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Leading a Change (Part 1 of 2)

November 29, 2022

This is the third blog in our series on change management. I’ll give you step-by-step instructions on leading change in today’s post. 

One note here: John Kotter wrote the steps I’ll outline here in an article for the Harvard Business Review titled “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” I’ve read dozens of articles about change management and have personal experiences with it. This is the most thorough resource I could find for end-to-end change management, so I’m borrowing really heavily from it to ensure the concepts are organized logically. I’ll also reference this article by simply stating “Kotter says” or something similar throughout the post. 

Let’s dive in!

Step 1: Identify the Problem

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – don’t change something critical about your business for the sake of making a change. 

You must solve a real-world problem with your business for a change initiative to work. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t make structural changes to your business simply to suit personal preferences. 

Sam Palmisano, the former CEO of IBM, described this stage like this:

Now, if you’ve unleashed all this frustration and energy, if you’ve invited people to feel hope about something they really care about, you’d better be prepared to do something in response. 

When a legitimate problem needs to be solved, that’s time to step in and begin to consider a change. 

Pitfall: Not enough people see the need to change.

At a certain point, you must make the call as a leader when that change is necessary. I get it.

But, if you don’t have enough buy-in from your team, your change efforts will ultimately fail. According to Kotter’s research, you need to have about 75% of the stakeholders on board with the change before you begin to seriously consider making any changes. 

Solution: Help Others See the Problem

There’s another excellent article from the Harvard Business Review that you should read. It’s about Bill Bratton.

I had never heard of Bill Bratton before I read this article, but it was impossible to read it and not come away impressed. He’s been the Chief of Police in Boston, LA, and twice in New York City.

Bratton has a unique way of helping people see the problem: he literally shows them the issues.

When he was the Chief of the Transit Police in New York City, none of the other police commissioners who reported to him believed there was a crime problem on the subways. They said, “Only 3% of violent crime happens there – the subways are great!”

Bratton’s solution? He instituted a policy where every leader, including himself, had to ride the subway to work. He literally made the top brass in his department ride the subway to work. Suddenly, there was buy-in; they saw the nearly 5,000 people living in the subway system, the drug deals, and the gang activity. Now, there was a consensus.

He did the same thing in Boston. The city wanted to buy his officers really small cars. Rather than arguing about it, he took a city official for a drive in one and “drove over every pothole he could find” for two hours. He got the larger vehicles he requested at the end of that trip. 

How to Apply This

I talked with an operations manager in the Fall of 2022. He said they were running short on labor (hard to believe, I know).

During this shortage, the President/GM of the company offered to go out and push an aerator around to ensure production was completed. The operations manager declined.

This was a huge mistake and a missed opportunity. Any time you’re up against a challenge and a senior leader is willing to “walk in your shoes,” take them up on it. Invite them to work alongside you or your team if they don’t offer. Help them to understand the issue by bringing them into it.

I promise – this will get you traction in a way no level of “explaining the problem” ever will. 

Step 2: Assemble the Correct Team

This step is all about putting the right people in the room to help lead the change. 

You need to have the correct people throughout the organization that is behind a significant change for it to succeed. You need people from every major department to buy in: Sales, Marketing, Office/Administration, Operations, your field workers, and senior leaders.

Your team should have enough senior leaders to make the change decisions that carry weight, but you also need to have experts on the problem you’re tackling (likely the ones who deal with the problem you’re trying to solve daily. You also need a group of people who are well respected throughout the company, regardless of job title. These are your rising stars, who everyone in the company knows and respects. 

Once the right group of people is in the room, you’ll be able to tackle this change initiative with a reasonable level of certainty that it will succeed. 

Pitfall #1: You didn’t assemble the right mix of people

You must get a mix of all these people in the room for this change to work. 

If someone in any crucial part of your workflow isn’t involved, you’re setting yourself and your company up to fail in this initiative. You need people from every critical department involved in the decision-making process. 

