Successful Change Requires Bold Leaders Stepping Outside Their Comfort Zone

10/10/2016 16:45

The contemporary cliché that the "one constant is change and will be change" is tired and overused but nevertheless true.

Whether you are in the voluntary and community sector, a charity, a large or a small business or any part of the public sector you, your organisation and the systems in which it operates are almost certainly going to be facing major change for the foreseeable future most likely beyond.

There will be many reasons why change is inevitable including financial pressures, technological advance, evolving public expectations, needs and choices, the pursuit of improvement and excellence and many more.

No leader in any sector - and I am strongly of the school that believes that everyone involved in any organisation should see themselves as a leader - can should be in denial about change. Of course, change has to be for a purpose

Leaders should always seek to take control of change and ensure that they do not allow others to dictate the direction, pace and depth of change programmes which impact on their organisations. This will not always be possible and certainly may be challenging. However, it is a principle that leaders should aim to adopt.

Of course, it is essential that change is only pursued when it can add value and improves outcomes. Change for its own sake is wasteful and can be very damaging to any organisation as can change programmes which have not been thought through and properly planned.

When I am working with leaders in every sector - charity, public, education, business and other - I am always surprised how many of them are not able to lead change or wish to adopt a head in the sand approach. This is often the case when the change is perceived as being imposed from outside the organisation and/or when it is required to address serious under - performance issues.

All too often I find myself saddened and disappointed to hear senior executives and so called "leaders" in all sectors when faced with dismal performance arguing against radical solutions. Unfortunately I have learnt not to be surprised by this limited response. I - we all - should be surprised and expect more from "leaders" in every sector.

Systematic failure and long term under-performance is very unlikely to be turned around by timid incremental change, simply by appointing change managers or consultants - though they may help - or repeating the errors of the past. In order to avoid such errors they have to identified and understood so that leaders and other stakeholders understand the cause of the underlying problems and then boldly address them. Risk taking is core to effective leadership as are innovation challenge and change.

Leaders have to have a clear and unambiguous vision for their organisation and usually for the systems in which it operates. Such a vision should be conceived through the involvement of stakeholders and it should be firmly rooted in the organisation's mission and values.

During any period of change leaders have to articulate reasons for the change and the underlying vision as well the objectives, strategies and plans that underpin its implementation. They have to explain with clarity why these are the objectives, strategies and plans; why they have been adopted; and how they are to be enacted. Such communication has to be accessible to every stakeholder but should not be patronising.

Sustainable change requires the transformation of cultures and behaviours more than it does changes to processes, technical operations and procedures. The latter can change but unless the former also change there will not be step change in outcomes. Leaders have to champion and enact the behaviours that are going to be required - usually ones focused on service users, entrepreneurial mind-sets, whole system approaches and excellent outcomes. They have to lead by example. They have to show their willingness to change and to be accountable for their decisions and actions.

However, this is not always what happens in practice. Too many leaders want to hide in their own and their institutions' comfort zones; or behind others; and / or to blame others for the errors of the past. Effective change leaders understand why things are not working but spend their energies on solutions not on blaming. They take risks and do not seek too much comfort.

In my experience working and advising leaders in all sectors one of the commonest traits of poor leadership I find is a desire to: want to go to slowly - though being too fast can sometimes be a problem too; avoid some hard decisions lest some people may be upset; and adopting a piece meal rather than a holistic approach.

Though as I wrote earlier in this piece I still find some leaders and their advisers who rather than pursue considered well researched and well planned radical change seek to do more of the old. Often even doing more of the old better than before will be insufficient to mend a broken system.

There is a real danger of simply to repeating the mistakes of the past and even reinforcing the wrong behaviours, systems and processes that have led to the previous failure. This requires imaginative and innovative leadership.

I am reminded of two quotes from Einstein:

imagination is more important than knowledge. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new


the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting the same result

Hard decisions are never easy and when leaders tell you that they are impervious to the human impact of their actions they are usually people who should not be leaders. Good leaders understand their staff, colleagues, service users, the local community and all those who could be affected by their actions.

They empathise whilst explaining and supporting. They listen. They are values driven and ethical in all that they do. They set a pace and depth of change that are proportionate to their ambition. They are fair and equitable when staff and others are involved and affected. They are inclusive.

They see the big picture and adopt a wholes systems approach and avoid incrementalism. They most certainly avoid repeating the errors of the past whilst being alert to history. They do not run away or duck necessary decisions and actions.

When addressing change they are not timid. They are bold and decisive. Above when an organisation has a social purpose they act to fulfil its mission. This is particularly the case for charity, public sector and public service leaders. But all leaders including business leaders should have regard for the wider social, economic and environmental impact of their change programmes. There is more to business than short term bottom line considerations and every organisation in every sector has a complex set of objectives and responsibilities. Leaders must respond and respect these.

These characteristics are vital for successful change.

Effective leadership is at the core of successful change. Consequently it is core to the success of every organisation.