Four keys to leadership in times of change

When your organization needs large-scale change (and what disrupted media organization doesn’t?), how do you get it done?

Leader heading the team. Lead by example concept.Terabytes have been written about the strategies and tactics that legacy media organizations need. I’ve written my share, too, here at But I’ve seen precious little written about how to lead and manage effective change to carry out these strategies.

That’s a strange oversight, because most great strategies are doomed to fail if they aren’t combined with excellent approaches in dealing with people. As in the human body, change in an organization will attract internal antibodies intent on neutralizing, co-opting or marginalizing the intended outcomes.

The fact is, life-saving changes in a disrupted organization can only be accomplished through an effective mix of people skills and good strategies. Good strategies are almost always doomed to indifferent outcomes or outright failure if they aren’t nurtured through effective leadership tactics.

In my 40 years of managing, I’ve come to believe in a set of key approaches for mobilizing people around necessary change and getting things done. I’ll share some of them here.

At this point, I no longer remember which of these I discovered on my own and which were borrowed or adapted from others. But for me, these are related models that form a coherent approach to organizational leadership and change. I’ve used them over and over again for years.

1. Provide new information

I’ve blogged more fully on this principle before. But I need to repeat it here, because — for me — this is where all organizational change begins.

And in this case, I know exactly where this wisdom originated — with Morrie Shechtman, a brilliant corporate change consultant I first met in the ’90s.

Here’s how Shechtman put it: “The only thing that changes people’s behavior is new information. They’ll go right on doing what they’re doing right now, until they get new information.”

Changing behavior in your organization almost always needs to begin with new information. You have information that convinces you change is imperative. If others don’t have the same information, or don’t believe it, they’ll resist or ignore your efforts to implement change.

So the first step in mobilizing your organization, department or work group is figuring out how to bring the rest of the team up to speed. In a disrupted industry, the necessary information is usually about existential threats or new-field opportunities.

Figuring out how to bring the team on board with your new information is an art in itself. But most leaders can do it, once they realize it’s the critical first step in engaging and energizing their people around a new objective.

2. Create meaning

I don’t remember where I first heard this, but it was a simple statement: It’s a manager’s job to create meaning.

This is closely connected to No. 1. New information, by itself, isn’t enough. It requires interpretation, which makes meaning for the organization.

A good leader either provides that interpretation or — better still — leads the team as a group in figuring out the interpretation.

This can mean, for example, brainstorming together about what this new information means to us (our company, department, or work group). What are the threats to us? What are the opportunities for us? What should we do about it? Why? What are the good outcomes we want to achieve? How should we do it?

This creates a very different environment from typical work settings. Too often, people are toiling along individually and routinely from day to day, just doing what they understand their jobs to be.

The leader’s job is to transform work from a series of tasks into a sense of collective movement toward a better, bigger outcome. Then the tasks become milestones with meaning, united with the overall goals of the team.

The effective leader then takes frequent opportunities to reference the shared goals, to celebrate tasks accomplished along the way, and to invite any necessary rethinking to keep the group moving toward the desired end.

This implies the third principle:

3. Involve people in deciding how to get it done

Many managers labor under the belief that it’s their responsibility to figure out every problem and develop every strategy. This is a soul-killing burden — both for you and for the people you are trying to lead.

It kills you, because nobody can be right all the time, and there’s tremendous pressure in assuming you must be. It kills your people because it assumes they can’t think as well as you can, leaving them to be mere robots carrying out your instructions.

I learned many years ago that I could develop much better strategies and tactics by bringing a group of people together than I could by thinking on my own.

Usually this conversation starts with No. 1 — “Here’s the new information I’m thinking about.” Then it moves to the leader’s own first pass at No. 2 — “Here’s what I think this means.”

Then it moves into No. 3: What do you think?

Those four little words have huge power. As a young manager, still assuming I had to know everything and make every decision, I discovered them almost by accident.

But they became central to my approach to leadership. I came to realize that when I asked that question, it opened dialogues with people that 1) produced better tactics than I would have developed alone, and 2) helped them to grow in their own ability to solve problems and create new initiatives.

And there’s a third and tremendously powerful result: When people join together in deciding what to do rather than just executing tasks they are assigned, they become much more committed to making the plan succeed. It’s “our plan,” not “your plan.”

I’ve seen it again and again — when executing the plan, each member of the group will try much harder to overcome any barriers than if they had not participated in deciding what to do and how to do it.

4. Boxes within boxes

In organizations of even modest size, there are layers.

There’s someone at the top who carries responsibility for the overall health, direction and success of the organization.

At the next level, there are people who are responsible for specific parts of the organization’s activities — sales, product, finance, etc.

At the next level, and maybe many levels below that, are the people who handle the necessary daily work — departments, work groups, teams and so on.

And within those, there are people actually creating the products, selling the products, processing the budgets and the invoices, driving trucks, answering phones and so on.

At all of these layers, a person’s possibilities are constrained. There’s only so much money and time, only a certain number of people, only a certain limited range of available choices.

Wherever you are in the organization, you function within one of these boxes. It consists of the expectations your group needs to meet and the possibilities available to the group for doing that.

The boundaries are determined by the organization’s resources (people and money) and the external conditions you face (e.g. the economy, customer expectations, competitors’ actions).

Within your box, you have the people who report to you and the resources available to you. You work within the box and do the best you can. Within that box, you can use Nos. 1, 2 and 3 above to mobilize your team in solving problems and developing opportunities.

When you do, you will often find that the first things people suggest are more people or more money. (The latter may take the form of people, equipment, technology, marketing dollars, etc.)

As a manager or group leader, you often need to say no to these first suggestions. You know the limits of the box you’re in, and it’s often your job to remind the people in your group what those constraints are.

And, contradictory though it may seem, it’s also your job to help them realize there are many creative possibilities available within the box.

My favorite analogy for this is a scene in the 1995 movie, Apollo 13.

It comes at the point when Mission Control now understands the exact nature of the problem in the space capsule and knows that the astronauts will die in space if it can’t be solved.

In this scene, a handful of engineers and scientists gathers around a table spread with an assortment of objects — parts, tools, pipes, etc. I don’t remember the exact line, but someone says something like this: “That’s everything they’ve got up there. Out of this, we’ve got to make a solution.”

And, as history shows, they did. It required creative use of materials and objects in ways never intended, and it saved the lives of the astronauts.

It’s up to you, as a manager, to convene this sort of meeting whenever necessary — either around a problem or an opportunity.

When you do, you use Nos. 1, 2 and 3 above as you define the problem and invite the team to figure out the best possible solution. Then you invite them to be creative in applying whatever the limited available resources may be.

For a few very promising opportunities — or very threatening problems — you may need to go outside the box to see if you can get additional resources. This might be from your boss, from senior management or from the CEO, depending on your level in the organization. If you are the CEO, it might be from the board, shareholders, banks or investors.

But most of the time, you will find there are remarkably creative solutions available even within your box, if you use your main resource — the thinking power of the people on your team.

With these four principles, you will be amazed at the new paths you can find and the achievements your group can accomplish.

They work in routine management as well as in life-or-death situations. They can, in fact, be the basis of a whole career in effective leadership.


Posted on January 7, 2016, in Advertising, Audience, Disruption, innovation, leadership, management and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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