Pitfall #2: You only assembled people with “titles”

There are people throughout your company who have influence, regardless of what their titles may be. They’re respected for their work ethic, intellect, their experience, or the sheer force of their personality. 

These individuals may not have a “title.” They may be a front-line worker or in middle management. You may think they’re not “senior enough” to be included in this type of change decision process. 

Solution: Get People with Influence in the Room, Not Just “Titles”

It sounds simple but admittedly isn’t always easy to manage. If you’ve got a Division Manager, Director, etc., that you know will be opposed to the change, and the support of their division is critical, you don’t have to strong-arm them into compliance. Go under their heads, and find a well-respected subordinate who you know wants to be involved. 

If you’re not sure who that might be in the division, ask other people. The people who work in that department or division know who this person is. You can ask questions like, “When your manager is unavailable, who do you go to with questions?” to find out which employees carry influence. Chances are other division managers know this as well.

The point is this: you need buy-in from your team. If your manager-in-place doesn’t get behind the change, go to someone below them who carries influence. Get that person to help build support from this critical division, and the manager will eventually follow. 

If they don’t, you’ll have staffing decisions to make (more on that in another blog post). 

Step 3: Creating Vision

It’s not enough to identify a problem to solve and task a bunch of intelligent, capable people to solve it. You need to create a vision for this change.

Basically, you need to paint a word picture for people of a) what the problem is, b) why it’s a problem, c) how you’re going to solve it, and d) what the future looks like without that problem. 

Pitfall: The Vision Isn’t Clear

One trap that many companies get into in this stage is they fail to clearly and succinctly define the vision. According to Kotter, at the end of the vision stage, your assembled team should be able to repeat “What’s the problem,” “Why we’re making this change,” and “Here’s what the future looks like after the change” in less than five minutes.

Failure to get a clear vision is a sure way to fail at making a successful business change. 

Solution: Help Direct the Vision, but Don’t Hijack It

In the book “The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make,” leadership expert Hans Finzel identifies something called “Dirty Delegation.” You’re familiar with it. It’s happened to most of us. This is where someone gives you a job but then comes back to you and says, “Oh, that’s not the way I’d do it. I’ll fix it now,” and they take back the task you were given. 

You, owner or CEO, but this group of intelligent, capable, dedicated people on the task of solving a problem. Don’t practice “seagull management” – swoop in, crap all over everything, and leave again.

You MAY (only if they struggle with it) need to help craft a clear, succinct vision. This vision should articulate the things I mentioned: What’s the problem, why it’s a problem, how the company will solve the problem, and what the future looks like once that problem is solved.

If they can’t come up with a straightforward way to say that in less than five minutes, you can guide the words, but don’t you dare change the decision they’ve arrived at. That’ll only foster distrust and resentment. 

How to apply this

For example, let’s say you’re running into problems with your maintenance crews. There are several crews that don’t have enough supervision to truly get their jobs done, and you need to hire someone from outside or restructure the division.

You’ve identified the problem (lack of adequate training and supervision for crews). You’ve got the right mix of people in the room (a Division Manager, a Sales Supervisor, the Marketing pro, one of your Maintenance Supervisors, and your CFO). They’ve decided that the best way to do this is to break the Division into two teams; one team will focus on commercial maintenance, and the other will work exclusively on residential maintenance.

The problem is that you don’t currently have anyone ready to take over a supervisory role for commercial maintenance internally. You’ve created a job ladder, but no internal candidates have reached that level.

All the change team came up with for reasoning was, “We need a commercial maintenance supervisor.” They didn’t have any better way to articulate it.

At this point, you can step in and help them craft something like this:

XYZ Landscaping is having a challenging time training and developing all our maintenance division coworkers according to how they deserve to be trained. They’re not getting the level of training time, and supervision they need to succeed. After careful consideration, we’ve divided the maintenance into commercial and residential divisions. This change will help us be far more competitive as each type of customer has different needs and expectations. However, this means we’ll need to hire a commercial maintenance supervisor. Once we’ve got the right person in that role, we’ll have better-trained, more professional, happier team members. 

