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Change (part 3/3)- Four Roles for Transformational Leadership

APR 15, 2019

I recently wrote about the limitations of classic change management advice and the fundamentally different assumptions underlying transformational change work. It’s not too hard to make the case that a different set of assumptions should lead to a different approach. But what would that approach look like?

It helps to contrast a new approach with the old one:

limitations of classic change cambridge leadership

So much of the classic approach is about the leader controlling perception, process, and outcome. That’s the old idea of the leader’s role at its core. You can get by with that in a fair number of tactical change situations, but it will let you down, the more your challenge bears the characteristics of a transformational change.

Leading transformational change is about engaging people to face the challenge and to collaborate in the process. Where the classic approach is very much about driving agreement and enforcing order, leading transformation requires that we actually surface productive conflict and challenge the unwritten rules of the organization. That’s a tall order.

Adding to the difficulty, is the fact that transformational change work isn’t a strictly sequential process. Unlike the classic approach, transformational change requires leaders to alternate between key behaviors throughout the process of transformation. So, rather than a series of steps, it’s useful to think about the work of transformation as a set of complementary leadership roles:

complementary leadership roles

Leader as Sense-Maker

Sense-making is about helping others assign meaning to what’s going in the world. Leaders first need to have a broad view of what’s happening, so they can make sense of it themselves. Unfortunately, our view tends to get narrower as we go higher in our organizations. We have our go-to sources of information. Other people filter and interpret things based on what they think we want to hear. It can take some effort to broaden our view: seeking out perspectives from new people and gleaning insights from new sources of data.

Once we’re able to form a point of view, then leaders need to share their insights with others in a way that is meaningful. So, framing the challenge of transformation is incredibly important. And that’s not done with reams of data and statistics alone. For thousands of years, people have made sense of their world through stories and metaphors. The most compelling leaders use those tools to help others make sense of what’s going on and find their place in the story.

If you look at great historical leaders, that’s what they often did to galvanize people in the service of transformation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” were key to his ability to implement the New Deal. He was able to break down economic concepts and policy decisions into terms and metaphors the average person could relate to. You don’t need to be FDR, but you do need to get good at framing the transformational challenge your organization faces, if you want to forge your own new deal.

Leader as Connector

Transformations involve broad, ambiguous problems and opportunities, where we don’t have all the answers or resources to solve them. Leaders need to bring people together to build a complete understanding of the challenge and work out the best solutions for the business. That may certainly mean bringing specific individuals together, but as the scale of transformation increases, it invariably means bringing different groups together

But it’s not enough to just put people in the same room for a corporate pep rally – only to have them go back and do everything the same way they did before. Transformation requires redefining the relationships between those groups. In many organizations, working relationships are defined by a process. Here are my deliverables, here are yours. Too often, people feel responsible to the process, but not to each other. In transformation, we don’t know what the process is going to be going forward, but we can be sure it will be messy. Specific processes become brittle as conditions change, but commitments have staying power.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. But he didn’t become President of South Africa until four years later. He spent those years working to bring together the various parties, including whites, to bring about democratic elections and a new constitution. Just think of the incredibly charged environment he was working in and the depths of the divisions and tensions. If that’s not bringing different groups together and building new commitments, I don’t know what is. You and I don’t have to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but we can all learn something about the power of connecting people to achieve change.

Leader as Disruptor

People often like to focus on all the positive new things that transformation can bring. But transformation also means that some things about the old way are not working, and we have to get rid of them. So, part of a leader’s role in transformation is to shake things up. If there are competing interests in the organization that are going to block the transformation, it’s a leader’s job to address that, not sweep it under the rug. Talking about risk and conflict isn’t comfortable and people don’t like it, but it’s what you sign up for when you seek to lead transformation.

And it’s not just isolated surface tensions or problems. We need to look at the overall culture of the organization and address those deeper things that need to change. If we’re fundamentally changing our business, then the assumptions we work from and the things we value are going to change too. All too often, this gets ignored, which is why you find all those quotes on the internet about culture eating strategy for breakfast. Leaders need to do culture work that goes beyond hanging up a poster.

Civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., exemplify the leader as disruptor. We don’t admire these leaders because of their ability to cascade and align project objectives. Dr. King had no formal authority to dictate national policy, but he sparked tremendous change by forcing a national conversation about the problem of racism. Marches, protests, and sit-ins shook things up and brought attention to injustice. We rightly remember the aspirational parts of his famous speeches, but they were at least as much about calling out the very real problems of the day, as he saw them. You and I will never be MLK, but we can have the courage to force conversations about tough issues in our organizations and challenge old ideas and practices that deserve to be left behind.

Leader as Enabler

Leading is about getting work done through other people. So, you want to set those people up for success. That starts with making sure people know where to put their energy. There’s nothing more wasteful than talented people working really hard on the wrong stuff. Emphasizing shared purpose is a key way leaders keep people focused on the right things. You also need to find and eliminate the mixed messages and the noise. Are people hearing one thing from corporate, but another from their unit or function head? Do our policies and procedures tell them something different? What about budget and targets?

Another important part of enabling is about unleashing the people. A lot of classic leadership stuff talks about people as though they are lifeless blobs that you need to “inspire and motivate”; that they won’t do anything unless you “light a fire under them”; all that kind of stuff. Look, you may have a few people who just don’t want to do anything, but that’s likely not your real problem. Most people want to come to work and do a good job, they are full of their own motivations to achieve, to develop their career, to provide for their families, and so on. The old approach ignores that fact, or actively beats it out of them. Your job as a transformational leader is to tap into that motivation and give people the freedom to do great work. That certainly means providing the resources people need, but just as importantly, it means removing barriers and obstacles that stand in their way.

President Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” He didn’t pick the moon as the objective because he had a plan to get there. The technology hadn’t even been developed yet. He picked the moon because it provided a clear focus to organize all of the nation’s space programs. In the same speech, he also used the words “funds” and “dollars” no less than ten times, making it clear that the resources needed to achieve the goal would be available.

Putting It All Together

Leading transformational change is a tough job, but it’s well worth it. The people who can do it, will always be in high demand and see their careers advance. The companies, who can create an organizational capability of leading transformation, will have huge advantage in the marketplace. Anyone who tells you there’s an easy answer is lying to you. It will take time and a lot of concerted effort.  Focusing on these four roles for change leadership, is a great place to start.