Follow the Leader

May 14, 2011 1 Comment by

In my last post, I discussed a great ground rule that one of my executive teams used to stay focused and aligned for the duration of a long change project:

“Disagree in private – Support each other in public without quibbling, undermining or waffling – Without exception.”

The steering team employed the first part of this rule, (Disagree in private – support each other in public…), to stay on track as the challenges of change threatened to derail their mission. They avoided the common sponsorship pitfalls of politics and prioritization by confronting each challenge to their alignment head on. They dealt with their areas of disagreement “inside the room” while staying on the same page “outside the room“.

No Quibbling! Today I want to focus on the second half of the maxim above.

…without quibbling, undermining or waffling – without exception.

I will start by showing you a graphic that summarizes what happens when sponsors engage (or choose not to engage) in driving change.  Consider what your boss would SAY and what they would be willing to DO in support of your change… The picture below shows how their actions influence the likelihood that stakeholders in their area will support and adopt the change:

In Other Words: People often look to their leaders for a barometric reading of how they should react to an upcoming change.

  • If the boss rips the change, chances are better people will resist it.
  • If the boss tells them to adopt the change, chances are good they will at least attend adoption activities that “fill the square”, such as training.
  • If the person most perceived as having leadership authority over a given stakeholder demonstrates support for the change, the odds of adoption go through the roof.

Why Public Quibbling Matters: People watch their leaders for clues on how to react to an upcoming change.  That’s no secret.  What is amazing – and sometimes gets underestimated – is the degree to which people almost unconsciously know what their boss will allow or require.  Remember from my last article that people typically gain leadership/authority positions by showing passion and getting results in a particular business area.  Consider this recipe:

  • Mix one part passion for the business
  • One part real or perceived authority for the change
  • One part public disagreement between peers in leadership roles
  • A heaping scoop of demonstrated indifference to the change
  • …plus a dash of poor communication

…and you have a recipe for condoning resistance within any pillar of any organization.

If It’s So Simple, Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It? Demonstrating leadership commitment to a change is not always a safe thing to do.  For example, I have seen sponsors avoid the risk of going out on a limb to publicly support a change just in case the whole thing were to fail and come crashing down around them.

Remember, folks in the rank and file roles will not necessarily lose their jobs if a change impacts the bottom line in a negative way.  Leaders however, are judged very harshly when a change in their core area of the business fails.  Lesson Learned: sponsors need to fully understand what change they are being asked to support, then fully support the change by demonstrating what they understand.

Here’s a simple question I like to ask members of the change steering team:

“Do your people know exactly where you stand on this change?”

… and here’s a question I like to ask folks who report to a given steering team member:

“Describe how <their leader> demonstrates support for the change or a lack thereof.”

The answers to these inquiries can give us great insight into how strongly those who report to the leader feel they will sponsor the change in their part of the organization. Follow-up questions can also demonstrate whether the leader embraces other aspects of their sponsorship role.

How To Do A Simple Thing: One of the best demonstrations of support for an upcoming change is to be an early adopter.  For example, I once worked with a client who was implementing the use of Direct Deposit for paychecks.  I suggested that an effective way for leaders to demonstrate support for this change was to have the executive team publicly volunteer to be the first people getting paid online.  Unfortunately, we found that members of the executive team (including the CEO) were among the last people to convert to the new way! And everyone knew it!

The big boss eventually got in front of a huge employee gathering and took a merciless ribbing from the CFO before he signed up… The employees saw their excuse for waiting disappear in front of their eyes and that prompted a wave of employee conversions.

A Reminder About Impressions: Finally, it’s important to notice the difference between:

  1. …the sponsor’s impression of how well they think they are doing to demonstrate support for a change…
  2. …and what the target stakeholders see the sponsor doing.

As I’ve suggested above, a great way to find out if people believe a sponsor’s support is real is to ask them.  Even better: ask a bunch of people. Then compare their responses to the boss’s self-impression.

I’m not recommending that any sponsor lead by their poll numbers or spend their entire day doing photo ops… I’m merely suggesting that it pays to go public with your stance on a given change and it pays to verify that one’s sponsorship for change is seen as real.  Even more critical, it pays to measure if that support is having the desired impact on those who look to you for guidance.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Have you ever worked for a boss that claimed to support your change in public, only to undermine it in private?
  2. How can an employee safely bring up their boss’s need to step up and truly sponsor change by demonstrating their support (or opposition) in clear terms?

Incoming search terms:

  • Big Rocks of Change

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

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