Getting people on board

Three lessons in humility for leaders

In a recent interview, the former division chief executive officer of a Fortune 50 company complained about the resistance he had encountered while attempting to transform the corporate culture at his organization.

By his own account, he had spent countless hours yelling at people without succeeding in altering their behaviours. Unable to get his people on board, he couldn’t excuse his otherwise brilliant strategy. In the end, he had to resign to pursue other ventures.

Contract the approach of this executive with the perspective of Lou Gerstner, IBM’s former chairman and CEO. In his memoir, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround, Gerstner wrote:

“Changing the attitude and behaviour of thousands of people is very, very hard to accomplish. You can’t mandate it, can’t engineer it. What you can do is create the conditions for transformation.”

Getting people on board is a challenge that requires a great deal of humility on the part of the leaders. Lou Gerstner recognized this while the Fortune 50 divisional CEO did not.

Leaders cannot create change

Here lies the paradox of organizational change: In order to execute their strategy and improve performance, leaders must implement various changes throughout their organizations, yet they cannot create change per se.

Organizational change is about people adopting new behaviours, fresh attitudes and different ways of working. Therefore, change really takes place at the individual level. In our democratic societies, individuals have a liberty of choice. The leaders might try to force their decision by saying something like: “Listen, either you change or you take the door.”

But the decision whether or not to behave in a different way ultimately rests in the hands of the individuals. They might become fully engaged. They might resist passively or actively sabotage the initiative. They might also comply grudgingly while looking for a better environment. (With the strengthening of the employment market, managers will find out whether their best employees have adopted the latter strategy in recent years.)

The decision to change belongs to the employees, and it is futile to attempt to engineer change. Leaders are limited to finding ways to encourage a critical mass of individuals throughout the organization to commit to change. This constitutes the first lesson in humility, and yet another blow to the myth of the charismatic leader.

The ‘big cheese’ is (almost) powerless

In addition to their liberty of choice, individuals are unique. Paul and Meig in accounting, Julie in sales, Peter in operations … John in Toronto, Susan in Vancouver, Bénédicte in Paris. Each will react to change in a very personal, unique way. Their response will be based on their own experience, situation, passions values and principles.

So the question for the leader becomes: “How can I create the right conditions if I don’t know all these employees?”

The answer is straightforward. It’s virtually impossible, unless you work through the local leaders and influencers who actually know these employees. Change is a game of proximity. Distant leaders cannot play the game effectively, regardless of whether the distance is measured in geography or hierarchical levels. This is the second lesson in humility.

Neglect either dimension at your own peril

A useful parallel can be drawn between hosting a dinner party and leading change, as both activities require managing in an integrated way two dimensions — technical and human.

The technical aspects of a dinner party include:

•sending the invitation in advance;
•deciding the menu;
•buying the groceries;
•preparing the meal;
•serving the drinks; and
•assembling and presenting each course.

The human aspects include:

•ensuring the guests are compatible;
•introducing people to each other as they arrive;
•stimulating the discussions;
•helping the shy folks fit in; and
•calming things down if a debate gets out of control.

If the host focuses primarily on the technical aspects, he might end up with a great meal but a boring atmosphere. Conversely, if the host is a people person who doesn’t care enough about the technical stuff, he will have great discussions around a disappointing dinner. Either way the dinner party will be a failure.

A very similar dynamic happens with organizational change. To succeed managers must lead change as they would host a dinner party. That is they need to address in a coherent way both the human and technical sides throughout the initiative.

The technical issues relate to strategy, product line, organizational design, business processes, compensation structure, management systems and information technology. The soft side deals with emotions, resistance, two-way communications, stakeholder engagement, sponsorship, influence networks and organizational culture.

As with a dinner party, an unbalanced approach that favours one dimension at the expense of the other is a great recipe for failure, no matter how good one is in a particular field. This represents the third lesson in humility.

Developing impact as a business leader

The pace of change in the economy keeps accelerating. As a result the ability to introduce change has become a major determinant of career success for all managers, and a strategic imperative for any organization.

To increase impact and advance their careers, leaders should further develop the ability to lead in a coherent, integrated manner across the two dimensions of change.

If a person’s comfort zone is with the soft issues, he should stretch himself to the technical side as people interventions are counterproductive when the timing or “technical resonance” is off.

Conversely if a person’s forte is on the technical aspects of the business, he needs to recognize how crucial the human dynamic is, develop an understanding of it and keep practicing.

In either case, when it comes to change, leave the ego in the locker room as the game requires a great deal of humility.

Edmond Mellina is president of Toronto-based TRANSITUS Management Consulting. He can be reached at (416) 561-1923, [email protected] or visit

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