But… The Emperor Has No Clothes!

emperorRemember the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Emperor’s New Clothes?   A couple of swindlers take advantage of a vain emperor by promising to fashion a beautiful new suit.  The suit, however, was a nonexistent scam that was invisible to all, including the emperor himself.  No one had the courage to speak up and tell him the suit was invisible, so he paraded around naked until finally a child pointed out what was obvious to all.

How often does this same scenario replay itself in the world of corporate business?  Companies that stifle open and honest feedback (either unwittingly or by design) encourage just this sort of enabling behavior.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon.  For any number of reasons, certain projects, initiatives, and decisions are considered political hot potatoes.  It might be due to a significant investment of time or capital, or simply because the initiative is the pet project of a politically powerful executive.  The justifications for wanting to hear only what they want to hear are both numerous and convincingly valid.  Convincing, that is, to the emperor who doesn’t want to be told that his “new suit” is transparent.  But by creating an environment in which feedback is reduced to self-serving affirmation, executives isolate themselves in their own fictional sphere of reality.

Companies (and people) have a bad habit of using the cost of an investment (be it a program, idea, or initiative) as justification for its ongoing implementation.  In reality, however, any unrecoverable cost is sunk once invested.  Regardless of whether the project is a success or failure, there’s no getting the investment back.  Therefore, the justification for the ongoing implementation of an initiative should be based solely on the viability and merits of the initiative itself, independent of the unrecoverable investment.  Otherwise, it’s like eating spoiled food (or wearing an invisible suit) just because you paid for it.  Similarly, any company initiative that is flawed should either be immediately fixed or killed, regardless of how much it originally cost.  You simply cannot justify the continued implementation of a flawed program based on its original cost.  And if speaking up to acknowledge or challenge the flaws is tantamount to career suicide, whose interest is being served?

Regardless of the reasons or circumstances, when a company allows its culture of communication and feedback to become constipated, so much so that acknowledging flaws in an initiative or decision is perceived as potentially career damaging, they do themselves a dangerous disservice.  No one will tell the emperor he is naked if he fears for his job or his standing in the company.

Perhaps even worse than a flawed initiative going unchallenged is the resulting sense of apathy that such closed-mindedness breeds.  Lower level management and staff eventually stop caring whether the emperor is naked or not.  And why shouldn’t they?  If the emperor only wants to hear how beautiful his suit appears, and any discussion of the fact that it’s actually invisible risks a figurative beheading, then why speak out?  Why take the risk?  Why care?

Championing Change – Developing a Culture of Alignment

GYI0050968476.jpgDeveloping a culture of alignment in any organization or team requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science. You have to realize, however, that any attempt to alter the culture must be carefully planned and executed. Managers too often function as information conduits. They orchestrate and delegate, hopefully participate, but when new directives are introduced, they simply call a meeting and make an announcement. If opposition is anticipated, they might host a breakfast or lunch meeting. For some reason, food is generally assumed to be a mitigating distraction for unpalatable announcements. And yet, while I can’t argue the benefits of a doughnut induced stupor early in the morning, the effects will be short lived unless the general health and culture of the team can readily weather a little upheaval.

A trusted and credible leader is an essential component to a well aligned team.  This is fundamental.  Transitioning the team from a reactive perspective to a culture of alignment takes time.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, the evolution might take a few years, but the benefits are well worth the investment in time and effort.

Understanding that modifying the culture of a group takes time, there is a specific methodology that I use as a basic road map for managing change.  I’ve consolidated this methodology into five fundamental component steps:

  1. Communicate Your Vision
  2. Align Your Power Base
  3. Engage Key Team Members
  4. Model the Behaviors
  5. Lead to Success

1. Communicate Your Vision
I wrote earlier that superior leaders focus on objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire people.  At the same time, they are also definite and decisive and trustworthy.  Again, trust is so extremely important for a leader to be viewed as credible.  People just won’t embrace the direction of a leader who they don’t view as trustworthy or credible.  The may adhere or obey out of fear or obligation, but there is no sense of alignment, no buy-in.

Visionary leaders with strength of character establish a productive rapport based on mutual trust and respect, but they also use discretion in communicating their vision.  They are cautious and purposeful and think strategically, positioning initiatives and objectives at the right time and under optimal circumstances (whenever practicable).  Communication with the team is carefully structured and organized to be clear, concise, and unambiguous.

2. Align Your Power Base
Effective leaders instinctively leverage their resources and build a power base of consensus.  In order to succeed, most change related initiatives require the cooperation of a number of stakeholder groups, including superiors, co-workers, and subordinates.  Strong leaders strategically align their power base by building a coalition of support among those with the highest level of influence.  Everyone has allies.  Leaders use their influence (some might call it “political capital”) to gain the support of others around them in key positions.  These allies, in turn, leverage their own power of influence to better ensure the success of the initiative.

