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How to Ensure your Leaders are Equipped to Lead Change

Before getting into the practical things leaders should and should not do to help lead change, it is important to understand leadership more generally. With over 20 years of experience with leaders at all levels and in a variety of industries, we believe our portfolio model accurately illustrates the qualities great leaders need to possess.

  1. Create strategic clarity, be self-aware, and empower and enable others to deliver (Leading Self and Others)
  2. Collaborate amongst each other, as leaders, as high performing teams and turn their own teams into high performing teams, with strong cultures rooted in shared values (High-Performance Teams)
  3. Develop and coach others and manage performance (coaching)
  4. Communicate with personal impact (communication)
  5. Ensure safe and compliant operations. (Human Factors)

This states what leaders should do but in a sense of high-level outcomes; it lacks specificity and it is not particularly targeted towards change or strategy execution. In the search for more detail, one quickly stumbles on a key problem: there is almost too much of it. When we last tried to count them, we found over 60 different leadership models and countless studies on what makes a good leader.

What doesn’t help is that models and debates around Leadership get more confused by mixing Leadership skills, traits, attributes, values, principles, styles, competencies, beliefs and mindsets etc. In one client we worked with, we found a list of over 120 principles, values, behaviours and competencies that were expected of leaders. There can be an issue with proprietary leadership models in that they can end up capturing what makes, or historically made, leaders successful in that organisation. Another issue is that models can generalise i.e. attempt to enforce a standard set of behaviours or competencies on all leaders, whereas what makes leaders effective, and what they should focus on, will differ depending on their specific role, the changing context in which they operate and the specific challenges they face.

In one client we worked with, we found a list of over 120 principles, values, behaviours and competencies that were expected of leaders.

What we will not do, is to provide an exhaustive list of all the traits, values, skills etc we have come across, or to assess the countless leadership models on their relative merits with regards to Change and strategy execution.

Instead, what we will do, is focus on the people-oriented aspects of ‘Leading Self’ and ‘Leading Others’. We will set out some principles that we believe organisations should adopt when trying to be more specific in terms of what they should expect from, and foster in, leaders and we will also provide a ‘menu’ of leadership behaviours, which an organisation can choose subsets from that will have the most impact in their context.

Four Principles to Create the Right Leadership Culture Within Your Organisation

Principle 1: Expect Lived Values

WHO you are and what you stand for is more important than WHAT you do.

We believe that it is helpful to make a distinction between the ‘things’ (roles and tasks) a leader does and the Values he or she is perceived as standing for. Almost irrespective of culture, nationality, age or industry a remarkably common set of ‘values’ are mentioned whenever we ask people to identify what they felt made great leaders. These include Integrity, Honesty & Truth, Fairness, Empathy, Care for and interest in People, Respect for Diversity or Being Different, Listening, Humility, Being Ethical, Open-mindedness, being a Role Model, Courage.

Values like these – we sometimes refer to as ‘hygiene values’-  and the behaviours they promulgate in leaders can be argued go to the heart of the levels of trust and respect that are core to human relationships. One trust equation reads: Trust = Character x Competence. Leaders can fall into the trap of assuming – under the mistaken notion that they are leading ‘human resources’ rather than ‘human beings – that people will trust them, and follow them in Change, simply because they are ‘highly qualified’. We have witnessed too many leaders, who ‘did many things right’ but didn’t ‘do enough of the right things’ and they invariably struggled to make Change happen.

A deficit of authentic leadership is potentially damaging to Change. Four expectations come to the fore particularly in times of change:

  • The need for, perceived and actual, Fairness. This includes equitable treatment and no favouritism e.g. the protection of certain groups (senior management, HQ or the Centre). In the absence of perceived fairness, people will seek ways to ‘balance the scales of justice’ which will invariably involve countering any attempts at Change
  • The need for Honesty & Truth. Leaders need to ‘broker Honesty’ at all times. In times of Change, they especially need to be honest and transparent about the organisation’s ‘Current Reality’, about what may happen, as well as the role they themselves may have played in any crisis (if there is one) or in the need for Change.
  • The need for Empathy and Care. Fairly self-evident and perhaps best illustrated with examples of layoffs. People may rationally understand the need for layoffs but if no care is offered the ‘psychological contract’ of the workforce, including those who remain, will be characterised by ‘Loyalty to Self’. This drives a culture and set of behaviours that are less than helpful to Change.
  • A preparedness to invite and accept Challenges. Challenges can be a key to giving people a sense of Control and a sense of psychological ownership of any changes. They can also act as a primary and internal set of guards against biases in decision making i.e. they can lead to better solutions or expose bad ones, thus increasing people’s confidence in any Change

Especially in times of significant Change, leaders need to earn the ‘moral authority’, or personal power, to expect others to change, rather than relying on formal position power to force people to change.

There are numerous examples of where companies get this both right and wrong.

Two to illustrate ‘equitable treatment’: In one, a large oil company going through layoffs in the late 00’s also laid off 50% of senior management. In another, a CEO forewent his annual salary and bonus when he had to shed thousands of employees.

