Leading in a Time of Great Change

This is a difficult time for leaders, particularly, new or emerging leaders. It’s difficult when you can’t interact with your team face to face. It’s difficult when you know their personal lives, as well as their professional lives, have been turned upside down. It’s difficult when your personal and professional lives have also been turned upside down but, as a leader, there are high expectations you continue to lead and lead successfully. Others, your team, your bosses, your colleagues look to you for direction, support, and performance.

What can you do to keep your team engaged, keep them motivated, keep them wanting to stay and be led by you? After all, by the time our workplaces emerge from this crisis, some of our best performers may have moved on, deciding to change their way of life. As their leader, you want to maintain a high level of involvement, you want to have your team emerge stronger and whole.

A key leadership role is as a facilitator of change. And boy, is this current situation an example of change, significant change. Normally, when we deal with change in the workplace, it is as a result of some break in our normal routine or a challenge to our beliefs and attitudes. But this change is all about doing everything differently, moving away from our normal routines, both at work and at home. The big difference compared to most workplace changes is that none of us can resist the change. It is here and we need to figure out the best ways to live with, and grow from, the change.

A few principles you can apply to help you mitigate the challenge of keeping your team motivated and engaged, while helping you to continue to grow as a leader.

Keep them close

Communication is the key. Use video as much as possible. This helps teams to feel they are interacting face to face. If you can, conduct daily check ins which helps team members, and you, to have that necessary social interaction that used to be at the office.

Let’s take an example of communicating remotely. You may think you can continue to connect with your team in the same way you did previously, only now using technology. Technology, albeit fantastic for connecting remotely, may not always meet the needs of each of your team members. Some may feel the need to connect more often, on an individual basis. This may require telephone conversations, email or text exchanges about their individual needs and challenges. It’s critical to keep in mind that holding a weekly video or telephone conference call with your team will not meet the needs of them all. Reach out to each of them individually, schedule regular check-ins using the technology that works best for each of them. This may be time consuming but necessary to keep them motivated and engaged.

Set goals for these daily check ins and weekly meetings and follow up with team members on progress being made. Make sure you have an agenda and stick to it. To provide opportunities for personal development, delegate, to members of the team, agenda creation and meeting management as well as subsequent progress updates. This will lessen the load on you while improving the skills of others.

Don’t forget the value and challenge of active listening, particularly when using online video tools, since, with most of these tools, only one person can speak, and be heard, at a time. Do you need to put a process in place to ensure everyone gets their turn to contribute? How do you ensure no one dominates the conversation? During these calls, listen for tone of voice, words used, and what is being emoted. Without the advantage of body language, listening skills are highlighted.

Take care of yourself

One of the best ways to build your leadership strength is to utilize Stephen Covey’s circles of concern, influence and control. Ask yourself, what keeps you awake at night (other than Covid-19 if you can), which of these things can you influence, can you possibly change? For those things you can influence, can affect positively, focus on what you can control. Thinking about your situation in this way helps you to become more self-aware – aware of your feelings. Being self-aware helps you to better understand and appreciate your emotions and others’ as well. Increasing self-awareness enhances your self-confidence making you better able to tune into subtle feelings.

You can’t do it all. As mentioned previously in this article, delegate. Give team members the opportunity to try new skills or tasks, new ways they can contribute. You might want to consider dedicating one of your daily check-ins or weekly meetings to training, one of your team members leading a short training session. Given that many employees have not experienced working remotely in the past, training in time management may be just the right skill to help them manage their workload at home.

Lead from the Heart

Kouzes and Posner in their book, The Leadership Challenge, speak to the need for leaders to encourage the heart. Leaders do this through recognizing contributions and celebrating accomplishments. Encourage your team to build a list of ideas to recognize the effort each other demonstrates. Then put them into practice as often as possible.

Be an inclusive leader, one who ensures team members speak up and are heard, who empowers them to make decisions, who encourages them to provide input and feedback to you about how you are leading during this tough time, Create opportunities for them to coach and mentor one another and share credit for successes.

Bloggers with the Hot Spots Movement group in United Kingdom, a group focused on the future of work, recommend leaders ‘build a narrative.’ “A narrative provides a way to make sense of events and communicate experience, knowledge and emotions. Creating a strong narrative does not rely upon the leaders having all the answers (now more than ever – this is clearly impossible). However, it does rely on creating an ongoing thread of communication that recognizes the deep uncertainty whilst also visioning the future, to help people connect with a sense of direction and purpose.” Creating this narrative can be cathartic for your team, especially if they are encouraged to share their personal stories. As Aisha Zafar, at Mohawk College Enterprise, says, “Stories evoke emotions and build human connections.”

Leading (And Following) Through Change

In our previous article, we discussed that for most of us change is uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. We fear the unknown. Naturally, we face organizational change with resistance, either openly or passively.

Leading through an organizational change is a great balancing act that appears to be more of an art than a science. This act requires of leaders to have a sound skill and a strong will. Each organization has their distinct culture and history, and there is no definitive prescription to successfully lead through change. The key is to remember that as leaders we cannot tell people stop feeling what they feel. On the contrary, fighting resistance directly will just bring in more resistance. However, several time and experience proven approaches can guide us in an effective change management while embracing resistance as a part of the process.

Create a vision. When we lead, we have to be certain to which direction we are going. It may be challenging to create a vision to manage an externally driven organizational change, such as downsizing due to economic conditions. Yet, the vision is the main starting point and the foundation of change management. Ideally, leader’s vision would embrace full understanding of organization’s current situation and the implications for future. Employee involvement in creating a vision is critical to employees’ future ownership of the vision.