3. Engage Key Team Members
Leaders, i.e., those with the power to influence others, exist at all levels of authority.  Within any team are individuals who wield greater influence than others, and some enjoy considerable influence over their peers, be it for good or evil.  Either way, smart leaders use this to their advantage (and to the benefit of the team and individual).  By engaging key team members who have significant influence within the group, and personally involving them in the change solution, a powerful asset can often be created.

Ironically, these individuals may not be your typical advocates, which is what makes them so effective at influencing the rest.  Human nature tends to point us to those who we most trust – those with whom we are already closely aligned, either personally or professionally.  But these folks may not necessarily have the highest degree of influence over the rest of the group.  Again, think strategically and step outside the box.

Sometimes, engaging those who are the least aligned with the organizational vision can have a remarkable effect.  Most people enjoy being brought into the confidence of their leader, even if they would never admit it.  They like the special attention and opportunity to be “in the know.”  Engaging a team member who would normally try to undermine an initiative or act as a detractor appeals to their ego.  There is a good chance that bringing them into the fold early and giving them a role in the change process will provide them the motivation to support the effort and become a positive influence among their peers.

4. Model the Behaviors
If the program being introduced is to have any chance of success, the leader has to own the effort.  This means demonstrating personal ownership of the initiative and being a role model for its implementation.  If you want it to succeed, you have to walk the talk.  Modeling the behaviors is as simple as that.

5. Lead to Success
In addition to modeling the behaviors that the rest of the team needs to adopt, the leader must be the champion visionary for the change initiative.  Navigating through a difficult change process requires unwavering conviction and a passionate and purposeful vision of success, as well as a clear plan for achieving it.  Effective leaders keep the focus on the objectives, addressing objections and removing obstacles.  They set the tone for the rest of the group with a confident, disciplined consistency that is at the same time applied with patience and empathy.

A consistent, ongoing effort, supported by strong and effective leadership, is required to create a culture that productively copes with change.  You can’t force change down people’s throats.  It just doesn’t work, yet this is exactly what many managers and organizations try to do.  It’s the “because I said so” mentality spinning its wheels in futility.  People can and will embrace change, but they need a reason to do so.  They need leaders who will champion both the cause and their collective effort – leaders who model the attributes of Character, Discipline, Humility, Courage, and Vision.

Championing Change – A Culture of Alignment

sheep-lineRather than viewing change management as a series of periodic events in which a new program or initiative must be “rolled out,” consider fostering a culture of alignment.  In a culture of alignment, employees’ values, perspectives, and priorities are “aligned” with the overall strategic direction of the company or team.  Simply put from a management point of view, they “get it,” and are able to view the business from the company’s perspective (as well as their own).  They may not agree with every individual directive or initiative, but they trust their leaders and subsequently accept or even embrace decisions that are made, even those that are unpopular.  Change is viewed more as an evolutionary process than a series of periodic singular events.  When new initiatives are brought forward, team members feel more engaged in the evolutionary process and have a greater comfort level toward any potential impact.  Rather than becoming overwhelmed by fear and trepidation at something new, they maintain a viewpoint focused on the immediate opportunities and longer term benefits.

Now all this sounds well and good, but let’s be honest, there are times when initiatives presented from above are viewed as flawed, implausible, even unrealistic.  This creates a critical juncture for a leader and his or her team.  Failing to acknowledge obvious problems and blindly repeating scripted expectations undermines a leader’s credibility.  This is management, not leadership.  As I stated earlier, leaders must have the courage to appropriately challenge assumptions and question superiors.  On the other hand, organizations rightfully expect their managers to sometimes just tow the line and enthusiastically implement new initiatives.

In many cases, managers are afforded enough discretionary license to adapt the implementation of an initiative to align with the strength of the team and better respond to specific business needs.  In these situations, the emphasis is on the end objective rather than the means.  Reviewing the objectives with all team members and involving them in developing an action plan for implementation builds consensus and instills a sense of ownership.  People are far more likely to own a problem when they participate in designing the solution.

However, there are times when the mandate leaves no room for interpretation, or when the emphasis is on the means itself as well as the end objective.  Here, a team’s culture of alignment is truly put to the test and strong leadership becomes crucial.  Even in disagreement, a healthy, aligned team will embrace the solution together, but only with the leader’s support and assistance.  A leader doesn’t necessarily have to agree with the merits of every directive, but he absolutely must believe in and support the organization’s overall vision of success.  He must also believe in his team’s ability to accomplish the goals set forth, and champion their effort toward achieving the overall objective.

The point is, affecting change within any team or organization means altering the status quo in some way.  Teams with a strong culture of alignment are far less resistant to change because the idea of change itself is less threatening.  Let’s face it, most people dislike change.  There is some level of comfort even in the consistency of misery.  Teams that operate within a culture of alignment may never enthusiastically embrace the idea of change, but will nevertheless accept change as a systemic component of their ongoing growth and success.  These team members trust their leader and their values are fundamentally aligned with the general vision and mission of the organization.

Next Post:  Developing a Culture of Alignment