Want to lead change? Embody it.

Anna Carlson
Jun 27, 2017 · 4 min read

The more I work with organisations that are trying to get to a new state by mobilising their workforce to work in new ways, the more I see that the key ingredient to seeing this change actually happen is unlocking the potential in leadership. I say unlocking potential deliberately here; it’s about unlocking qualities in them as people that will make them better leaders who will forge the way for change to happen.

In my time at business transformation consultancies and a transformation school you could broadly summarise all briefs to be asking ‘help / enable / train our people to work in new ways, to stay fit the world as it is now and hold on to our competitive position’.

And often, these are from someone in leadership, who’s working within a leadership team where half their peers are down with this, and the other half are on the shelf, resistant, scared, some even refer to them as “the dinosaurs”.

Yet we more often than not get asked for little, if any, help for the leadership team themselves.

The problem with that is that leadership are ESSENTIAL in paving the way once the people are trained to do things differently.

If you were to think of a training intervention as an ignition - firing up a group of people with the energy, excitement and knowledge to go back and try some new things - then you need to make sure the environment they go back to has the necessary conditions — such as mandate, support, freedom, resources — to do so.

The children’s party

I often use an analogy of a kids party. Most of the time you know you’re going to be feeding the kids a fair bit of sugar; cake, sweets, pop — and as a result they’re probably going to need to run around and play to burn off the resulting energy.

Training your staff without coaching / working with your leadership team is like giving kids a load of sugar then not letting them run around and play, keeping them sat at the dining table. The leadership can act as that barrier for that energy to be realised, used, burned. And this can mean your training investment was actually counter productive, because after the initial excitement and eye opening, your people can become frustrated or disenfranchised if they can’t do what they’re now fired up to do, and the change you hoped to see as a result of the training will not be realised.

Elite athletes and their coaches

At a panel event last week hosted by August, we heard a story from one of their consultants Joe. He’s been working with a large organisation helping a team there work in new ways, and working with the leadership team in parallel. He told us a story of a situation where one of the leaders fundamentally disagreed with a decision or a direction the team was going in, and had tried to intervene and stop it from happening. Joe told us how he had to pep talk and even firmly insist he step back — which was difficult and uncomfortable for both Joe and his client — but he did, reluctantly, and to cut a long story short the team got the results they needed with the decisions they made. This wouldn’t have happened if the leader had acted on his gut reaction and they had stopped their course, if he hadn’t sat with the feeling of being extremely uncomfortable with having no ‘power’ in the situation.

In this case Joe acted as a kind of sports coach to this leader I think; the leader being the elite athlete with all the potential, but that, in this situation, his ‘mental game’ could have let him down. When this leader was losing his nerve Joe was metaphorically saying “You got this buddy, hang in there, gather your strength, I’m right beside you”.

I think this requires a kind of bravery on both sides, and like elite athletes, these leaders need a coach on standby to support them in performing at the top of their game.

What’s needed of leaders?

How can they pave the way for their teams to succeed in transforming?

  • They need to show them it’s ok, that no one will tell them off for letting go of elements of their old job — install confidence that they’re doing the right thing
  • They need to step back when they want to intervene, when they see things get wobbly, or suddenly feel surprisingly uncomfortable when things are changing around them
  • They need to be learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable
  • They need to recognise that it’s not just their teams that need to change they way they work, but themselves too. And that’s not easy; like their teams, they will probably need support and coaching too.

If you’re a leader, formal or informal, working to drive change in your organisation, don’t forget to be mindful of the example you set. Remember that it’s not only your doing that has an impact but your being. Embodying the change you wish to see in your organisation is the first step to seeing it realised.


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Anna Carlson works on Hyper Island’s partnerships with businesses and organisations in the UK and Europe, delivering Tailored Learning programmes to help them meet the changing demands of their marketplaces by unlocking the potential in their people. Anna is a life long learning enthusiast and believes it’s never too late to try something new.

Anna Carlson

Written by

Life long learning enthusiast. Partnership Director at Hyper Island. Live in Brighton UK, but can be found here, there and everywhere.

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