Step 4: Communicating the Vision

Once the problem is identified, you’ve got a team that’s arrived at a viable solution, and the vision for the change is clearly articulated, you’ve got to start communicating that vision with the broader team. 

Here’s a good rule of thumb you should use when discussing this change: don’t ever stop talking about it. 

Most of us think we’ve communicated something clearly. In reality, we’ve only communicated it once or twice. That’s not enough for most people to understand the “why” and the “how” behind a change initiative.

Find ways to tie just about everything you say and do back to this change. This creates a considerable amount of institutional alignment. Encourage your team, who has led the initiative, to do likewise. Talk about it until you’re sick of hearing about it, and regurgitate the “vision” in your sleep.

When you’ve gotten to that point, you’re probably talking about it enough. 

Pitfall #1: Failing to Consider How the Vision Statement Could be Misinterpreted 

No matter how clearly you think you’ve outlined your team’s vision for this change, there will be someone who misinterprets it. It’s just going to happen.

Find a trusted friend, mentor, business partner, or life partner, and ask them to review the vision. Don’t go crazy with this, but get input from those who are outside the organization. See where there are places where someone might misinterpret the vision statement. 

Once you’ve got those, go back to the change team and consider asking them to rework the vision statement or work on it alongside them. It’s best to clear up any misunderstandings before they occur. 

Pitfall #2: Undercommunicating

I covered this in the first section, but seriously – most people really stink at this. 

You have invested tons of time, sweat, and energy into this initiative. Of course, you understand the details far better than everyone else, get the vision statement, and know exactly what you expect of people in this change.

Literally everyone else outside that change team hasn’t experienced these things. They have no idea; frankly, some will outright resist this change. It doesn’t matter if it will make their lives better in the long run. It’s new and different, and they hate it oh so much. 

You (and your change team) must be the dogged, relentless communicators about why the change is necessary, how you’ll do it, and how everyone’s lives will be better afterward. Don’t miss that last part – it’s exactly what you’ll need to get people on board and enthusiastic about the new process, new staff, or new software your team has decided upon. 

Pitfall #3: The Change Team Behaves in Ways Contrary to the Change

Working for a software company, we literally see this every day. There’s been an initiative to make a considerable change to the business (a new business management software).

But there are people in the business who simply refuse to comply. They’re only going to give up their Excel spreadsheets and hand-written proposals when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers. Even if they were a part of the team that arrived at this “change” as the solution.

When the team of people who said, “This is the path forward,” refuse to take that path, you cannot expect others to follow. (This is part of why selecting the correct people in the first place is so critical to success!) 

If your change team isn’t personally implementing the change and cheerleading it, don’t expect others to jump for joy at making a potentially painful change to their workflow, however positive the end result would be. 

Pitfall #4: Failing to Account for People’s Feelings About the Change

I know it sounds a bit touchy-feely. Well, it is. But that doesn’t make it any less of an issue. Ignoring this can still torpedo your whole change initiative. And that’s an apt analogy; it’ll cruise unseen under the surface until it suddenly blows up in your face.

You have to know that some people resist change just for the sake of resisting change. Some people are scared about their ability to carry out their new responsibilities, which gives them crippling anxiety. Some people have competing commitments and subconscious beliefs that prevent them from making the change.

All of that is to say you may need to have private conversations with key employees to discuss these things to ensure they’re rowing in the same direction, and they’ll help you recruit others to do the same. 

Conclusion

I’ve outlined the first critical steps in initiating a significant change to your company’s processes, staffing, or software. 

First, identify the problem. 

Second, you must create a team to lead the change with the right mix of people to ensure success. 

Third, you have to coach them on creating the vision for this change. 

Fourth, you must communicate clearly and often about why the change is necessary, how you’ll get there, and what the future will look like once the change is in full effect. 

In our next post, we’ll outline the remaining steps to ensure a successful change in your landscaping or tree care company.

Go back and read Part 2: The Psychology of Change Management

Read Part 4: Leading a Change (Part 2 of 2)