8 steps to leading change upwards

Last week I ran a workshop for an organisation where a team had a highly significant, even transformational insight about the future of the business. The workshop was intended to align the extended executive team around this insight and develop a strategy to pursue it.

When businesses and industries enjoy a long period, perhaps decades, of relative stability and profitability they develop a strong management capability. These managers are brilliant at refining processes and organising reliable delivery. While this is going on leadership capacity can be neglected, in times of stability leadership can be seen as unnecessarily risky and disruptive. In times of disruption and change businesses need leadership.

In many cases CEOs and Executive team members consider themselves to be solely responsible for overall direction and strategy, even when they are more experienced as managers than leaders. It is relatively rare to have well developed culture and system for progressing insights developed at more junior levels – notable exceptions include Google and their famous 20% time.

In this particular case a deeply experienced executive team was being asked to consider potentially disruptive changes to their industry and what their response to it should be. The workshop itself was not as straightforward as it might have been and reflecting afterwards we wondered if more could have been done to prepare the ground before the workshop. Here are eight steps that might make such a process easier:

1 – Understand the change curve

Those most closely involved with the insight will already have gone a good deal of the way along the change curve, perhaps they started on the journey before they even became involved in the project. They may have become involved in the project, precisely because they were along the change curve. While the insight team have already arrived at “experimentation” or “integration” on the change curve, it is highly likely that some other key stakeholders will not. They may be entirely unaware of the insight, in which case their first reactions to it might well be shock” , “denial” and “anger” if the communication process is not handled skilfully.

2- Know your audience

Given the insight and the changes it implies, who will need to be persuaded? Draw up a stakeholder map which prioritises relationships both by criticality and chronology. Who will need to be enrolled and when? Even before you have worked out any part of the business case for your insight, start investing in those relationships. Trust will be a critical factor in this process, if there is no trust with the key stakeholders the process will fail. Build trust by socialising, offering to help and building rapport with key individuals, by understanding their areas of interest and their strengths – not by continually “pitching” to them.

3 – Make the case for change individually

Remember, whatever you want to achieve, the first step is almost certainly a conversation, work out the order of the first few conversations and what you need from them. Once you have build some trust and before you try to run any consensus building event, test the waters with your key stakeholders, ask them for their advice about how to go about engaging others with the insight. Remember the maxim: “if you want advice ask for money, if you want money ask for advice.”

4 – Focus on the opportunity

When we are way down the change curve, we can see all sorts of implications of the insight that those further back along the change curve cannot see. Those implications include: the opportunity, the threat, the risks and the strategy. As the initiators you will need to work through the risks, threats and strategy in considerable detail, but at the outset you will be best off focussing your message on the opportunity – “how would you like for us to be able to…”. You do not need all stakeholders to align to the insight or the risks of not acting – what you want them to align to is the opportunity and the outcome.

5 – Keep it safe

Unless the CEO or key stakeholder is a known leader, you will need to think very carefully about how to minimise risks. In most cases managers at the beginning of the change curve will be in denial of the risks of inaction on the insight, so you will have to focus on mitigating the risks of the proposed action.

6 – Start small

One way to mitigate risk is to start small, perhaps with some sort of proof of concept or perhaps with an experiment or in Agile terminology a “minimum viable product”. You may even be able to start small before escalating to the executive or with limited sponsorship and develop something compelling to show people. Even in the overall thinking, consider how you might start small and build up, rather than go for a big bang change.

7 – Build coalitions

This one needs to be handled with extreme care as building any sort of coalition can also risk factionalism, conflict and entrenched positions, but you will also want to know who your supporters are and how best to deploy them. It will be key that they are well informed on the whole business case and that they know their role clearly, so that they don’t inadvertently sabotage your efforts.

8 – Focus on your own leadership skills

Above all focus on developing your own leadership skills so that you can influence the whole dynamic.

At Holos we have been studying change leadership and leadership training in the crucible of reality for years. We know what great leadership looks like and we know the journey to achieve it.  We have developed a suite of diagnostic tools to understand where companies and teams are on this journey and how to take them from there to sustained success.

Holos has a wealth of specialist leadership and culture coaches and consultants with decades of experience working with a huge variety of leaders. Holos can help you or your organisation to upgrade it’s leadership to flourish even in a challenging business environment.

Please share your ideas, comment and discuss here – click on the blog title and scroll to the bottom to find the comment box.

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Neil Crofts

+447803 774239

About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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