Principle 2: Expect Real Commitment

Commitment matters, especially in Leaders. There are different ways of describing commitment, but we distinguish between 3 ‘Levels’

  • “LIPSERVICE COMMITMENT” – Not getting in the way; neutral; not opposing the change; not actively supporting or visibly demonstrating it either
  • “CONDITIONAL COMMITMENT” – Willing to participate personally, provide resource, staff or funds. Quite personally engaged. Willing to act, but this commitment dissipates under pressure or threat
  • “UNCONDITIONAL or INSPIRATIONAL COMMITMENT” – Personal and public advocacy for change. Being a broker for Honesty. Visibly demonstrating commitment through acts, challenging other leaders and involving others when you know you have something personally at stake. Taking a stand and intervening to resolve issues and address opposition or obstacles. Taking personal risk can mean sacrificing something – e.g. credibility, reputation, perks, bonus, relationships, time

Leading at ‘Level 3’ means that a leader, in relation to Values and Behaviours:

  • Actively seeks opportunities to spend time on them (rather than ‘time permitting’)
  • Does so in a public and visible way – people see them do it
  • Does so even if, or especially when, it becomes ‘risky’.
  • Still does so when it becomes costly, either to the organisation or to you personally, if it is the right thing to do
  • Challenges others (e.g. superiors, those in authority, peers) to do the same.

And does all the above authentically i.e. when ‘no one is looking’ and out of a sense of inner discipline rather than ‘for effect’.

We recognise that leading in this way is easier said than done and may require Moral Courage and a degree of Selflessness. Taken to extremes, it can become inspirational and engender followship. Leaders who effected the greatest changes often did so at a great personal cost and if you ask people about their ‘best leadership stories’, as we often do, you will frequently hear examples of leading at ‘Level 3’.

Gandhi had to lead change

“If it is to be, it is up to me” Gandhi’s words, once described as the 10 most powerful two-letter words ever uttered.

We are not arguing that all leaders in businesses going through Change should go to the extreme of making personal sacrifices, although in genuine crises it may befall to senior leaders to do this.

Principle 3: Expect of All Leaders

Our belief that Change Management should be done by leaders and not to leaders does not mean that it can be delegated to change agents or middle management – let alone being outsourced to 3rd party consultants – somehow absolving senior and more junior leaders in the process. This may sound obvious, but we have seen many organisations where senior leaders expect a change in others without demonstrating any visible change themselves first. This does not work for both psychological and practical reasons.

Basic psychology, backed up by research, suggests that people feel perfectly justified in not changing if they don’t see any change in senior leaders or their immediate supervisors. These changes do not have to represent a revolution; small but meaningful (i.e. no tokenism) changes in leaders can have disproportionate impacts. One manufacturing GM we worked with triggered a transformation in safety – and financial – performance by taking a highly personal role in ensuring ‘Learning from Incidents’ and creating a just ‘Reporting Culture’.

At a practical level, it is difficult to imagine an ambitious change programme which does not require some form of visible change in leaders across levels and departments. To illustrate with a classic example. One global Oil & Gas operator wanted to foster better collaboration between departments to develop technically integrated solutions for their customers. A typical comment from the middle-ranking leaders we worked with ran along the lines of “I want to work with these guys [from other departments] and know our clients need it, but my line manager still wants me to hit my [departmental] targets”. It was not until senior leaders engaged the whole Line and aligned performance targets and incentives that real Change started to happen.

Principle 4: Expect Less and Get More

Focus expectations of leaders on a limited set of behaviours and values that matter most in a given context and in their specific role. And, rather than telling them what these are, engage them in deciding what they should be. Also, move beyond grand slogans (e.g.: Our Leaders Innovate!) to something that is specific enough to be observable, or even measurable.

We would argue that an organisation ought to strive for consistency and be prescriptive around some Behaviours and Values that it feels should be a generic or basic ‘part’ of any leader’s repertoire (examples: Brokering Honesty, Listening, Fostering Diversity, Giving ‘Control’, Challenging, Collaborating). It can then add a limited set of additional Values or Behaviours that are critical to its Strategy, any strategic imperatives, its ‘Identity’, competitive differentiation or simply to ‘skill’ gaps it has identified in its leadership population. How these play out for individual leaders will depend on their role and their specific part in the Change. For one global retail client, we developed a simple set of 12 ‘basic’ Values and Behaviours and another 8 that were linked to what they, as leaders and as an organisation, wanted to be known and valued for by their customers as well as their own employees.

Our recommendation is to apply the above four principles to whatever an Organisation expects its leaders to practically do to lead Change, which we describe in our next blog post.

If you haven’t already, read the previous blog post in this series to find out “Why Leadership is the Key to Successful Organisational Change Management”. Read here.

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Gerry De Vries

Written by Gerry De Vries

Since leaving the Marines in the early 90s and taking his MBA at London Business School, Gerry has become a specialist in turning businesses around. His particular expertise lies in improving performance through effective leadership and culture change. He has played a leading role, as Management Team member, Interim Manager and Consultant, in a number of strategic turnarounds and optimisation projects, across different industries. He has led over 35 teams globally and worked with leaders at all levels including Executive and Ministerial.

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