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How Do You Get Leaders to Change?

Change is hard. The brain is wired to detect any change in the environment as a threat. It takes an enormous amount of intention, focus, attention, patience and persistence to make a decision to change and then follow through. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or break an old habit, which is pretty much everyone, likely has experienced this.

There are hundreds of books on change and dozens of change models available, but the exact recipe for helping someone change has been a holy grail for learning leaders. Collective coaching and development wisdom about how to help a person change goes something like this:

1. First, the person must see a need for change.
2. The individual must map out exactly where he or she is currently, set a specific goal around change and design a shift. For example: “I will give people time to present their ideas before interrupting with my own.”
3. Once the goal for the change is clear, the person must receive some sort of learning support or instruction on how to do the new behavior. This should include skill practice and application.
4. After instruction, the person must have an opportunity to try new behaviors in a safe environment and then in the real work environment.
5. Ideally as a final step the person should reflect on the improved results because of the change. This will reinforce motivation to maintain change and not relapse into old behaviors.

This makes enough sense that generally no one argues with it, but there has to be something more when it comes to the most senior people in an organization. Most leaders will agree that they often do not get the kind of attention they need to initiate substantial change. One big reason for this is HR and organizational development professionals often expect senior leaders to be able to change on their own because they are so exceptional.

“We are often reluctant to provide support to senior leaders during times of change because they are such extraordinary people,” said Tracey Grimshaw, vice president of global learning and organizational development at Newell Rubbermaid. “When a gap has been identified, we expect them to be able to make the shifts on their own. It turns out that, just like ordinary humans, leaders must first understand the need for change and then receive the right support to grow.”

Further, there is no set prescription that works for every senior leader who needs to change because each leader requires an individualized development approach. Stefan Stenzel, a senior HR expert and manager of learning programs for global leadership development at SAP, said “each of them has her/his own immunity to change, which has to be analyzed. A top manager who has had a meteoric career trajectory is sometimes the biggest hurdle to change because of the ‘I have made it, guys!’ attitude.”

It’s Tough, but Change Is Possible
Despite the difficulties, there are some principles that can be applied to development that will facilitate and sustain change.

Begin with data and dialogue. Business leaders live and die by the numbers. One of the only ways a leader will agree that change is needed is by being presented with unequivocal data and feedback. “You have to help them see and feel the need for change by linking it directly to business results,” Grimshaw said. “This could be in the form of what employees are saying, the productivity of their teams, or shortfalls on key business metrics.”

Feedback such as the results from an engagement survey is important, but Grimshaw said even more critical is the dialogue about the feedback; leaders are much more likely to see the need for change when they have the right information — whether that’s sales targets or inventory measures — in front of them. “Once a leader has clear data that he or she is not achieving the desired results, the leader can then ask this question: ‘Are these the results I want to be seeing?’”

Make it relevant: Leaders need to understand how their efforts to make and sustain any change will pay off. For instance, the investment is worth it because it will increase their business results or make their work days easier. “They need to know how it will help today, right now,” Grimshaw said. “We can’t use anything academic or theoretical. Anything they learn has to make sense in terms of what they are doing on the job.”

Mix it up and customize: Because each leader is growing and learning at a different pace across a spectrum of skill sets, learning leaders need to be prepared with a blended approach that uses all available resources, including online learning, classroom experiences, cohort or peer coaching, professional coaching and mentoring. “It has really become so clear that we need a constant combination of learning, skill building, ongoing coaching for application and peer conversation,” said Sharon Ridings, national training manager at the Environmental Protection Agency. “Our leaders need to be touched mentally, physically and socially for constant development.”
Grimshaw agrees. “Learning must be tailored to the unique needs of the leader.”

Consequences matter: Culture also plays a substantial role in effective leader development. Stenzel said organizations that support a belief that some leadership behaviors are non-negotiable by letting go of the high-profile leaders who do not measure up have a better chance of getting their leaders to take developmental feedback seriously. “If there are no consequences for leaders who refuse to change, the chances of convincing them that change is necessary decrease accordingly. Of course, we always have to take into account that change takes time and is not easy. But the goal and necessity for change as demanded by the culture should be crystal clear.”

Respect must be earned: Learning leaders who seek to support leaders’ change efforts need to be role models for growth and change, too. “We can’t let ourselves be complacent about the methods we are using to help them,” Ridings said. “If our methods are not yielding business results, we are not credible. So we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we offer and how we offer it. We are dealing with the same erosion of our resources as our leaders; they have to see us dealing with it wisely and creatively.”

Learning leaders also must speak the language of the business. “We are constantly changing our tool set to keep pace with the changes in the market — we will abandon programs that are working right now in favor of what will be needed tomorrow,” Grimshaw said.

Deep internal shifts cannot be rushed: Helping another person change requires a steady dose of partnering to provide clear direction, conversation, support and accountability over a long period of time. This partnering can be with a trained coach, an HR or OD professional or a mentor who is willing to commit the time. “A leader can hear a principle again and again, but one day all the knowledge, growth and conversation coalesce and he looks up and says, ‘Oh, I get it!’ This can sometimes take years,” Stenzel said. “The question in the business, of course, always is and will be: do we have the time needed? Therefore, the ability and willingness to learn should be one major criteria when it comes to succession planning for managers.”

Asking is more powerful than telling: Leaders can elevate their coaching skills by using the asking rather than telling technique, which enables them to support other leaders’ efforts to lead through development of the changes they seek. Being involved and hands-on is one thing, but instead of constantly telling people what to do, ask power questions such as:

• What is the most important thing right now?
• Are you focused on the most relevant things?
• What are you trying to achieve?
• What is your plan?
• How are you going to get there?
• What are you doing right now?
• Is it working?
• What challenges do you anticipate?
• How will you handle them?
• Are you properly organized to grow?
• If you do X, what do you expect to see?
• What tells you that tactic will get you that result?
• What support do you need?
• What resources can you get?

Generally, leaders gain insight more readily when they are asked rather than told. Self-discovery via thoughtful questions and a trusted sounding board feels helpful and less judgmental or threatening. Most of the time the leader has the answers already; the individual may need a thinking partner to help uncover them.

Even the best and brightest need manageable steps. Leaders are used to applying their analytical skills to solve problems and may be bad at doing this for themselves. “Once they see a need for change, they want to do it all at once, and might not know where to start,” Grimshaw said. “They may put off the change until they get an insight about a first step. Dialogue with a trusted adviser to chunk down a personal change into manageable pieces is valuable. Once they can see where to start and they have a series of steps to follow, they are much more likely to proceed and persevere.”

The amount of attention it takes to support and help an exceptional person change makes it clear that it is truly a service and must be performed by someone with a service mindset who has the best interest of the leader and the organization at heart.

Homan Blanchard is the team lead for Blanchard Certified, an online leadership development system, and co-founder of coaching services for The Ken Blanchard Cos. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

Making behavior changes stick requires a shift in thinking. To find out how to go about it, click here.