The Art of Leadership - Leading Change

There is a frequently-quoted statistic, which may not be strictly numerically accurate but certainly has the feel of truth, that 75% of all change initiatives adopted by organisations fail. Generally, they fail for one of three reasons (or in the most spectacular failures, a combination of the three): employees fail to listen to the message for change; employees listen, but disagree with the reasons behind the need for change and fail to buy into the change programme as a result; or they understand and agree with the need for change, but fail to implement the necessary strategy.

Human beings are inherently resistant to change and this means that change management is one of the most challenging tasks a leader will face. We should not here that “change” is often assumed to be a one-off, or at least infrequent, event but in modern business, not all change is seismic. According to the eminent leadership writer and academic John Kotter, being a leader is all about successfully managing change. The modern business world is developing at such a rate, he argues, that no organisation will survive if its aim is only to do what it was doing yesterday, only 5% better. Major changes, he says, are more and more necessary in order to compete and a leader’s role is to prepare their organisation for change and then help them cope as they struggle through it.

The 17 leaders from business sport and the military we interviewed for our book, What Do Leaders Really Do? would all agree with Kotter that change is a constant state of events rather than an occasional seismic shift. For some, such as Charles Dunstone, chief executive of the Carphone Warehouse, a rapidly-changing business and technological environment is a fact of life. For others, such as Dame Stella Rimington, former director-general of MI5, the change in their own seemingly more stable organisation was more sudden and unexpected. But it was Ron Dennis, chairman and chief executive of the motorsport group McLaren, who best summed up the dilemma for a leader: “If you are already successful, you tend to hold your breath and think that you need to be careful about what you change,” he said. “But history shows that very often, that is not what happens. You can make a change and it triggers failure but if you don’t change, failure is inevitable as well. You are caught between a rock and a hard place.”

There may be different degrees of change, but the lessons for leaders apply across the board. A number of the leaders we spoke to had led their organisations through a radical programme of change – the most significant of these were Greg Dyke, who transformed the culture at the BBC during his tenure as director-general, Dame Stella Rimington, who found herself reluctantly and unexpectedly in charge of leading MI5 into a new era of openness, and Heather Rabbatts, who took over as chief executive of Lambeth Borough Council when it was in crisis and turned its fortunes around. The size of these leaders’ achievement in successfully seeing the change management programme through cannot be overemphasised.

The first point that these, and other, leaders made is that the leader must absolutely own the change process. Part of the reason why so many change management initiatives fail is that directors are prone to get very excited when discussing change at boardroom level, but then lose interest before the message filters through to all levels of the organisation. Communicating change takes time and a huge amount of effort – and the approach should be little and often, not long and loud. Anyone who thinks that the occasional tub-thumping speech on how things will change and how great it will be as a result, has no connection with reality.

Above all, the leader has to be clear about what is to be achieved and the reasons why it is necessary. Martin Glenn, CEO of Birds Eye Iglo and the former president of PepsiCo UK, made the point that leaders should not “dabble” with change. A change programme should be well thought out, decisive and clear. “People need to understand what the broad objective is,” he said. “and that requires the leader to say very early on that he thinks there is a problem or an opportunity if we do something differently, here is the rough time frame and here is what I’m certain about and what I’m not certain about.”

This careful and consistent communication is essential if the leader is to get everyone on side – and if they fail in that task, the change initiative is doomed. While at the BBC Greg Dyke told us that he always spoke in terms of how culture change at the organisation would result in the BBC producing better programmes. If the leader as the same aim as everyone else, he argued, people will let you bring about change, even if it is unpopular.

Heather Rabbatts spoke of the difficulty of getting a momentum for change in an organisation such as Lambeth, which had suffered heavy criticism in the past and was the subject of negative press on a daily basis. Both she and Greg Dyke knew from experience the importance of tangible “quick fixes” – visible illustrations that change was happening. Rabbatts spent the first few weeks in her job asking people through the organisation and the Borough what they would change, if they had three choices. A point that often came up was the poor lighting on many of Lambeth’s housing estates. Her response was to “break every procurement rule in the book” and replace every broken light bulb on the estates. “People aren’t interested in fancy change strategies,” she said. ‘They want lights that work. If you put enough of those in place, you win some credit to get some of the longer-term changes in place.”

Greg Dyke took a remarkably similar strategy at the BBC, where a long-unused atrium at the company’s White City building became a symbol for change. The atrium had been closed to employees for years, for unclear reasons that Dyke eventually pinned down to health and safety concerns. The work to refurbish and repair the atrium cost close to £100,000 and Dyke threw a party for staff to mark its reopening. “The White City building became symbolic,” he said. “I wrote an article about it in the BBC’s internal magazine, asking how many other things staff had been told that they couldn’t do. What I was doing was telling them that things could be changed.”

The recipe for successful change is clear: be clear what you want to do and why, and keep communicating that to employees until they accept that change is not only desirable, but possible.

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