfer hit a shot into a sand trap. His ball landed right on top of a big ant hill. Thousands of ants scurried everywhere.

Nevertheless, the golfer had to play the ball where it lay. So he dug into the sand, got ready, swung and missed the ball completely, killing thousands of ants in the process. Flustered, he swung and missed again, and several thousand more ants died.

Then one ant shouted to the rest, “If we’re going to get out of this place alive, we’d better get on the ball.”

That’s how it is with change. You’d better get on the ball, or you’re in for trouble.

In fact, your role as a change leader is vitally important these days. With the world in chaos, you’ve got more than a job to perform. YOU’VE GOT A CALLING TO FULFILL. As Jane Addams wrote, long ago, “What after all has maintained the human race on this old globe, despite all the calamities of nature and all the tragic failings of mankind, if not faith in new possibilities and people who advocate them.”

Of course, BEING A CHANGE LEADER IS NOT EASY. If you try to initiate or implement change, you may have your employees or colleagues blaming you for all their problems. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

As you know, if you’re a change leader, you don’t spend your evenings thinking of ways to make your employees miserable. And you don’t choose to change things just for the heck of it. The changing world forces you and your organization to change, but you still get blamed if you’re a change leader.

So don’t expect to feel comfortable if you’re leading change. As Anonymous said, “Recognize that every ‘out front’ maneuver you make is going to be lonely. If you feel entirely comfortable, then you’re not far enough ahead to do any good. That warm sense of everything going well is usually the body temperature at the center of the herd.”

To be more effective as a change leader, MAKE SURE YOU’RE LIKEABLE. That doesn’t mean you have to be soft or do whatever your employees want you to do. It simply means people are more willing to change or dance with you if they see you as fair, open-minded, and approachable.

So ask yourself, how much does your staff like you? George Bailey, the global director at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, canvassed one firm and told the CEO, “Most of your employees, if they saw you in the parking lot, would speed up to hit you.” The CEO was shocked because he thought he was doing everything he could to benefit the shareholders. Unfortunately, he was forgetting about the placeholders or those who worked there.

How can you tell if your staff doesn’t like you? There are many signs. A few of them would be high turnover, general office anger, and repeatedly broken equipment.

Or you could find out the nickname your staff applies to you. Lily Kelly-Radford, at The Center for Creative Leadership, says, in most offices almost everyone has a nickname. If you don’t know yours, it could be a sign that your staff is not comfortable enough to tell you. Or if you know your nickname and it’s rough, clearly you’re not well liked. You’d better get to work, because the more others like you, the more they’ll follow you through the change.

Then MAKE SURE YOU’RE CREATIVELY FLEXIBLE. Find ways to move your resources around so the change is less traumatic and more successful. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of the world’s foremost authorities on change, and author of The Change Masters, says, “Excellent companies are very tight and very loose.”

Unfortunately, most companies and most change leaders fail to grasp this concept. They just flip flop between being very tight or very loose. When things get tight in the world, they get tight all over. They’ll announce such things as 10%-across-the-board cuts. They’ll say, “You want money? Take up a collection. It works well in airports. You need people? Have children.”

When things are going well, these flip floppers get loose all over. They’ll say, “You need money for equipment? Here’s the money. Buy it. And even if you don’t need the equipment, make sure you spend the money before the end of the fiscal year. You need people? Hire them!”

By contrast, effective change leaders are creatively flexible. When they’re going through change, they increase some budgets. They add staff and move resources to those areas that offer the greatest strategic advantage. And they also cut some budgets or realign some staff that are poorly positioned.

As you do all this, SHIFT THE SPOTLIGHT TO THE EMPLOYEE’S STRENGTHS. You will have whiners and naysayers when you are leading change. And you will have some frightened people who aren’t sure the change will work or they can handle it. That’s all quite normal.

But you’ve also got a staff filled with a multitude of talent, or they wouldn’t be there, and you wouldn’t be in business. So what are you focusing on as you lead the change? Are you focusing on the negativity of the few? Or are you focusing on the abilities of the many?

Let me tell you from experience that the second focus works a great deal better. When you spotlight your employee’s strengths, they start to focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.

Such was the case of a New Jersey boy who had been hurt in an accident. His spine was dislocated, and a large hump developed on his back, requiring him to wear a steel brace.

When he entered school, he had to get a physical exam. As he sat in the doctor’s office with all the other boys, he wished so desperately that he had a straight back like the other boys.

As the exam proceeded, the boys had to undress and put on robes. The boy was so dismayed and so ashamed of his hump that he had never undressed before anyone.

When it was his turn to go into the doctor’s office, the doctor said, “Hello, Joe. I’m glad to get acquainted with you. Please take off your robe so I can exam you.” With shame, Joe dropped his robe, thinking only of the terrible hump on his back.

The doctor took some notes as he noticed Joe’s demeanor. Then he wrote some more. Suddenly, the doctor said, “Excuse me, Joe. I must leave the room for a few minutes.”

Joe stood, wondering what the doctor had written. Most likely, he thought it would say something like “Has an enlarged hump on back.” Joe went over to the desk to sneak a peak. Under “Physical characteristics,” he saw, “Has an unusually well-shaped head.” That was all!

Joe became a new boy. The spotlight shifted from his hump to his well-shaped head, which was, of course, what the doctor intended.

You have a calling to lead others through change. It may feel a little scary, like dancing with a gorilla. But you can’t stop dancing until the gorilla wears out or the change is implemented. Use these tips, and you’ll be dancing in step with one another.

Action:  Are you “creatively flexible” as a change leader? Or do you tend to be one extreme or the other, “very tight” or “very loose?” If you find yourself at one extreme or the other, list five things you could do to more creatively, productively manage the change.