Set strategic goals. Organizational change management requires setting strategic goals. Again, employee involvement in crafting the goals is important. Goals should be backed up by short term objectives (2-8 weeks). These goals may differ from strategic goals developed during stable organizational times as they would be shorter termed. Generally, leaders should refer to these goals and objectives on daily basis and update employees on progress on at least a weekly basis. First, it allows leaders to better measure the progress of change. Secondly, it involves employees and provides them with a better sense of control when they know “where they are”.

Communicate. Communication must be timely, true, and consistent. Be positive, but realistic in your messages. Employees have to know reasons for the change, the vision, the plan, and implications for their performance expectations or job security. Using a variety of communication pathways is a good strategy. However, if you already shared information that may be anxiety provoking such as possible layoffs or reduction in work hours, avoid repeating that information again and again unless you have new information pieces to add. Let employees know when they can expect an update and follow through before or on that date.

Keep an open door policy. It’s a good approach when leaders welcome employees to come to them directly with any questions about the change process. With that, it also means that leaders should embrace a mindframe of openness where they genuinely expect employee questions and are forthcoming with answers. Let’s also keep in mind that building trust is a process, and not the task; it may take numerous conversations before employees start trusting leaders and the change process.

Appreciate and highlight successes that employees attain during the change process, such as learning a new skill, learning a new computer program, or embracing a new role. Most importantly, treat and believe that your people are your most valuable asset. To be effective, praise and appreciation has to honest and authentic – embrace your employee’s behaviors not only by your mind, but also your heart. Apologize when you are incorrect. Show that you care about your employees beyond work environment.

When we are following through change, we are also not powerless (although it may feel that way).

Face your feelings about the change, especially when the change is imposed and beyond your control. Figure out what your fears or worries are. You don’t have to be a victim, even when you are not in control of the change. Write about your feelings. Embrace the notion that feelings are pleasant or unpleasant, but they are not bad or good.

Choose your thoughts and attitudes about the change. Negative thoughts block your creativity and problem-solving abilities. Positive thoughts build bridges to possibilities and opportunities. Keep a record of the choices you make in your thoughts and attitudes. Catch your negative self-talk – instead of telling yourself “I cannot handle it anymore”, ask yourself “How I can handle it?” Instead of saying “never” or “always”, say “this time”. Welcome change as an opportunity and explore the benefits of the change.

Rely on peer support. Seek positive support from peers and provide the same to them. When someone’s feeling down, put your effort in reframing their negative thoughts into positive ones. Ask for help in the process of learning a new role or a new task. While it is OK to occasionally vent to someone and share your frustrations, venting will not ultimately change your situation, but instead may create poor morale all around. Instead stay positive and solution focused.

An organizational change is a challenging process for both leaders and followers. Resistance, anxiety, and strong feelings often accompany the process. While we cannot talk ourselves or others out of feelings overnight, leaders and followers can work together to make the change process smoother.

Leading Change – Stop the Bleeding

Ever been the guy who is put in to stop the bleeding. The Big Kahuna calls you in and says, “We’re bleeding money on this project. It’s still important. But it’s gotta’ get turned around. You’re the man!” How about that… you’re the man.

It’s happened to me several times. It’s fun, if you know what to do. The first time for me (we always remember our first time) was a huge project for a glamour company I was working for at the time. When a partner and I got the news above we were six weeks from launch of a new handheld computer for route salesmen.

We drove to a nearby office to meet with the team. They proudly displayed a balsa wood model. That’s right, a balsa wood model at six weeks before launch. Your kids could write the script on this disaster. The train was careening out of control and all we could do was be there for the crash. When we got the project we were told it was right on the money so, it’s a ‘little’ behind but trust us, the IT Director said.

The launch was a debacle and three days into the field sobriety test the handheld was found quite a bit more than legally drunk. Instead of jail we took our new device and all the folks involved back to the FIT lab, the Field Integration Test lab where it obviously hadn’t been tested. It had been released with 287 known defects. Now there is some serious bleeding.

There were many things to get to the bottom of on this one, the first being the truth. We had no time to build trust and team concepts. The patient was bleeding profusely. We told them this is the chance, the time to come clean. There was no time right now for chasing our tail. We needed to look forward. The people responded. They spilled their guts on the issues.

You have to first get to truth quickly and then do a triage on your situation. A triage is what medical people do when overwhelmed in an emergency. As a Marine sniper in Nam I’ve seen it done many times. It works for projects too. They divide the wounded into three categories. Let’s take a look.

1. The mortally wounded: In this category go the people who regardless of treatment will not survive. They make them as comfortable as possible. Then they direct their attention to other people. On your project turnaround this is the elements that no matter what you do they aren’t going to work. Make the tough call and stop the bleeding, shut the down.

2. The slightly wounded: In this category are the people who will survive no matter what. You put them aside until time permits. On your project turnaround these are the parts of the project that are going fine. Let the leaders of this work know you trust them and to carry on.

3. The seriously wounded: In this category are the people who will die if they do not have immediate treatment. You place all your energy and skill here. On your project turnaround these are core elements that have the highest leverage for success of the overall work and you dive in here and make the fix.

In turnaround work you must make the tough calls. You must do a triage of the project, cut where you need to and reassign resources to the most critical areas. Leadership is doing just that, making the tough calls. There is no substitute.

Ed Kugler