Are your leaders set up for success? As much as we don’t like to champion our neighbours across the Ditch, there are good lessons to be learned from the All Blacks on implementing successful change.
It was Charles Darwin who wrote:
“… it is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most willing to change.”
This view on evolution remains as valid now as it did when he wrote it, particularly in the current corporate world where change and disruption are constants.
We have explored Change leadership extensively and how it is a critical component to delivering successful transformation, perhaps even going so far as to say that without change leadership, the transformation will fail.
As an organisation and a team, the renowned All Blacks have taken the journey from the despair of losing yet another World Cup and coming last in the 2004 Rugby Championships to now be known as one of the most successful sporting teams in history.
James Kerr’s best-selling book Legacy charters the transition from persistent failure at the world cup level to a position now of outstanding success. This was achieved thanks to the focus on change leadership and building a culture that is comfortable with constant change. As he wrote, “Organisational decline is inevitable unless leaders prepare for (and commit to) change”.
We are frequently in conversation with senior technology leaders going through significant transformation and the feedback is that change is necessary to stay relevant and continue to thrive.
But without the right leadership, are change programs destined to fail? How can we take the lessons of the All Blacks and – rivalry aside – apply their success to transformation?
Calling Out Failure to Lead: The Essential Role of the Change Agent
It is not an uncommon tale to hear of the failed Transformation program and a majority fail on some level whereby part way in, the Project Director discovers the executives tasked with owning the business change and benefits have failed to lead as change agents.
If this sounds familiar, how can you recognise and call out the changes within the team needed right from the start? If you are about to embark on a change journey, how can you tell if you and your fellow leaders are setting yourselves up for driving successful change?
A good starting point is to explore how successful teams prepare themselves for change. Below are five critical elements needed in any successful change program and symptoms of their existence.
1. Recognition of Embedded Cultural Challenges
According to the Harvard Business Review, there are four things successful leaders do well. Douglas A. Ready describes the multitude of macro and micro challenges individuals and organisations face when leading change.
Clear and powerful messaging from the top, along with a transparent and open forum of communication is critical to overcoming these types of challenges. Staff need to be able to air their grievances and highlight core challenges to management. While this alone might not resolve the tensions and challenges, it acknowledges to all that they exist, and staff feel that they have had their concerns heard. This enables collaborative discussions on proactive ways forward.
For example, does your change initiative:
- Have a strong, powerful message from the top?
- Enable an open and transparent communication culture throughout the organisation?
- Acknowledge that challenges exist?
While this seems a simple list, it recognises that not addressing cultural challenges may hinder success.
Ready’s article talks to the level of accountability required through all levels of an organisation, a theme that is also seen in Kerr’s book.
“The change leader must signal that enterprise-wide transformation will be a collective effort, with accountability distributed throughout the organization”.
(Ready, HBR, 2016).
This collective effort still starts from the top and must be tied to measurable outcomes. For example, do your change leaders:
- Have personal and department KPIs linked with the change?
- Put the change on critical governance and leadership forum agendas?
- Regularly address it in organisational and departmental communications?
- Challenge their team to be more innovative, adaptable and fast in making decisions (and importantly reward this behaviour)?
These are just some of the ways accountability can be implemented through a change program.
3. Compelling Picture of the Future
Kerr observed in his book that to win the World Cup, the All Black leadership decided to create an environment that the players wanted to part of, surprisingly something that was missing in previous years. This environment needed to focus on personal development and leadership, with the outcome being an enhanced capacity, capability and loyalty.
Whilst it is hard to evoke the passion of winning the Rugby World Cup – especially for the All Blacks – what this tells us is that not having a clear picture of success for any change will undermine the chances of achieving the goals.
Having the right people on the bus at the right time is an imperative for any business at any stage and is especially critical when going through change.
As Ready states:
“… leaders need to provide resources so that the organisation has what it needs to win in the new environment. This might include capital improvements, process improvements and building new talent capabilities.”
One of the approaches the All Blacks focused on was removing those players that hindered success and redirected the effort on improving the capabilities of those that stayed and bought into the change.
Management was also willing to hand over responsibility to the players and support their growth as leaders by surrounding the team with enhanced capabilities in emotional intelligence, leadership mentoring in addition to the skills, nutritional and fitness capabilities seen in most elite teams. They invested strongly in the belief that Leaders Create Leaders.
5. Continuous Learning
The All Blacks state “Better people make better All Blacks”.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry also believed strongly in education. “The result of learning is that people get better, they are always improving,” James Kerr writes. “Excellence is a process of evolution, of cumulative learning, of incremental improvement”.
As a case study of the importance of continual learning, Ready explored the example of Alan Mulally leading Ford through its transformation.
“At every meeting, managers were asked: what have we learned by airing concerns, making course corrections, and especially, fixing problems together? By combining his relentless focus on implementation and making tough calls with an equally important focus on continuous learning, Mulally transformed Ford from a moribund company on the verge of bankruptcy to one of today’s most successful automobile companies in the world.”
Change is Constant and Leadership is Vital
Change is constant and companies that don’t change inevitably will decline. Leaders should not be planning their escape route or be working out how they will offset blame for the failure of the change program.
Empowered change agents are able to be out in front and confident in leading change and, most importantly, creating an environment that will support the change journey. It lays foundations for the best chance of success. When setting up for successful change, it is important to ensure that leaders provide a clear picture of the future, create an environment of transparency, accountability, and continuous learning.
Good change agents foster a growth culture enabling the company leaders within a business to grow at all levels of an organisation.
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