Leading Change

By: Drs. Conrad Gottfredson and Timothy R. Clark.

The following is an excerpt from The Performance Matters Podcast Series, Episode 15.

Dr. Timothy R. Clark is the founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a three-time CEO, earned a PHD in Social Science from Oxford University, and was an academic all-American football player while at BYU.

Here, he shares his counsel on how to effectively take on, and lead, change within our organizations.

Con: Leading change is one of the many areas where you’ve had deep experience and remarkable insight. Please do share some of that experience with our audience.

Tim: I look at leading change as a gateway competency. With the twenty-first century being so dynamic, I don’t know a leader who is being paid to maintain the status quo. I don’t know that I’ve met one. I just don’t.

So what are we being paid for? We’re being paid to maintain competitive advantage in a highly dynamic, unforgiving, hyper-competitive environment. And what does this mean? By definition, it means that you are going to be leading change. So, if you can do that, you’ve got a chance. If you can’t do that, I don’t know how you survive.

Con: If you could choose any one quality that a leader needs in order to successfully navigate change in their organization, what would that be?

Tim: I think I may surprise you a bit in my answer. And this is really the subject of my latest research and my forthcoming book. I’m going to say, “the ability to create psychological safety.” And the reason I say that is because—here’s what I’ve learned over time. If you go into an organization and you see evidence of fear, that’s the first sign of weak leadership. You have to think about that for a minute.
Not only is it symptomatic of weak leadership, but it’s the thing that really shuts people down. It’s the thing that neutralizes their performance and stifles creativity and innovation.

Leaders have to be able to draw out people, draw out their motivation and their capacity and if he or she can do that, then we have a chance to do some special things.

So, I think that regardless of the industry you’re in, regardless of what your technical skills may be, and regardless of what the source of your competitive advantage may be; you have to be the architect of the culture.

You set the tone. The vibe. And the working environment. And that is what becomes the great enabler of collaboration.

Here’s the way I look at it. In any organization, you only have two processes going on. You have execution, which is the creation of value today. And you have innovation, which is the creation of value tomorrow. That’s all we do, just those two processes.

If you step back and look at those two processes, those two processes are primarily social processes. They are both reliant upon rich, high quality collaboration. Well, what do you need for that? You need psychological safety. It’s really that important.

Con: So when you say, “psychological safety,” what does that look like in an organization?

Tim: I think it means four things:

1. You feel included.

2. You feel safe enough to learn. To ask questions. Give and receive feedback. Even make mistakes.

3. You are able to contribute. To the team or the organization. To contribute to their purpose and to contribute to the value creation process as a full-fledged member of the team.

4. Safe to be able to challenge the status quo. That’s the culminating stage. That’s the ultimate stage. 

Now, all those things you have to feel that you can do it without what? Without being embarrassed, without being marginalized, and without being punished in some way.

Con: I can certainly see how that influences a group, a team’s ability to navigate change, to bring about change in an organization. You have to have that.

What are the key challenges that a team faces when approaching a change initiative?

Tim: Often there are many, but let me cite one that I think is universally a challenge that we see over and over again. And that is: the leaders who are charged with leading the change initiative, whatever it is, they are na├»ve to the disruption they are going to cause. They just don’t understand it. They don’t understand the breadth and depth of that disruption. They know it’s going cause disruption. They know that they are knocking the organization out of its orbit, but they don’t understand really the full scope of what they are doing.

So, because they don’t understand that and because they haven’t really done high-quality analysis to understand the magnitude of the disruption, they don’t count the cost and they are not prepared.
Look around at organizations across the board and what do you see? You see organizations that are littered with the failed remains of change initiatives that didn’t quite work out. Now, go look at those change initiatives and you realize most weren’t flawed, they were good. They failed on execution. They failed because they didn’t understand what they were really getting into. And they were not prepared for it.

You’ve got to go in and do what we call a disruption analysis. You have to think very clearly and carefully through different categories of disruption about what this proposed change initiative will cause in the organization as it moves through the organization on several levels. And we don’t need to get into all the details but that is an area that is a challenge we see over and over again—going in unprepared, not understanding the extent of the disruption—and not being prepared for that. And what happens? It’s a false start.

Con: That’s very interesting. Any other challenges?
Tim: Let me give you a lens to think about this, and all the listeners. I want you to think about any change initiative that you may be working on. And I want you to think about the way that change initiative sinks into the organization. Change means that you are taking an organization that’s in a state of equilibrium or relative equilibrium and you’re disrupting. So it goes into a state of dis-equilibrium. And then you are going to try to get it back to a new state of equilibrium but better—after the change. Well, think about how change settles into that organization.

For Tim’s explanation of changes’ three phases, drop into the podcast and start listening at the 10:47 marker.

Con: You know, Tim, for a long time I’ve been working with organizations and their whole change approach has been to just have a communication strategy, you know? That’s how we go about it. Clearly, there is so much more to it, if you really want to have change work, to navigate that journey of change.

Is there anything else you want to share with our listeners before we close today?

Tim: Well, to that point, Con, maybe build on that a little bit. What’s funny and ironic about change is that people resist what they agree with. Now you have to think about that a little bit.

When it comes to change, people resist what they agree with, what they think makes sense from a logical, rational, intellectual, strategic standpoint, you can get them to agree with a course of action that you’re going to take or you are taking. And they will say, “Yeah, it makes sense. I think we should do that. That’s the logical thing. This change makes sense in so many ways.” And you can go through the analysis, you can go through the rational, and they will nod their heads and they are going to say, “Yeah! I agree. I agree. I agree.” And yet they will resist what they are agreeing with. Why is that?

Because they are processing it on an intellectual level. But they are also processing it on an emotional level. It is disruptive to them. So, think about the ways the change is disruptive. It’s disruptive in so many ways—socially, economically, politically, geographically. It’s disruptive in every way. So even though we agree with it, we often can resist what we agree with. Having a communication strategy for change is fantastic, but there is a lot more to it because there are three units of analysis when it comes to change. There’s the organization, which we understand. Then there’s the team. The team is the basic unit of performance in every organization. And then there’s the individual.

The change leader in the 21st Century has to become competent—perceptive and competent—at all three levels to help people to move forward. The individual level, the team level, and the organizational level.

Con: Tim, thank you so much for sharing your insights and remarkable experience.

We look forward to all that lies ahead. This is Con Gottfredson and Dr. Timothy R. Clark, founder and CEO of Leader Factor. Thank you, Tim, for being with us today!

Listen to the full episode and be sure to subscribe to The Performance Matters Series for all the latest conversations.

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