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Don't "manage" change. Embrace it!

The ability to manage, respond to, implement and even inspire change is so deeply embedded in THE SENSEI LEADER program, I seldom make it a separate issue…

I work from the fundamental belief that there are few incontrovertible truths, but here are two of the most persistent:

  • The only guaranteed constant in life is change.

  • And in life and business, some of the biggest changes come without warning.

This is just part of why it is essential that leaders adopt the strategy of becoming flexible, adaptable and comfortable with change…

In their October 2016 issue, Harvard Business Review featured an article by Michael Beer and colleagues. The focus was the disappointing return on investment for leadership development. This report focused largely on leadership development in the context of leading organizations through periods of change. I contend that the best, most dynamic organizations never escape, but rather embrace change as an ongoing, necessary and productive process.


“Three-quarters of the nearly 1,500 senior managers at 50 organizations interviewed…were dissatisfied with their companies’ leadership and development function.”

According to this report, organizations face a number of challenges when implementing leadership development ranging from poor support from senior managers to authoritarian edicts and internal barriers.

“Participants in corporate education programs often tell us that the context in which they work makes it difficult for them to put what they’ve been taught into practice.”

When managing change, it is vital to recognize this fact: Organizational change is nothing more than the willingness of the PEOPLE in that organization to embrace and manage that change.

You lead PEOPLE. And we know why people respond to certain leaders––particularly during a period of change.

The major problem, and the reason there is so little return on leadership training investment is that most organizations try to force a process rather than sincerely engaging the people that process is meant to serve.

And you MUST start with mindset. What happens when you try to paint a surface without priming it first?

It looks good for a while––but eventually the paint starts to peel.

It’s no different with leadership and management training. If you don’t take the time to prepare people for the process you’re trying to implement, the training peels away and they’ll revert to old behaviors. That’s why training without the proper preparation is wasted.

Beer and his colleagues identified 5 specific questions that must be addressed if you want your leadership development to work, and if you want to implement change effectively. Beer states, “If your answer to ANY of these questions is no, your company is probably (with the best of intentions) over investing in training and education.” From the HBR article:

  • Has the team collected unvarnished employee feedback about barriers to effectiveness and performance––including senior manager’s own behaviors?

  • Has the team redesigned its organization, management systems, and practices to address the problems revealed by the diagnosis?

  • Is HR offering consulting and coaching to help employees learn on the job so that they can practice the new attitudes and behaviors required of them?

  • Do corporate training programs support the change agenda, and will each unit’s leadership and culture provide fertile ground for it?

If your answer to any of these questions is NO, I am confident that the leadership principles I teach in THE SENSEI LEADER can prime the organization for an effective response, and can help build an ongoing culture where change is embedded as part of the plan.

Our Executive Director, Alex Armstrong, challenged me with specific questions regarding each of Beer’s findings. Here are those questions and my responses:

How important is alignment around a clear vision and strategy?

The leadership team must be aligned around a clear, inspiring vision and a set of values they are willing to defend at all costs. I’ll add that they must engage the support of every stake holder in this process.

We call this the tactic of “Borrowing.” This means engaging the energies of everyone involved––moving toward the same vision. Everyone’s input is efficient––and the output power is exponential.

What about the idea that you must solicit employee feedback? Isn’t it the job of top management and leadership to come up with great ideas and bring them to the troops?

Feedback must come from all levels and communication must be open, honest, and as Beer says, ‘unvarnished.’ Most of your experiential, functional and cultural capital resides in the hearts and minds of the people in the trenches––not in the C-suite. You need their input.

But you do need the systems in place to support change or innovation, don’t you?

My only real issue with this HBR piece is the emphasis on the technical process of implementation. Yes––systems must support the change, but systems are only reflections of the attitude and will of leadership.

We start with the mindset of leaders. When they are fully engaged, they will support and inspire the people they serve.

How important is the coaching and mentoring piece? Aren’t there more efficient ways to transmit information other than one on one mentoring? Efficient is not always effective––especially when it comes to education and training.

I’ve seen several studies that show that a lack of mentoring is a major issue in most organizations. It should be your top priority.

What could possibly be more important than continually developing new leaders? You cannot depend on process here. This is one of the major reasons so many leadership development programs fail.

You must cultivate meaningful mentoring relationships––highly focused and personal. That’s the heart of the SENSEI methodology––the cultivation of effective mentoring skills and purposeful mentoring relationships.

At some point you did need to translate this to process, right? How do you assure that programs do, as Beer asks, “provide fertile ground” for change?

You need what martial artists call “Mindful Practice.” This means identifying specific and attainable training needs before you implement any training program and focusing your training on those specific areas.

Too many organizations try for a scatter-gun solution. They try to cover a wide spectrum or worse, simply buy a program that promises a universal solution.

It’s far more efficient and effective to solicit input from all stake holders first. To ascertain their needs and to focus on high impact areas.

Now be careful, this is not about soliciting “buy-in” to a top-down plan or decision.

That’s a concept that needs to be trashed! Buy-in is too often a disguise for just a sneaky way to force change on others by trying to fool them into thinking they have a greater role in the process––even as the major implementation decisions have already been made.

Forget buy-in and focus on ask-in’. And I mean that exactly the way I said it!

Ask people these questions:

How does this change affect you? How does it impact your ability to do your job? What problems do you see coming and how can we mitigate or overcome them? And the mother of all questions:

How can you help us implement this change with the least disruption and the greatest outcome?

So how do you justify selling a leadership development program when you agree with Beer and his colleagues––that a company answers no to ONE of these questions is wasting their training dollars?

I could not agree more!

That’s why I’m so passionate about what I do. What process works without the right mindset? How can any system work effectively unless leaders are first dedicated to serving the needs of the people who drive that system? How can anyone lead others unless they fully engage in the process of knowing themselves? How can anyone lead effectively unless they’re willing to Walk the Walk?

I help people become better leaders by helping leaders become better people. And if you truly embrace the opportunities and responsibilities associated with professional Mastery––that’s a never-ending process.

I said earlier, you lead PEOPLE. The most effective leaders are Masters of the human elements of leadership. They are caring people dedicated to service. They excel in emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

Most of all, they embrace this core philosophy––the greatest gift I learned from my life as a martial artist and one that is even more powerful in our lives as leaders: “Perfection is not a destination. It’s a never-ending process."

The true Master, and the most effective leader, is someone who never stops learning, growing and developing.

This type of leader embraces continual change on an individual as well as an organizational level. The successful leader is one who understands that one becomes a much more valuable resource to others by embracing a continual commitment to self-improvement. In so doing, this type of leader becomes an inspiration and meaningful motivator for others.

That is the heart of THE SENSEI LEADER program.

And that’s why to get the absolute best return on your leadership development dollar––it would be wise to first invest in THE SENSEI LEADER.

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