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January 06, 2018 Saturday 02:37:14 PM IST

The Flagbearerof Change

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Change programmes are today consuming organisations. But do we have enough‘change leaders’?Invariably such agents of change are in short supply and not surprisingly most efforts at ‘change’ stall mid-way. Change leaders are rarely found in executive suites. Though top-level involvement is crucial to organisational change, change leaders, who influence how most individuals perform, come from middle and frontline managers.

The most challenging part of initiating big change has little to do with identifying the right concept, or core process redesign, or even a team at the top. The key lies in altering the people system—the skills and behaviour of the hundreds of employees down the line. And it solely relies on the ability and attitudes of mid-level and frontline managers.Unfortunately, conventional managers seldom make good change leaders. The reason is in the mindset. They try to keep things under control, drive results via budgets, are often motivated by personal success, and like to delegate.

On the contrary, change leaders are determined to shake things up, achieve objectives by mobilising a broad base of people, want to make a difference in performance, and enjoy getting their hands dirty. Traditional managers can possibly learn these skills if they internalise the right mindset.

A recent study of 150 mid-level change leaders involved in 28 different change efforts tried to distil the factors that made them stand out from conventional middle managers. They were:Linchpin Linkages, 360-Degree Impact, Expandable Toolkit, and Switch-Hitting Leadership.


Linchpin Linkages

Change leaders link top management ambitions and strategic intent with new market perceptions and responsive workforce actions. They crave marketplace reality and their vocabulary is devoid of denial. They frequently talk tocustomers to get a sense of what competitors are up to and use this intelligence to motivate people who work around them.

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, General Electric has changed its electrical motors business from zero percent return to approximately 25 percent return on investment by employing and testing almost daily doses of market reality to improve employee innovation and efficiency.Change leaders at GE Motors employ such methods as customer visits and competitor product analysis.

In addition, they have also implemented a powerful concept called quick market intelligence adopted from Wal-Mart. Every Monday morning, managers and supervisors assemble to share information they have gathered from their marketplace. Not only does itkeep them alert, it often allows them to take quick actions to exploit competitor vulnerabilities. Change leaders always believe that there is no better motivator than the marketplace itself.


360-Degree Impact

Change leaders bring about change in the activities of those around them. Even though they concentrate mainly on the individuals they are directly responsible for, they also influence higher-level executives and work in concert with other managers and peers.

When Texas Commerce Bank initiated a substantial redesign of nearly all its processes, top management wanted toconcentrate on a meaningful number—a $50-million cost reduction. But change leaders and other employees found this mission less than exciting.

As the effort began to fall apart, a small team of change leaders convinced top management to drop its financial target in favour of a simple imperative: ‘Eliminate what annoys customers and employees’. The phrase immediately captured the imagination of thousands of employees and secured results that metthe original financial target.


Expandable Toolkit

Change leaders seldom apply typical ‘off-the-shelf’ methods. They look for what will work in the situation at hand. Occasionally, they start with a particular problem-solving process or team structure that has worked for them previously, but they never leave it at that. They improve uponpast methods with new tactics learned from the competitors; they redesign, cut and fit, and keep on modifying as the change effort develops.

At AT&T, Mary Livingston directed a team of 30 change leaders in a two-year effort that changed the skills, behaviour, and performance of a 10,000-strong sales force. In the process, she used dozens of mobilising and focusing methods, from structured performance enhancement processes, to targeted skill-building initiatives, to reengineering. Many of these did not work at the first attempt, but Mary and her change leaders stuckwith it, retrofitting as they went. The result was a substantial increase in sales and reduction of costs.

Switch-Hitting Leadership Capability


Change leaders are never fixated ona particular leadership approach. They acknowledge that their personal favourite style is not always the best way. When they cannot adapt their own style, they find others to lead portions of the effort with whatever method it takes to achieve the results they need.

Take the case of Sally Beck, a department manager at Enron. She decided to move to a team-based approach in leading her department. She was talking about real teams — teams in which leadership and accountability were collective and results meantmore than just profit figures. But this notion was scary for many, particularly her supervisors who resisted this initiative. But Beck strongly believed that the only way she couldlether department keep achieving superior results was by opening up leadership capacity without adding individuals.

Redesigning the leadership approach around teams seemedto her the most practical strategy. The efforts paid off and her initiative, which was a huge success, was emulated across the organisation.

Change requires time, hard work, and perseverance.Change leaders should believe that top management will keepat it even when the going gets tough. Change leaders believe that top executives cannot leave it to chance the development of the attitudes, skills, tools, and methods needed to navigate the challenges of change.


The message is clear. Any organisationconfronting change should follow a rigorous programme to detect, assess, cultivate, deploy, and accelerate the growth of a cadre of change leaders. If they canbuild a critical mass of change leaders in the middle of the organisation, they stand a much greater chance of success. These upcoming leaders represent the single best source of leadership capability and talent for the future.


Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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