“Change” is more than a business school process. We must shape the discussion, influence, challenge, adhere to values and inspire.

Walk around any bookstore and sooner or later you will come across literally hundreds of books on leadership, on change, on transformation, on process improvement, on personal improvement, on team development… Shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf. If the weight of this literary contribution is anything to go by, is it any wonder that “Change” and “Leadership” sound like subjects done to death?

So let me state my case at the outset – I am not going to make an argument for some new fangled process; there will be neither trite slogans nor clever acronyms. I am not going to pretend to have an insight beyond that which we could all bring and I am not going to recommend anything that we will think contrary to our own intuition.

I do however link change with leadership and see the two ideas as inexorably tied together. For me, the best change programmes are ones that are both accessible to those involved and affected; and achievable as planned. Invariably the qualities of leadership involved are then not clich├ęd and stereotypical, but are largely about the quality of influencing and thoughtful communication we practice.

I am also writing this article, if I am honest, to present my vision of change and leadership as an antidote to the trite, overly simplistic and the falsely evangelical.

Maybe it is because I am a natural sceptic, but I have always disliked unfeasibly toned fitness gurus telling me that if I wobble around on an over large beach ball it will give me “abs” like theirs. I distrust the autobiographical books by retired CEO’s that tell me to “think success” to make the difference. I also object strongly to legions of sharp-suited teenagers strolling around established businesses making life-changing decisions for hard-working people when they themselves haven’t yet figured out that in the real world work is not organised into semesters!

I object, basically, to the “quick fix” and to anyone with an attitude that suggests that anything tried and trusted is inadequate if not given a makeover of some description.

I think my first serious life-lesson on this subject occurred when I’moved from one big job to another about ten years ago.

In the one company I was considered a star performer; someone at the top of their game making an important contribution. I was surrounded by talent and the company was a great success.

I then moved to a company that was much less successful, in fact it was badly broken as a business and eventually had to be sold or it would have failed completely.

It made me realise two things:

  • First, I was not as good as I thought I was! And
  • Second, my new colleagues were just as talented, just as committed, just as capable of success as my former colleagues, but they had not had a chance to show what they were capable of delivering.

The lesson for me was very powerful; I learnt that success is only partly due to the talent pool – it is an important part, but probably less important than the quality of leadership and the way our people are organised to allow them to flourish.

It also convinced me that any team and any company already has the talent, the intelligence and the ability to effect changes that will make that team or company much more successful. No books, no gurus, no acronyms required; we have the talent within all of us already; so how can we lead our teams to bring about lasting and effective change relying on our talent?

The issues we will have to address will vary, but in my judgement it is how we begin our work that determines how successful we will be. Leading change is one of the hardest things we will ever do, but understanding our role as leaders and understanding how this impacts on the way we plan for change is fundamental to the success of any project.

The bullet points below do not present some wonderfully illuminating insight; this is practical stuff, but these are the issues we must all address. This is the crucial work; this is where we lay the foundations for your future success:

  • What are the obstacles to change and how can we anticipate better what they will be? In this regard it is a necessity to brainstorm and consult, engage and listen. Plan to succeed and plan to have contingency as well. The idea for change is the easy bit, but seeing the interplay between competing priorities, dependencies and resources is the art.
  • How will influencing and relationship management sit at the centre of all you are planning? What perceptions must you manage, what expectations have been set? Whom do you need to win round, who needs incentivising and whom do you need to confront?
  • How should you lead debate when you do not control participants or outcomes? Influencing others is a key skill and you will need to identify all the interests in play.
  • What are the requirements for engagement and how can we encourage behaviours supportive of our agenda? This is an ongoing commitment from any leader. Communication is never “accomplished” at best it is only ever “so far so good”!
  • What will be the signature profile of a successful outcome? Can you describe successful outcomes in different ways to appeal to different interests? Can you choreograph quick wins and plan for a communication strategy around outcomes?

What are the essential disciplines for increasing the probability of success? Who do you need on the team and why/when will they join you? Invest in success, don’t just start a project and hope for the best.

Already I am guilty of oversimplification, but I hope you will see this as just a start. These are the practical, pragmatic issues you need to address and while the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers may not be something we should dwell on for too long, to end this brief explanation I will refer to the words of Confucius who said:

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

As a template for leading and effecting change, it is not a bad place to pin our colours. It is just a beginning, but starting well is how we can best assure a successful finish.