Leading Your Leaders to Change

Leading Your Leaders to Change

Successful strategic renewal turns resistance into excitement, and excitement into action.

If you’re anything like me, your life involves a lot of seeing a better way. Forging the beginnings of a new path. And then hitting a wall when you try to get others to come with you.

Sometimes it’s not that important. I, for instance, am an aficionado of optimal dishwasher loading. That’s a battle I have vowed never to pick again.

Sometimes the stakes are higher. When you see a bigger opportunity on the horizon for your business or product. When the status quo is heading for wasted potential and slowing growth. At times like these, you really need others to see and follow the path you’re charting towards strategic renewal.

It should be easy. Strategic renewal is compelling. It holds the promise of more profitable, purposeful work, and the success and renown that you and your firm deserve. 

But big visions often meet even bigger resistance. The frustration multiplies when you have to drive change up, down and across: to your leadership, board and investors; to staff on the front lines; and to operators in the core business. 

Turning resistance into excitement, and excitement into action, is a constant challenge at all stages of a renewal program. From the first glimmers of possibility, to the day your vision starts to get results.

For today, let’s focus on how to get your fellow leaders to take that first step. To commit to a series of realizations: that what got us here won’t get us there; that there is, in fact, an opportunity (and need!) to evolve; and, that it’s high time to invest.

Make the status quo more painful than gainful

First off, acknowledge that you are part of a unique group of people. You might be always looking to the new, but most people prefer things the way they are. They have strong commitments and attachments. They don’t see the need to embark on something harebrained like strategic renewal—especially when your business is already the market leader.

Unless the pain of the same becomes overwhelming, they will be happy with “good enough” and “next quarter.”

This means the first step is flipping your own focus as a leader. You’re likely captivated by the promise of a more expansive horizon of opportunities. Switch perspectives, and this becomes the pain of your growth slowing and your relevance decaying as you lose your lead to others.

You need your leadership to not only understand but feel that the world is changing, and that staying the same will hurt. To decide to seize the opportunity to lead the change, instead of suffer it. The pain, more than the promise, is what creates commitment to strategic renewal at first.

Luckily, there’s a powerful shortcut to getting your leaders walking the path with you.

Destroy old assumptions to seed new alignment

The shortcut involves a phenomenon that we anthropologists call communitas. It’s observed across human societies in the immediate aftermath of disasters and other major upheavals.

When we’re uprooted by crisis and uncertainty, our focus on our individual needs and differences tends to fade. It’s replaced by an overwhelming sense of togetherness. People engage in mutual aid, even at their own expense. They share utopian visions for the future. See: the early days of the covid pandemic.

When everything we believed in is flipped upside down, we humans have an innate impulse to come together to make things better.  This provides an incredible lever for driving alignment on a new vision.

To cultivate communitas, you need to destroy belief in the assumptions that justify legacy thinking. Leave those threatened by the new just a little bit lost.

The way to do this is with a relevance and renewal workshop. First, gather a fresh perspective about what’s going on in your business, your marketplace and in the broader world of your customer:

  • How is your customer changing—what new needs are emerging, and what new kinds of value are capturing their intention?

  • What is your competition up to—and how are those outside the traditional bounds of your sector reshaping it?

  • Where is your organization affected—what pain is change causing people, and what potentials do they want to pursue?

Discussing these signals of change will help your team see where their assumptions about what matters are out of date. These threats to their continued success and relevance make staying the same appear more and more undesirable.

That’s the “relevance” part of the workshop. Next comes the “renewal.”

Reconnect with the promise of renewal

The first half of the workshop left your team uncertain. The second half uses the resulting communitas to imagine a better future to rally around.

The signals of change once again act as stimulus. While they make the threat of legacy thinking more tangible, they also act as ingredients for envisioning renewal. 

Get people grooving on the new possibilities they present:

  • Which new customer needs might you be able to address in a meaningful way?

  • What inspiration from new competitors in the broader cultural, social and technological milieu can you tap into?

  • Where could you elevate your current plans, capabilities and assets to thrive in this unfamiliar world?

  • Who are you in this landscape and who do you want to become? What could be your reason for being and unique right to win?

The end result: people leave shaken, yet stirred. They’re ready to commit to taking action, and can no longer be comfortable with business as usual.

Next steps: Reframe, Strategize, and Align

You’ve cranked up the pain of the status quo, then soothed it with the promise of a bigger, brighter future. You’ve built consensus that it’s time to invest in strategic renewal.

At this point, there are three key phases of work to tackle:

  1. Reframe your understanding of what matters to your customers and marketplace (today’s and tomorrow’s). Identify a new horizon of value that addresses more fundamental or emerging needs.

  2. Strategize to clarify your new growth vision, and how to evolve not only your firm but your marketplace. Decide on the growth platforms where you’ll redeploy your capabilities, equity and legacy.

  3. Align your organization to execute on the strategy, from the top down and bottom up. Collaborate to create a hero offering that launches your strategic renewal internally and externally.

Each of these steps also depends on (and generates!) buy-in at various altitudes and in various ways. And each can take advantage of powerful levers in human behaviour to create alignment on the advantages of change.

What are your biggest alignment challenges or questions? Get in touch and let me know. I’ll address the most common ones in an upcoming Syllabus.

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