How to … lead change from within

by 03 Oct 2007

Winston Churchill once famously said: “Never think that a small band of determined people can’t change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Yet as we look at organisational change, it always seems to be heralded as a major initiative, driven from the top by some champion with the express aim of making the organisation more effective, competitive, less vulnerable, quicker to respond, more product focused, more customer focused – the list is endless.

Chief executives have made their names by being change champions, but all the publicity overlooks a fundamental fact. None of the great and good could have done it without the support and commitment of a myriad of people throughout the organisation, not least those in HR who often, but not always, have more of a finger on the pulse than those at the top.

No organisation is perfect and it’s easy to point out the faults. It is important that any change makes it better, and those that drive change will see their careers change too.

Where do I start?

There are two starting points for successful change –understanding the organisation, and deciding what to tackle. The first can’t be identified from the annual reports. You have to get out there and learn first-hand how your colleagues perceive the change and what reservations they might have.

Then look carefully at what you are going to tackle. Trying to change the world overnight will cause antagonism and quickly get you a bad reputation.

Simon Hollington, founder of Values Based Leadership, a leadership development consultancy, says: “Too many people seem more concerned with their own agenda.

“As a result, these individuals are viewed with caution and even cynicism by others, even when that change is necessary.”

Look instead at only two aspects – what you can easily change and what needs changing most. The quick wins will mark you out and provide you with support networks that you can call upon when you tackle the big projects.

In both cases, remember to challenge yourself with two questions: ‘how does what I’m doing fit into the overall purpose of the organisation?’ and ‘what is my motive for doing this?’

Question of authority

You have to deal with the reality of the situation, not what you would like it to be.

There are some things that are directly within your remit, and some without.

Make sure that those within are the first that you challenge, and then move on to those that are outside your remit.

“Look to get those with authority face-to-face with the reality of the situation and seek out the key influencers, who are not necessarily the bosses,” argues Hollington. “Change needs to have momentum behind it or it will wither on the vine of today’s pressures.”

Remember that you see the world, and therefore the need to change, in your way, just as others see it in their way – including perhaps the need for continuity. It might be that the organisation is not ready for it, or that the way you are pushing for change is not working.

Try changing your tactic and aim to sit down with those who object to find out why you are not getting your message across.

Take time to really listen to them because these ‘nay-sayers’ are potentially your best allies. First, because they’ll let you know where you’ve gone wrong, and second, because if you change their minds, they will bring plenty of others with them when they switch sides.

For more information

Leading Change, by John Kotter, HarvardBusinessSchool, 1996, ISBN 0875847471

Managing Change Across Corporate Cultures, by Fons Trompenaars , Capstone Publishing, 2004, ISBN: 1841125784

Second opinion on driving change from within

By Simon Hollington, founder, Values Based Leadership

What are the essential rules?

So often change is driven through after detailed analysis without the corresponding analysis of the emotional impact of the change. Yet change is an emotional process and emotions will undermine or underpin change far more effectively than any rational argument. Without winning people's hearts when introducing change, their minds will only work at half pace.

What difficult change situations have you faced?

The first was a major change when I worked for a government department and it felt like shifting a supertanker with a rowing boat. The key there was walking the corridors and finding out where other colleagues stood on particular issues. I also made sure that I kept the end goal in mind, and didn't get fazed if I lost the odd battle along the way.

The second was trying to effect change in a much smaller organisation. By and large I achieved this by ignoring some of the rules and pleading ignorance and forgiveness. I only got away with that for a time, but my big lesson there was that I didn't pay enough attention to the impact on other parts of the organisation.

By Natalie Cooper. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine